FBI: Soldiers set up deadly robbery to fund foreign fighting

National News

This undated booking photo from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office shows Alex Zwiefelhofer. Zwiefelhofer is a co-defendant in the April 2018 killings of a Florida couple. Federal authorities believe Zwiefelhofer and fellow Army veteran Craig Lang robbed and gunned down the couple, Serafin and Deana Lorenzo, to finance a Venezuela trip. (Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

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The two former U.S. Army soldiers met in Ukraine, where they joined the same far-right paramilitary group. After getting deported, they planned to take a boat from Miami to South America. They wanted to fight the socialist Venezuelan government and kill “communists.”

That’s what Alex Zwiefelhofer told the FBI agent and police detectives who questioned him about the fatal shooting of a Florida couple in April 2018. Federal authorities believe Zwiefelhofer and fellow Army veteran Craig Lang arranged the deadly robbery of Serafin and Deana Lorenzo to finance the Venezuela trip.

Nearly two years after the killings, Zwiefelhofer, 22, is awaiting trial in Fort Myers, Florida, on federal charges punishable by a death sentence, while Lang, 29, faces the same charges as he fights his extradition from Ukraine, where he married a woman last year and is now under house arrest. One of his attorneys has said it could take years for the extradition case to be resolved.

In the U.S., authorities portray Lang and Zwiefelhofer as cold-blooded killers. In Ukraine, a defense lawyer blames the U.S. government for not doing more to help Lang and other veterans adapt to life off the battlefield.

“The man was just searching for a spot on the world map to catch a bullet and die,” Lang’s attorney, Dmytro Morhun, told The Associated Press. “But he has found a new life, a new love, a new family” in Ukraine, Morhun said.

Lang, a North Carolina native, was discharged from the Army in 2014. Zwiefelhofer, a Wisconsin native, was discharged in 2018 after going absent without leave in September 2016.

The two met in Ukraine in 2016. Zwiefelhofer told authorities that he and Lang joined Right Sector, an ultranationalist group fighting Russia-backed separatists. Right-wing volunteer battalions played a key role in the separatist conflict that erupted in 2014 in eastern Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The fighting attracted thousands of volunteers from the U.S. and Europe. Some foreign combatants were driven by white supremacist ideology, but soldiers who served with Lang in Ukraine said they never heard him express any racist or extremist views.

A woman who fought alongside Lang in Ukraine described him as “calm and reasonable” but said he had personal problems connected to a divorce and child custody battle. “He went to fight in Ukraine because he had no other place to go,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Elena, for security reasons.

In 2017, Zwiefelhofer and Lang traveled to Africa but were detained by Kenyan authorities when they tried to enter South Sudan. They eventually were deported to the U.S.

Brian Boyenger, a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, said he spent a few months with Lang on the front lines in Ukraine.

“He conducted himself as a disciplined and professional soldier,” Boyenger wrote in a Facebook message. “The things he is accused of were a surprise to me.”

On the night of April 9, 2018, the sheriff’s office in Lee County, Florida, received 911 calls reporting gunfire in the community of Estero. Deputies searched the area but didn’t find any sign of a shooting.

Eight hours later, deputies responding to another 911 call found a red truck riddled with bullet holes. Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo Jr., 53, was shot seven times. Deana Lorenzo, 51, had 11 bullet wounds.

Investigators determined the Lorenzos withdrew $3,000 in cash and drove more than two hours from their Brooksville, Florida, home to buy guns from somebody listing them for sale on a website called Armslist. The seller, “Jeremy,” told them to meet at a church in Estero. “I’m at the church,” Serafin Lorenzo wrote in his last text message.

Investigators used cellphone records and social media messages to link the suspects to the killings.

Google records showed Zwiefelhofer’s online searches included the phrase “How to Smuggle Myself to South America,” an FBI agent said in an affidavit. Zwiefelhofer also searched for video of a movie scene that depicted shooters ambushing a vehicle using the same tactics employed by the gunmen who attacked the Lozenzos’ truck, the agent said.

An unidentified “associate” of Lang’s told detectives that they had traveled to Bogota, Colombia, several months after the Florida shootings, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit. Lang joined a Venezuelan resistance group that had a safe house in the mountains of Cucuta, Colombia, near the Venezuelan border, said the associate, who told investigators he left Lang in Bogota.

Zwiefelhofer was arrested in Wisconsin in May. He admitted to traveling to Florida with Lang in April 2018 but denied going to the area where the Lozenzos were killed, the FBI agent’s affidavit said.

Zwiefelhofer pleaded not guilty in December to charges related to the robbery and killings and the alleged plot to fight the Venezuelan government. His trial is set for August.

Lang doesn’t have an extradition trial date. Morhun, his lawyer, said his client would appeal if the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office approves Lang’s extradition. If that fails, Morhun said he would ask the European Court of Human Rights to review the case. He argues that Lang shouldn’t be extradited because he could face capital punishment, which Ukraine abolished two decades ago.

Lang could taste freedom in Ukraine before he sees a prison cell in the U.S. His lawyers planned to ask a court this month to reduce his house arrest to “nighttime house arrest.”

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Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Karmanau reported from Minsk, Belarus. Associated Press reporters Lolita Baldor in Washington and Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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