Two federal air marshals accused of drug trafficking were ordered held without bail Wednesday after a federal judge heard testimony that one of them planned an assault to steal $3 million or more from drug dealers.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner reversed an order by a magistrate judge who had set bail at $100,000 for Shawn Ray Nguyen, 38, and Burlie Sholar III, 32, both of Houston.
Hittner ruled that Sholar's attorney, George Parnham, and Nguyen's attorney, Kent Schaffer, failed to disprove the government's assertion the two air marshals are a danger to the community and might flee to avoid prosecution.
Schaffer accused prosecutors of appealing the magistrate judge's decision because they can more easily pressure his client if he is in custody.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McIntyre argued Nguyen and Sholar are weapons experts who could offer resistance to arrest.
"When they tell people they can kill and get away with it, they have become a larger threat to the community," McIntyre said, referring to a threat the criminal complaint attributes to Nguyen.
Sholar discussed how to assault a "stash house," where drug dealers were keeping $3 million to $4 million, with air marshal Patrick Hightower, according to testimony by Stuart Maneth, an agent with the inspector general's office of the Department of Homeland Security.
Hightower and his attorney came to agents investigating possible illegal conduct by air marshals after he admitted travel-voucher fraud at the Feb. 16 detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith.
Hightower had appeared as a character witness for Sholar, but McIntyre forced him to admit that he and Sholar had engaged in travel-voucher fraud.
Hightower has been relieved of his badge and placed on office duty pending the outcome of the investigation, a Homeland Security spokesman said.
Hightower told investigators that Sholar sought advice from from him on how to assault the stash house and how many people he would need because Hightower was known as an expert on tactics like those used by SWAT teams, Maneth said.
He also testified an air marshal who has not been named was the source of anabolic steroids, an illegal drug, found in Nguyen's home when he was arrested. Maneth said the air marshal manufactured steroids.
McIntyre and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Alston declined to comment, but testimony in magistrate's court and Wednesday's hearing indicate the probe includes other air marshals.
Maneth said Hightower went to investigators with information about Sholar and Nguyen after he came under investigation for his admission on the witness stand. He told investigators that Sholar had bought a brand of the illegal drug Ecstasy from Nguyen, Maneth said.
Sholar and Nguyen apparently are the first air marshals charged with using their official capacity to traffic in drugs.
They are charged with conspiracy to possess, with intent to distribute, 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, which carries a sentence of 10 years to life and a fine of up to $4 million.
The two air marshals were preparing to transport 33 pounds of cocaine, according to a criminal complaint. They didn't know that a third conspirator was an informant who recorded many conversations.
The Federal Air Marshal Service was established as the Sky Marshals program by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1968 as part of the Customs Service to counter hijackings. In 2002, air marshals were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.
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Two former federal air marshals that were previously convicted of drug and bribery charges were sentenced to substantial prison terms.
Shawn Ray Nguyen, 38, and Burlie L. Sholar III, 32, both of Houston, were arrested Thursday after an informant delivered 33 pounds of cocaine and $15,000 in "up front money" to Nguyen's Houston home.
The marshals admitted Monday they accepted $15,000 to use their positions as air marshals to bypass airport security and smuggle 15 pounds of cocaine.
They could have faced 10 years to life in prison and fines of $4 million on the smuggling charge and 15 years in prison and $250,000 fines on the bribery charge.