ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A judge Friday questioned the viability of a prosecution against a man accused of conspiring to illegally build hundreds of untraceable rifle silencers on a no-bid contract, ostensibly for the Navy's elite SEAL Team 6.
At a pretrial hearing, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema suggested that there may be classified evidence in the case that shows Mark Stuart Landersman, a race-car mechanic from Temecula, Calif., had legitimate — but off-the-books — authorization from the Navy to build the silencers.
"It is intriguing ... that if there is genuine authorization to obtain this type of weapon under this type of method — off-the-record, off the books — that makes it very difficult" for prosecutors to win their case, Brinkema said.
Brinkema said the prosecution of Landersman — details of which are largely classified and under seal — is "a unique, one-of-a-kind situation" and said the government's pursuit of a conviction against him may be leading prosecutors "deeper and deeper into a morass that may go nowhere."
Friday's hearing occurred as Brinkema decided how to grant prosecutors access to evidence that the defense has brought to the judge. The details of that evidence are not public, but Brinkema said that several of the witnesses are reluctant to come forward because they fear retaliation by their superiors.
Exactly why the silencers were purchased is unclear. According to court papers in a related case, an unnamed senior Navy intelligence officer identified as a conspirator told a Navy employee that the silencers were for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the formal name for SEAL Team 6, the unit that gained fame for killing Osama bin Laden. But NSWDG representatives told investigators that they never ordered any silencers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Morris Parker told the judge he disagreed with her assessment of the case, citing in part irregularities in how the contract was awarded. He also questioned the accuracy of evidence brought forward by the defense, saying some of it has turned out to be untrue.
Complicating matters is that one of the Navy officers involved in authorizing the contract is Landersman's brother, David Landersman.
According to the indictment and an affidavit from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Landersman was paid $1.7 million in 2012 to build 349 rifle suppressors — about $4,500 each. Similar silencers available through regular government channels cost anywhere from $937 to $1,700 each. The indictment states that Landersman paid another man $10,000, including materials, to build the suppressors.
In addition, court records indicate that the silencers lacked serial numbers and were manufactured in violation of federal firearms laws.
John Zwerling, one of Landersman's lawyers, said after the hearing that Brinkema's assessment of the case's weaknesses is accurate.
"We believe he made certain items, shipped them to the Navy, and what he did was lawful and authorized," Zwerling said.