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Engineer Sentenced in Nuclear Trigger Case

Weapons: Richard Kelly Smyth, extradited from Spain, admitted a 'grave error' in shipping to Israel devices that can fire nuclear weapons.

April 30, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Southern California engineer who fled the country in 1985 after being indicted on charges of selling Israel electronic devices that can be used to fire nuclear weapons was sentenced Monday to 40 months in federal prison.

Richard Kelly Smyth, now 72 and in frail health, was discovered living in southern Spain last year. He was arrested by local police and extradited to the United States.

He pleaded guilty in December to violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act and making a false statement about the contents of one shipment of the devices, which are known as krytrons and have a variety of applications, from triggering nuclear warheads to operating photocopying machines.

Despite the sentence, federal Judge Pamela A. Rymer ruled that Smyth could immediately apply to be released on parole. She also fined him $20,000.

Israeli authorities denied having acquired the 2-inch-long krytrons for their nuclear weapons arsenal. After Smyth's indictment, they returned the remaining devices to U.S. authorities.

Appearing in Los Angeles federal court Monday, Smyth said he made a "grave error" when he shipped about 800 krytrons in the early 1980s to Heli Trading Co. in Israel without State Department approval.

Heli Trading was owned at that time by Arnon Milchan, an Israeli-born arms trader who later became a successful Hollywood film producer. His movies have included "Pretty Woman" and "L.A. Confidential."

Milchan has denied involvement in the krytron deal. He told CBS' "60 Minutes" two years ago that he had allowed the Israeli government to use his company for trading with the United States.

In court, Smyth also apologized for fleeing the United States just before the start of his scheduled 1985 trial before Rymer, now a federal appeals court judge. He said he panicked after reading newspaper articles saying he could be sentenced to up to 105 years in prison if convicted on all of the 30 criminal counts originally lodged against him.

The 105 years represented the maximum sentence allowed by statute. Statutory maximums are only rarely applied.

Abandoning his engineering business, Milco International Inc., and an expensive home in Orange County, Smyth and his wife, Emelie, flew to Switzerland and then settled in Malaga, Spain, passing themselves off as retirees.

Smyth, using his real name, was vice president of the American Club in Malaga. He and his wife got along on Social Security and occasional gifts from relatives.

U.S. authorities learned of Smyth's whereabouts by accident. Last year, he opened an account at a bank in Malaga, noting in his application that he was a U.S. citizen. A routine check by the bank with Interpol turned up an arrest warrant issued in Los Angeles. Smyth was taken into custody by Spanish police.

While in jail awaiting extradition, he suffered two strokes. His lawyer, James D. Riddet, cited his client's medical condition and age as he appealed to Rymer for leniency.

Riddet asked the judge to follow the recommendation of the federal probation office that Smyth be sentenced to 10 months in prison, roughly the same amount of time he has spent behind bars.

Smyth did not know that krytrons could be used as nuclear triggers when he sold them to Israel, Riddet said. He described his client as a patriotic American who had served his country loyally as a technical advisor to the Air Force and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Smyth, he said, was a "brilliant scientist who was just not very intelligent when it came to practical matters," such as obtaining a government permit to sell the krytrons to a foreign buyer.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel S. Goodman objected to the portrayal of Smyth as "an absent-minded professor." He said Smyth knew that krytron sales overseas were restricted. In the mid-1970s, he noted, Smyth was denied a permit to ship them to Israel.

"If the defendant had gone to trial and been convicted in 1985, he would have long since been released and returned to his family," Goodman said in a memo to the judge. "The fact that he now stands before this court for sentencing at the age of 72 is not the fault of the government."

Goodman asked for a five-year sentence to show that "justice cannot be turned into a game of hide and seek where the prize for the elusive is the immunity of old age."

In sentencing Smyth, Rymer said she found it difficult to accept the notion that he was naive about the law. Observing that he and his wife spent "15 idyllic years in Spain" after fleeing the United States, she questioned why he made no effort to come back on his own to face the music.

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