WHEELING - Michael Frank avoided a lengthy prison term Tuesday and instead will serve five years probation following his conviction earlier this year on federal weapons dealing charges.
Frank, a 26-year-old military veteran from Wheeling who served in Iraq, pleaded guilty in January to one count each of conspiracy to export firearms and money laundering. He had admitted to selling about two dozen firearms to buyers in Canada and Israel over a period of about six months in 2012 before his arrest in July of that year, the result of an investigation that began when Interpol officials in Jerusalem intercepted a package containing ammunition magazines and part of a Glock pistol that authorities traced back to a credit card in Frank's name. Further investigation revealed Frank shipped multiple packages using false names and return addresses.
Frank's crimes are punishable by a maximum of 25 years in prison, but in light of the plea agreement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Stein asked District Judge John Preston Bailey to impose a prison sentence of four years, nine months to five years in prison.
Bailey acknowledged Frank committed a "very serious crime," but pointed to Frank's lack of prior criminal record, family and community support and faithful attendance of counseling sessions to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder in imposing a much lighter penalty of five years probation.
"Society is very lucky, because it appears the defendant was going down a hole and there may have been violence at that time," Bailey said. "But I think part of the problem was created by the defendant's service in Iraq. We send 18-year-olds to Iraq and we bring them back without much support. ...
"What we need to look at - what I'm looking at - is where we are today. ... I do not believe there will ever be a recurrence of criminal activity. ... That's a chance I'm taking with you. If you ever are back here, it won't be pretty," Bailey warned.
Before making his decision Tuesday, Bailey weighed the testimony of Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Michael O'Neill, one of the lead investigators on the case, and that of clinical social worker Sara DeLong, who has worked with Frank during counseling sessions for nearly a year.
O'Neill testified that Frank confessed to obliterating the serial numbers on many of the weapons and further confessed he was preparing to manufacture methamphetamine at his residence.
O'Neill said a July 16, 2012, search of Frank's home turned up multiple loaded weapons, including an AR-15 rifle, a bulletproof vest and helmet and a set of "flex cuffs," found in an arrangement that indicated the items were intended to be "put on and put into action in a quick manner, which was cause for alarm."
"This defendant is a dangerous person, and we think these things should be considered at sentencing," Stein said.
DeLong painted a different picture of Frank, however, as respectful, motivated in his treatment and supportive of his fellow group members. She said he's made substantial progress and she would not consider him a threat to society.
The prosecution also attempted to call into question Frank's struggles with PTSD. O'Neill testified he believes Frank "fabricated" suffering from the disorder, based on a fellow investigator's interview with Frank's former commanding officer.
But defense attorney Jay McCamic pointed out that Frank received the Combat Action Badge, only awarded to soldiers who "engage the enemy, or are engaged by the enemy during combat operations" - with the signature of the same officer that reportedly told investigators Frank was never in harm's way.
DeLong said PTSD is often diagnosed in those who experience or witness life-threatening situations, or who operate in a "constant state of hypervigilance" due to the potential for danger.
Frank "served in Iraq. He was present during convoys, and that was a life-threatening situation," she said.
Terms of Frank's probation include submitting to DNA collection as well as substance abuse and further mental health treatment if so ordered by his probation officer. He also must continue to live with his parents until the court decides he may move elsewhere, and forfeit $2,000 and three Glock pistols.