US Army deserter extradited from Ukraine for murder

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Legend, Foreign volunteer fighters have played a controversial, if crucial, role in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.

  • Author, Sam Cabral
  • Role, BBC News

A U.S. Army veteran turned volunteer foreign fighter has lost his bid to avoid extradition from Ukraine on murder and robbery charges.

Craig Austin Lang, 34, will appear in a Florida court Monday in connection with a 2018 double homicide and armed robbery.

Mr. Lang allegedly killed Serafin and Deana Lorenzo and robbed them to finance another escapade in Venezuela.

Earlier this year, a federal jury found his alleged accomplice guilty of all charges against Mr. Lang.

Mr Lang’s extradition is the culmination of a decade-long globetrot that saw him desert the army and join volunteer paramilitary forces against Russian separatists in Ukraine and Al-Shabab terrorists in East Africa.

He has lived and fought in Ukraine on and off since 2015 and has been under threat of extradition for at least five years.

According to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice, he “embarked on an international crime spree” and evaded the government “by trading weapons, a grenade and cash…to apply for a U.S. passport under a false name.

“Lang’s alleged conduct is shocking in its magnitude and callous disregard for human life,” said Nicole Argentieri, chief of the criminal division.

The Arizona native served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2014 before, according to his father, developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during overseas tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2013, he deserted his post at Fort Bliss, Texas, and traveled nearly 2,000 miles non-stop with all his military gear in an alleged attempt to kill his wife in the midst of the couple’s divorce proceedings.

He was imprisoned for several weeks, then released on dishonorable cause. His ex-wife then obtained a restraining order and sole custody of their child.

After struggling to find work and falling into debt, Mr. Lang fled to eastern Ukraine, where he joined the Right Sector volunteer militia in its fight to take control of the region. Donetsk under Russian control.

Right Sector soldiers are believed to adhere to far-right nationalist ideologies, but they have fought alongside Ukraine’s armed forces in the ongoing war against Russia.

In a 2021 interview with Buzzfeed News, Mr. Lang said he joined the group “because I thought they were the most active on the front lines.” Fighters who knew him, however, told the outlet that he held extremist political views and regularly displayed troubling behavior.

The US government says Mr Lang met Alex Jared Zwiefelhofer, another army deserter who had joined the Right Sector, and together they hatched a plan to fight the jihadists of Al-Shabab, the affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Africa.

But they were stopped at the Kenya-South Sudan border for trying to cross without proper documents. Both were deported to the United States after spending two months in a Nairobi prison.

In 2018, authorities say they developed a new plan: to fight alongside rebels seeking to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.

They met in April in Florida, where they allegedly hatched a plan to steal money for their trip.

A fake classified ad offering a trove of firearms for $3,000 (£2,343) caught the attention of Serafin and Deana Lorenzo, of Brooksville, according to authorities.

The couple, both Army veterans themselves, had previously traded guns for a profit and promised to have cash on hand when the deal was completed.

Authorities said Mr. Lang and Zwiefelhofer allegedly ambushed the Lorenzos and stole their money at a meeting point in a parking lot in the village of Estero on April 10, 2018.

Neither man traveled to Venezuela. Federal authorities arrested Zwiefelhofer a month later.

In March of this year, a federal jury convicted Zwiefelhofer, 27, of Wisconsin, of robbery, conspiracy and weapons possession. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, while also facing separate charges for possession of child sexual abuse material.

Mr Lang fled to kyiv, where he married a local woman and had two children.

Since 2019, he has fought off efforts to repatriate him to the United States in connection with the murder.

In previous interviews with ABC News and Buzzfeed News, he claimed the United States was persecuting him over alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed during his voluntary service in Ukraine.

Last November, the European Court of Human Rights allowed Mr. Lang’s deportation after U.S. officials agreed not to seek the death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole. .

But he still faces life in prison on the charges filed in the Middle District of Florida.

Monday’s court appearance could be one of several appearances for Mr. Lang. He also faces charges in North Carolina for passport fraud and identity theft, and in Arizona for passport abuse.

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