Published Tuesday, October 25, 2011
By THEO KARANTSALIS
Dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” he peddled rocket launchers, .50-caliber machine guns and Huey helicopters from his Virginia Gardens-based office, near Denny’s.
Sarkis Soghanalian, 82, the Cold War’s largest arms dealer, once had a fleet of cargo jets and a luxury home on Miami Beach’s Hibiscus Island. He died quietly on Oct. 5 at Hialeah Hospital, his family by his side.
“A lot of people don’t know even one percent of what he did,” said Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles-based attorney who described Soghanalian, who tipped the scale at 300 pounds, as “larger than life.” Geragos defended Soghanalian in 1999 against federal charges he air-dropped 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles into a jungle that rained into the hands of Colombian guerrillas. “At first, I didn’t believe 99 percent of what he said. But then I learned it was true.”
Fluent in eight languages, Soghanalian separated himself from “amateurs” by not talking “too much.” When he did talk, the unsavory characters who listened included Anastasio Somoza, Sadam Hussein and Moammar Ghadafi.
“I helped a lot of countries keep their independence,” Soghanalian said during an interview for a PBS documentary. His murky arms deals have since been weaved into suspense books.
Soghanalian filled orders for jungle dictators, international spies and the U.S. military, and was featured twice on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” He also inspired the main character in the 2005 film “Lord of War.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, he flushed countries like Nicaragua, Argentina and Iraq with weapons. A missile he sold to Argentina, for example, sank a Royal Navy ship during the Falklands War.
In the early ’90s, a Miami federal judge sentenced Soghanalian to six years in prison. He tried to sell Iraq more than one hundred “civilian” Hueys (Hughes helicopters) from his Virginia Gardens-based business, Pan Aviation, located near the airport perimeter road, two blocks from his home.
In the 1990 PBS-produced “The Arming of Iraq,” Soghanalian claimed he had the U.S. government’s blessing to load Hussein with weapons at the peak of the Iran-Iraq war. His sentence was reduced after he traded information about a Lebanese counterfeit ring.
Weapons sales were brisk, as records show he owed hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes to the IRS. When he wasn’t being chased by the tax man — or ducking contracts on his life by terrorists for arming Christian militias in Lebanon — he stood before judges to plead his case.
But Soghanalian, when convicted, never seemed to stay behind bars too long. He had a “get-out-of-jail-free card” courtesy of his best customer, the U.S. government. After all, his clients included the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon and the White House.
The reasons for his early releases from jail remain shrouded in secrecy.
Born in Syria to an Armenian family, Soghanalian once qualified through marriage to become a U.S. citizen, though he chose not to do so. He was especially proud of his Armenian heritage.
“Sarkis was a legend in the Armenian community,” said Geragos, also of Armenian descent, who is often a featured guest on cable news. “He was one of the most giving and philanthropic men I have ever known.”
When he could, Soghanalian used his power and connections to help his countrymen. In 1988, for example, he sent surplus aircraft to Russia after an earthquake killed and displaced thousands of Armenians. For these actions, he received kudos from President George H.W. Bush and Mother Teresa.
He “strengthened the ties that unite mankind,” Bush said in a statement after the aid.
Last March, Soghanalian re-established a special tie when he pulled a marriage license to re-wed his former wife, Shirley Adams. Adams declined comment.
“We never had any problems with (Soghanalian),” said Spencer Deno, the mayor of Virginia Gardens, who recalled a wheelchair ramp being installed in front of the home two years ago without a permit. “A nonprofit organization built it.”
Property taxes on the modest home purchased in 1999 for $57,000 haven’t been paid for almost 10 years, records show.
“Can we meet at another location to talk about this?” asked Soghanalian’s son, Garo Soghanalian, when the Gazette visited him at the Virginia Gardens home last week and asked about his father’s past. He agreed to be interviewed at Starbucks the following day, but never showed up.
One neighbor, who saw the family “every day,” took a long drag from a cigarette, then flicked it in the street after hearing about Soghanalian’s past. He declined to give his name but described Soghanalian as “friendly.”
Each day, he said, his wife pushed him around the block in his wheelchair while his Yorkshire Terrier barked and stood guard on his lap.
As cargo planes took off across the street from Miami International Airport, he recalled, Soghanalian paused and glanced up, as if he wondered where they were headed.
Photo of Sarkis Soghanalian courtesy of Miami-Dade Corrections.
Watch Discovery Channel "Merchant of Death" video below.