Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009 | At some point, Alfred Koonin turned from witness to suspect.
For years, he cooperated with FBI agents as they investigated a failed murder-for-hire plot that spanned two continents. He gave multiple statements to investigators and even testified about what he said he knew in front of a grand jury: that a friend in South Africa asked him to pick up a business associate at the Los Angeles airport and give him a place to stay.
Prosecutors, though, eventually came to believe that Koonin gave the man, Valter Nebiolo, more than a couch to sleep on. They charged Koonin with conspiracy, perjury, aiding and abetting a murder-for-hire and extortion, alleging that he provided the gun that Nebiolo used to try and kill a La Jolla real estate broker after being hired by Koonin’s friend.
Koonin, who maintains his innocence, was convicted in 2001 after a short trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison, three more years than Nebiolo received after pleading guilty and testifying against him. The friend, Ronald Abel, a South African lawyer and mastermind of the entire plot, has escaped prosecution.
The case attracted a barrage of media attention, particularly in South Africa, as appeals revolving around complex legal technicalities stretched to the U.S. Supreme Court and back. But now, in the eighth year of his sentence, out of money and out of lawyers (he’s had five), Koonin has filed a petition in federal court that he wrote with the help of another inmate, asking to have his sentence overturned.
It’s likely one of his last chances to convince a judge that his version of events — that he was an unwitting participant in a friend’s scheme — is true and that he should be released.
And while Koonin raises few issues in this latest appeal that the courts haven’t already rejected, he does stir lingering questions about the case and the evidence used to convict him, questions that may never be put to rest because the gun he was accused of providing was destroyed before he was even indicted.
He also brings one new piece of evidence to the table, an affidavit from Abel, the mastermind who’s managed to avoid being prosecuted, that says Koonin is innocent.
Alfred Koonin came to the United States from South Africa in the 70s to continue his medical training. A plastic surgeon, he eventually settled in Los Angeles after doing a required residency and fellowship. But in 1991, California revoked his medical license after a long string of malpractice complaints that an administrative law judge called a “cacophony of medical misadventures.”
Five years later, Koonin tried to get his license back. The judge in that case recognized that the loss of his license was due to a host of serious personal, medical and financial problems that he had since resolved. He also said in hearing documents that “he was impressed with [Koonin’s] honesty and candor” during the proceedings and that the doctor seemed to have gotten his life back in order. However, he still didn’t agree to return Koonin’s license. No longer able to practice medicine, Koonin had since taken a job doing research for a pain clinic. He says he was in the process of developing a cosmetic thigh cream in 1996 when Ronald Abel, a lifelong friend in South Africa, asked for a favor.
Koonin said Abel wanted him to pick up a business associate, Valter Nebiolo, at the Los Angeles airport and give him a place to stay. Prosecutors, though, say the favor also included giving Nebiolo a gun he could use to kill a financier in La Jolla named Sydney Kahn who owed Abel hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Khan specialized in risky, short-term real-estate-backed loans that generally come with high interest rates. Abel was an investor in Kahn’s business, but when it failed, Kahn fled to San Diego from South Africa, according to court records. Abel had taken two life insurance policies out on Kahn to protect his original investment and then sometime later took out a third. Unable to collect his money from Kahn, he offered to share proceeds from the policies with Nebiolo as payment for killing him.
The plot failed. Nebiolo fired four shots at Kahn through the window of his office, but just grazed him. Thanks to a witness and an alert San Diego police officer, Nebiolo was arrested within minutes. He eventually pleaded guilty to traveling internationally in a murder-for-hire plot and using a gun during a crime of violence.
As part of a plea agreement, Nebiolo was supposed to testify against Abel. In exchange, a conspiracy charge was dropped and the government agreed not to oppose his request to be transferred to an Italian prison (Nebiolo, an Italian citizen, had family there).
Abel fought extradition, however, and the process stalled in South Africa. Nebiolo was left sitting in a federal prison in the U.S. waiting to testify at a trial that looked less and less likely to happen.
In a July 2001 letter to Nebiolo’s lawyer, prosecutors admitted that things weren’t going as planned. Nobody “anticipated that it would take over four years to extradite codefendant Ronald Abel from the Republic of South Africa,” the letter said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, though, had already moved the case in a different direction. Six months earlier, five years to the day of the shooting, prosecutors got a new indictment adding Koonin as a defendant based in large part on statements Nebiolo had given them in 1997. The doctor was charged with conspiracy, lying to the original grand jury, aiding and abetting and extortion.
According to the 2001 letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, prosecutors offered Nebiolo a new deal. If he now agreed to testify against Koonin, they’d help him secure the transfer to Italy that he wanted.
Nebiolo’s statements — that Koonin provided him with a gun at Abel’s request — were some of the strongest evidence the government had against Koonin. There wasn’t much more tying him to the gun, at least at first. According to court documents, Koonin thought he was cooperating with the FBI, but instead was giving them evidence against himself.
In the five years between the shooting and his arrest, the FBI says Koonin not only changed his story multiple times, giving four different versions of what he knew about the plot and when he knew it, but linked himself to the gun. One agent testified at trial that Koonin confessed he gave a gun to Nebiolo, but then later said he thought it would only be used to scare Kahn.
Koonin has denied this; he said at trial and in court documents he never told agents that he willingly gave Nebiolo a gun and that he had no idea what the purpose of Nebiolo’s trip to the U.S. was. One of his previous attorneys also pointed out that despite FBI guidelines to the contrary, no one ever asked Koonin to sign a written confession, opening the door for Koonin to say that the agents lied to help secure his conviction.
Prosecutors have strongly denied that claim, but can do little else to counter it. Koonin, likewise, has nothing but his credibility to support it. The alleged confession, however, wasn’t the only part of the prosecution’s case left open to questions. The government allowed the gun Koonin was accused of giving Nebiolo — a key piece of evidence, according to Koonin — to be destroyed before he was even indicted.
Just how or why that happened isn’t entirely clear. Koonin said in his appeal that at the very least, it was negligence or at worst, done intentionally to undermine his defense. Prosecutors said in court documents it was simply an accident, an oversight stemming from the fact that both the FBI and local police were involved in the case and that one agency didn’t know what the other was doing.
SDPD evidence records show the gun was destroyed in late 1999 or early 2000 after no one at the department was aware the case was still pending in federal court. Why the FBI didn’t take steps to preserve the evidence after a federal indictment was obtained years earlier is still unknown.
Koonin does admit he owned two guns in 1996, a replica that didn’t fire and a small gun that looked similar to the one police had found after the shooting. But he insisted at trial and maintains now that the small gun he owned, one that he said he left lying around on a chair in his bedroom, didn’t work and that Nebiolo couldn’t have used it to shoot at Kahn. According to transcripts of the trial, he told the jury the slide on his gun was stuck, it was rusted and that the magazine was jammed.
Shane Harrigan, an assistant U.S. attorney, accused Koonin of “tailoring” his testimony about the gun to fit the circumstances, according to a hearing transcript. He said that there “was no one more upset than me that it was destroyed” because that only made it possible for Koonin to make claims that no one could disprove.
Without the actual gun, prosecutors were left with nothing but a picture of the weapon to present to the jury. No fingerprint evidence was presented either, though documents from the San Diego Police Department show that investigators did find prints on the weapon. Tests showed they weren’t a match for Nebiolo, but it’s unclear if they were ever compared to Koonin’s prints because he wasn’t a suspect when the initial examination was done.
When asked about the fingerprints, Harrigan would only point to court documents and trial records. He declined to elaborate or be quoted for this story because the appeal is still pending.
The destruction of the gun left a lot of questions, many that can’t now be answered. At least one thing is certain though: the gun police recovered wasn’t registered to Koonin but to a Stanleigh Lusak, a retired postal worker who later became a two-time candidate for governor in Nevada. Local media said he ran on a platform of opposition to what he called a “New World Order” that controlled American citizens “from when born to death” via social security numbers, drivers’ licenses and more than 60 million laws.
Lusak testified that the gun, along with two-dozen or so others he owned, was stolen from him years earlier when he lived in Lancaster, Calif. He told jurors he believed two teenage brothers who lived in his mobile home park stole the guns, but he wasn’t sure.
When asked where he got the gun by the prosecution, Koonin said a former girlfriend, whose full name and address he couldn’t remember, gave it to him because she wanted to get rid of it. Harrigan also got Koonin to admit on the stand that the gun in the picture looked a lot like the one he owned, but he said that if the gun was his — and he couldn’t be sure without seeing it — then Nebiolo had taken it without his knowledge.
Mary Vehr, Abel’s former bookkeeper and a witness the prosecution used to establish the existence of the life insurance policies on Kahn, told voiceofsandiego.org she doubted the gun was Koonin’s. She said Abel told her in the weeks following the shooting that he gave Nebiolo 4,000 South African Rand to buy a gun once he arrived in Los Angeles. Days before the shooting, she said he saw a cancelled check, written and signed by Abel, made payable to cash and drawn from the law firm’s trust account for that amount. She told the FBI about it in 1996 and the check was seized, but prosecutors referred to it as “spending money” in court documents.
While no court that’s heard Koonin’s claims of innocence has so far been convinced by them — most of the issues in his current appeal have already been raised and rejected — one person says he does believe Koonin’s version of events: Ronald Abel. In 2002, Abel sent an affidavit to Beth Martin Brown, Koonin’s fiancée, that claimed Koonin didn’t know anything about his plans to have Kahn killed.
“I stress that Koonin had no idea what the purpose of Nebiolo’s visit was, and that the evidence given by him to the grand jury was in all respects true and correct. At no time was Koonin a co-conspirator, and any inference drawn to the contrary is ill-founded, false and without any foundation in truth or in law,” Abel wrote.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in court documents that it’s skeptical of the affidavit and that it “lacks any credibility or persuasive weight.”
“Abel is not only a co-conspirator, a named defendant in this case, and the mastermind behind the murder-for-hire scheme; but drafts this affidavit without fear of extradition to the United States to answer for his crimes,” Harrigan wrote in his response to Koonin’s appeal.
Attempts to reach Abel, who still lives in South Africa, were unsuccessful.
Koonin has until Aug. 17 if he wants to file a response to the government’s opposition to his appeal. Brown, his fiancée, said in an e-mail that though the inmate helping Koonin was recently transferred and that they can’t afford an attorney, that they would still file something.
“We have to. We can’t allow any stone to go unturned,” she said. “The truth has to be told.”
Justin McLaughlin is a San Diego-based freelance writer and the reporter/producer behind WhereDoubtRemains.com, a website on questionable criminal convictions in West Virginia. Please contact him directly at email@example.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.