OZONE LAYER:

Three Freon-smuggling brothers, a lingering mystery

Seventh story in an occasional series about EPA's fugitives list.

This much is clear: The story of U.S. EPA fugitive Omran Alghazouli is a tale of three brothers, all of whom answered to "Al" and each of whom took a different path when confronted by authorities about their wrongdoing.

But what's still being debated -- even after two of the brothers served time in prison for selling the smuggled, atmosphere-destroying refrigerant Freon -- is whether the brothers' crimes had a darker motive beyond lining their pockets at the expense of the earth's stratospheric ozone layer.

When one of the brothers went to trial six years ago, federal agents suspected -- but were never able to prove -- that the smuggling operation was part of an elaborate plot to fund terrorist organizations in Syria. And even after the trial, federal officials cited the case as a victory in the war on terror.

In a 2007 report, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement included Amar Alghazouli's conviction as an accomplishment of the agency's Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Syrian with alleged connections to HAMAS convicted of numerous ICE violations," the report states.

Those allegations irk Amar Alghazouli's former lawyer, Michael McCabe, who said last week the government's insistence on trying to find a terrorist link to the Alghazouli brothers is about as ridiculous as EPA trying to make Omran Alghazouli (pronounced Al-ga-ZOO-lee) into a global polluting kingpin by adding his wanted poster on the agency's ballyhooed environmental fugitive page.

"This is far less than the worldwide conspiracy they made it out to be," McCabe said. "These are a few guys from Syria trying to make a living trying to sell auto parts and supplying air conditioning places with Freon."

As for EPA's environmental fugitive list, McCabe expressed the concern shared by other critics of the effort since the agency's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training (OCEFT) launched the list nearly three years ago.

"It's a PR gimmick to make them more important and appear as if they are doing something," McCabe said.

Whatever the case may be, the story of how EPA OCEFT agents helped bust the Alghazoulis' dirty family business doesn't even require the terrorism connection to read like a crime thriller.

Black market

The Alghazoulis' crimes stem from a provision of the 1989 Montreal Protocol that was designed to help repair the hole in the ozone layer. Ozone is a gas that occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It plays a vital role by shielding humans and other life from harmful ultraviolet sunlight.

As part of that treaty, the manufacture and importation of R-12 Freon -- an ozone-depleting substance that was used in air conditioning units of automobiles made prior to 1994 -- was scheduled to be phased out. And while it was unlawful to import or manufacture the substance in the United States by early 1996, sale of R-12 was not prohibited until later to allow individuals and business to sell the R-12 Freon they had on-hand.

But the same restrictions did not apply in Mexico.

Designated as a developing country under the Montreal Protocol, Mexico was given an additional 15 years to phase out the manufacture of R-12 Freon. Those conditions created the perfect recipe for an active black market in R-12 Freon to pop up in the United States in the late 1990s.

And the Alghazoulis, who all worked in a wholesale automotive supply business owned by brother Ahed near San Diego, Calif., were eager to take advantage.

These days, a similar black market has developed around another controlled refrigerant, HCFC-22.

Though HCFC-22 is used in many residential air conditioning systems, EPA now considers that refrigerant to be an ozone-depleting substance and regulates its sale through the Clean Air Act. Companies that want to import it must hold "consumption allowances." The goal is to phase out its use by 2030.

Over the summer, a Miami man who smuggled HCFC-22 refrigerant worth $1.5 million into the United States was sentenced to 18 months in prison as part of a larger joint state, EPA and ICE investigation known as Operation Catch-22.

The same group of state and federal partners got together in the late 1990s and early 2000s for an R-12 investigation they called Operation Cool Breeze.

Zeroing in on the Alghazoulis

According to an indictment, the Alghazoulis were buying R-12 Freon that had been made in Mexico and then smuggled across the border as early as 1997. The brothers would resell the Freon to buyers in the San Diego area, regardless of whether they possessed the proper EPA certifications to handle the substance.

One witness in the case later testified that in 1999 a canister of R-12 freon could be purchased in Mexico for between $150 and $185 and then sold in the United States to automotive supply shops for $300 to $450. And that was still well below the standard price on the legal market of $850 to $1,200.

For years the three brothers peddled their smuggled Freon to those who were happy not to ask too many questions. According to court documents they even tried to corner the local market by encouraging certain smugglers to only sell to their shop.

They first came to the attention of authorities in June of 1997 when Ahed Alghazouli got nabbed as he was collecting six cylinders of Freon from a supplier in a suburban San Diego parking lot. Ahed Alghazouli denied that he knew the containers had come from Mexico and blamed the smuggler. The smuggler told authorities that it was Ahed who asked him to run the Freon from Mexico.

In the end the smuggler was prosecuted and the Alghazouli operation was squarely on the radar of federal authorities.

The next break in the case came in 2000, when a Freon smuggler named John Gastelum got picked up for running Freon across the border.

Gastelum decided to cooperate with authorities and told agents about a buyer named "Al," who turned out to be Ahed Alghazouli.

Gastelum said he supplied between 120 and 170 containers of Freon to "Al" over a six-month period and, according to an indictment, even explained to federal agents how he taught "Al" to clean the Spanish lettering off the Mexican containers by scrubbing them with a rag soaked in brake or carburetor fluid.

But word soon leaked that the FBI was on to Gastelum.

According to court documents, after the FBI searched a storage unit used by Gastelum in 2001, Gastelum showed up at the Alghazouli shop to buy oil.

"Ahed greeted Gastelum with a big hug, which Gastelum stated was unusual and he believed was a search for a recording device," court documents state. "Ahed then wrote on a piece of paper 'stay away from the R-12, things are getting hot, somebody in Orange County is asking about you.'"

Ahed never purchased Freon from Gastelum again. But by then the Alghazoulis were in the sights of federal authorities and they were finding other smugglers with connections to the brothers.

One of those suppliers admitted to authorities that he had supplied Mexican-made Freon to an "Al," who he later identified as Omran Alghazouli, on a weekly basis for several years. The smuggler estimated that he sold 1,500 containers of Freon to "Al" by the fall of 2004.

By the summer of 2005, authorities were closing in on the Alghazouli operation. They were tracking money that the brothers were sending from the family business to bank accounts in the Middle East. They also began conducting sting operations to catch the brothers in the act.

On June 2, 2005, a taxi cab owner who was working with federal agents called the man he knew as "Al" -- later identified as Amar Alghazouli -- to purchase some Freon. Amar was caught on camera selling four Freon cylinders to the taxi owner without requiring him to show a license that allowed him to purchase the R-12. Amar even told the informant that if he tried to buy the Freon from the local Pep Boys they would have required him to show a license.

A month later, federal authorities had gathered enough evidence to move in and arrest the brothers. The only problem was that it was difficult to get all three in the same place at the same time. The brothers had family connections to Syria and often traveled to the Middle East.

On July 13, 2005, Omran was out of the country. But with the heat coming down on several of their associates in the R-12 black market, ICE and EPA agents believed that the Alghazoulis were getting suspicious and made the decision to move in and arrest Ahed and Amar.

How much Freon?

It is hard to say exactly how much Freon the Alghazoulis moved during their years working the black market.

Amar Alghazouli's lawyer McCabe argued that the thousands of Freon units cited by authorities during the trial were made up by government informants and that there was never any corroboration of the amounts.

"The government sought criminal forfeiture of $135,000, which we could clearly prove as the amount of proceeds from the illegal sale of R-12 [through] checks or invoices that clearly indicated R-12 or Freon," EPA said in a statement last week. "Since so much of their business was in cash or without invoices it is difficult to estimate beyond that how much came from the Freon smuggling, although there was a lot of money passing through their business accounts."

According to a San Diego Union-Tribune story two days after Ahed and Amar were arrested, an ICE agent testified in court that some $3.5 million passed through the Alghazoulis' business accounts and they sent as much as $400,000 to Syria over the years.

"The money was headed to Syria and who knows where it was headed beyond that," acting special agent in charge Michael Unzueta told the judge. "We are not saying that this money was used to fund terrorism or terrorism training camps or to promote terrorism, but you have hundreds of thousands of dollars moving to the Middle East. We're doing everything we can to chase down the money in this case and where ultimately it was going."

An ICE spokeswoman declined to go into detail last week about what the agency was referring to in the 2007 report that mentioned Amar Alghazouli's alleged Hamas connections.

But McCabe said the government does not want to talk about it because there was never a connection.

McCabe said that when he asked government lawyers to provide evidence if they intended to pursue terrorism charges against the client, the government backed off the charge.

"I was told, 'We can't give you the information which establishes their connections to ... Hamas because it would compromise national security,'" McCabe recalled. "They never even attempted to get such thing into evidence because they had no proof."

Amar Alghazouli was eventually convicted on half a dozen counts including money laundering and the unlawful sale of Freon. On July 7, 2006, he was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Perhaps seeing how his brother's trial went, Ahed Alghazouli, the only naturalized U.S. citizen of the three brothers, chose to plead guilty to similar charges for his part in the Freon scheme. Six months after his brother was put away, he received a 30-month prison sentence.

McCabe said both still live in the United States, though attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

Omran Alghazouli never returned from the Middle East and remains on the run today.

As EPA does with all its fugitives, Omran Alghazouli has been listed on Interpol watch lists and could get picked up if he decides to travel to countries that work with the International Police Organization.

EPA officials say they believe Omran Alghazouli is living and working in Syria.

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