Otherwise known as the “Merchant of Death”
Written 10/2011 Rewritten 01/2016 Unedited
In 1990, my Company, Automotive Parts Industries, which was known as API, was located in Miami, and we were just starting to deal in military vehicle replacement parts.
A short distance from our location, on the corner of NW 36 Avenue and NW 46 Street was a gas station, and across the street from the station, on the corner of NW 46 Street and NW 36 Avenue was another of our warehouses we called the Magic Clean building, and next to that, still on NW 36 Avenue was an empty fenced in lot that we owned. We had bought the empty lot from Jack Olshen of Olshen overseas, a plumbing parts exporting company. Jack had once used the lot to store PVC plumbing pipe. He also owned very large warehouse building that was across the street from the lot. At the time of this story Jack Olshen had just moved his plumbing supply company to a larger building near the Miami Palmetto Expressway, leaving his building on NW 46th Street empty.
Jack Olshen had offered to sell us the building but at the time it was just too big for us, the building was about 50,000 square feet in size.
One day a husky fellow came into our office, and he introduced himself as Tony. He looked like he was mid- eastern probably from Turkey. He was about five foot eight inches tall and looked very muscular, he was wearing a blue business suit, which was pretty tight on his body.
Tony asked if we would be interested in renting our empty lot on 36 Avenue. He said that he represented a company that would be leasing the large Olshen Overseas building, which was right across the street from it, they needed storage space, so we agreed to rent it for $400.00 per month and Tony paid us the first month in cash and told us to write up a lease.
That very afternoon we watched as they filled the lot with aircraft ground support equipment.
About a month had passed and I noticed one of the large roll up doors on the Olshen building was open, and there appeared to be some activity, so out of curiosity, I thought I would walk down to see who we were renting out our lot to.
I walked up a long ramp, and stepped into the Olshen building. As I did so, a giant German Shepard dog confronted me growling like he was going to attack me. As this was happening someone said, “Down Kibbutz” and the dog backed off. I looked to see a middle aged man in Khaki shirt and shorts approaching me.
The fellow got right in my face and said, “What do you want?”
Not knowing exactly what to say, I said, I own the lot you are renting across the street.
I could see around me that the giant warehouse was empty, with the exception of someone sitting at a card table in the middle of the building. As I looked the person sitting there, as he raised his hand in the air and motioned with his finger for me to come over. The fellow in Khaki’s stepped aside along with the big dog and I walked over to the card table.
As I approached I saw there was a short, fat fellow sitting there, he was all smiles and he extended his hand to shake mine. His hand was so pudgy, that I found it difficult to shake his hand.
On the card table was a blank sheet of paper and a bottle of Evian drinking water, nothing else.
“Who are you?” the pudgy fellow asked, I’m Howard I said, and I am the person renting you the lot across the street.
“Hello Howard, he said, “I’m Sarkis, and I’m pleased to meet you, please have a seat.”
Sarkis asked me what I did in our business and I told him that we were in the military parts supply.
He thought that was interesting, then he said, “Our intention is to rebuild aircraft engines in this building, but we are waiting until we purchase an airport in the Orlando area”. You are buying an airport I said, yes he said, “It was owned by a movie star, he bought it for his girlfriend and she turned it into a zoo, we are cleaning it up now, and I intend to take the aircraft apart there.”
I thought, I had once heard something several years ago, about the actor Burt Reynolds buying an airport for his girlfriend and I wondered if this was the same airport.
Sarkis then asked if he owed me any money for renting the lot, and I said yes.
Sarkis waved his hand towards the office area in the building and then yelled to someone to bring a map, as well as money for Howard.
In a minute a young man in his early twenty’s appeared with a map of the airport in Orlando, Sarkis unfolded the map and introduced the fellow as his son Garo. It was then that his secretary appeared with the four hundred dollars in cash for me.
Sarkis asked Garo to bring another map, and he appeared shortly with a big map with Russian writing on it. Sarkis said, “Howard, this is an airport we own in Russia, It is bigger in square meters than Miami International airport”. I am part owner of a French electronic company and we have contracts in Russia to upgrade the radio system on their T72 tanks. We also are going to upgrade their
After talking for about an hour, I said goodbye to Sarkis and his son Garo. By that time I had found Sarkis to be the most likeable fellow I ever met, but I didn’t know if I believed everything he said.
The next day I had an appointment with the vice president of Pan American Bank, who was located on 36th Street in Miami. While I was in his office I mentioned that I had a new neighbor named Sarkis.
The banker said, “Do you know who Sarkis is?” No, I said, so he told me. He said that Sarkis was also his client and was known as the “Merchant of Death”. He said Sarkis was the second largest arms dealer in the world, and his company Pan American Aviation had recently been closed down, and Sarkis had been indicted for selling Bell helicopters and hand held missile launchers to the country of Iraq.
It turned out that my banker knew everything about Sarkis, and he said, the Fed’s and the IRS had just confiscated all of Sarkis’s aircraft and equipment, I didn’t dare tell him I was renting Sarkis my storage lot that had a lot of equipment on it.
How exciting to find out who my new neighbor was, so that afternoon, while I was talking with a friend in Detroit, I mentioned that my new neighbor was Sarkis Soghanalian, who was known as the “Merchant of Death”. My friend Ted in Detroit said he knew Sarkis well.
Ted said I should mention his name the next time I met with Sarkis. Ted said when he was a young salesman for the Cadillac Gage Company, he met Sarkis in Beirut Lebanon.
Ted told me he had tried to arrange a meeting with the Defense Minister in Lebanon for two weeks with no success, and he was ready to fly back to the United States. When he was told to contact Sarkis, Soghanalian to arrange a meeting with the Defense Minister.
Ted went to Sarkis’s office in down town Beirut. He said he went up the stairs to his office and met with Sarkis. He said Sarkis was sitting at a desk with a big open safe behind him. The safe was piled high with U.S. currency and because Ted had never seen so much money before he asked Sarkis if he was afraid someone would steal it.
Sarkis told him no, the building was loaded with C4 explosives set to detonate if anyone attempted to rob him, and everyone in Beirut knew it.
Sarkis said that he was very sorry but it was not possible for Ted to meet with the Defense
Minister, but as Ted was leaving Lebanon the next day, he should come to Sarkis’s home that evening, before he left, Sarkis said he was having a little party.
That evening Ted went by taxi to the party held at Sarkis’s home in the mountains. The home was overlooking the city of Beirut. It was a very large party and he was greeted by Sarkis at the door and they went right to o the bar for a drink, then Sarkis took Ted into the living room and introduced him to the Defense Minister of Lebanon and then he was told the Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia was also there at the party. It wasn’t long after that that Ted sold Cadillac Gage vehicles to both countries.
Ted said that two years later he returned to Sarkis’s office and asked him if he owed Sarkis a commission for selling vehicles to the two countries. Sarkis said no, he didn’t want a commission he was just happy to help Ted.
The next day, after speaking to Ted, I met with Sarkis, and I mentioned Ted’s name, and Sarkis said he remembered Teddy and the Cadillac Gage vehicles very well and I should give Ted his best regards.
Sarkis said, it was shortly after Ted left Beirut the second time, that Sarkis had to leave Lebanon. He said that he had supplied weapons to both the Christians and the Moslems in Lebanon, but the Moslems had gotten mad at him and issued a fatwa to kill Sarkis and his son, so Sarkis said he ordered his men to use two pounds of C4 explosives to destroy his office in the city.
At twelve noon on the appointed day Sarkis brought his wife and his son and daughter out to their patio to watch the explosion down in the lower city of Beirut. Unfortunately his men had misunderstood him and placed twenty pounds of C4 explosive in the building and when it went off it destroyed an entire city block. Sarkis said that it looked like a nuclear blast, and unfortunately the building’s owner was in it at the time, but Sarkis said he was a no good Christian Moslem Jew bastard anyway.
For all of this, and probably other reasons, when Sarkis and his family moved to Miami, where he had two bodyguards. There was Avi the Israeli along with Kibbutz his dog, they watched after Sarkis’s son Garo, and there was Tony the Turk who was Sarkis’s personal assistant as well as his bodyguard.
Whenever Garo’s bodyguard Avi, had a few spare moments, he would stop by my office to talk, but he was ever vigilant when it came to protecting Sarkis’s son Garo.
Over the next few months Sarkis and I became pretty good friends and sometimes I would drive our restored Jeep over to his building. Sarkis absolutely loved our restored Jeep, it was a Korean War era M38A1 with a fake 30 caliber machine gun on it and it had several fake hand grenades, sometimes Sarkis would meet me on his loading dock and I would pitch a few fake hand grenades at him and he would throw them back.
One day Sarkis asked me if I could put together a kit to assemble rebuilt M151 Jeeps, he said he had a market in the mid-east for that, or a similar vehicle. I told him that the U.S. Government was at the time chopping up the Jeeps making it impossible to get parts to make a kit. That’s when Sarkis surprised me.
He took me into his building where in a corner he had a vehicle under a tarp. He pulled off the cover and there was a miniature military vehicle.
From the exterior it looked exactly like a small Hummer, Sarkis said his prototype had a Buick V6 gas engine, but the final production models would have German diesels in it. It appeared Sarkis trusted me enough to show me his projects.
One day a friend of mine came to Miami, he specialized in selling tank track, so I took him over to meet Sarkis. As we sat in Sarkis’s office talking, there was a knock on the door. I opened it a there stood a six foot tall black guy with sunglasses on and he was dressed in a finely tailored custom suit and tie. The only thing missing was a sign on his chest saying C.I.A. He asked for Sarkis, so my friend and I excused ourselves and left quickly.
A few days later, Sarkis said, “Every time a new agent was assigned to Miami they came to ask me a million questions, and I really don’t know anything.”
One day I walked over to see Sarkis and there was a Land Rover inside his building and I noticed the back of the vehicle was loaded with olive drab web gear and I thought I saw gun cases.
Avi, the Israeli body guard was now dressed in military mountain camouflage clothing, quickly pulled me aside and said the land rover was for the missionaries in Armenia.
Avi said that they were that day loading Garo’s DC 3 aircraft full of supplies and that Sarkis had pledged three million dollars towards the Armenian hurricane relief. I learned that Sarkis was Lebanon Armenian himself.
Then Avi said, “Why don’t you come with us?”
I looked at Avi and I said, what could I possibly do in Armenia? He said Sarkis will introduce you to the president and you can do business with him. I said, do they have money in Armenia? Avi thought for a minute, No they have no money, but they have plenty of women. I said, thanks for the invite but I have to pass on the offer.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in 1991, I shook Sarkis's hand, and as I was leaving his office, he said “I will see you Monday Howard”.
Sunday morning, as I was having a cup of coffee, and reading the Miami Herald, there, low and behold was a picture of my friend Sarkis. The article said that Sarkis was going on trial that Monday morning in Miami. He was charged with conspiring to sell helicopters and missile launchers to Iraq.
I wondered, how it was possible that Sarkis didn’t mention a word about his upcoming trial. He had told me that he would see me on that very Monday?
It was said that Sarkis was the largest arms dealer in the world, and was the arms dealer to Iraq for the C.I.A.
I then saw on television that Sarkis was convicted and sentenced to six and one half years in prison, I kind of felt bad for Sarkis as it was pretty obvious he was working in conjunction with the C.I.A. and they had instructed him to do it.
I walked over to his building several times, asking, Avi, Garo and Tony if I could visit Sarkis in jail. They said “No”. I asked his son Garo, if anything could be sent to Sarkis, like books, and he again said, “No”. They all appeared to be very evasive with me, and I never found out where Sarkis was being held.
In 1993, my wife Katherine and I were at Miami International Airport waiting for one of our suppliers that was flying in to visit us, and while standing there waiting for the flight to arrive, I met Sarkis’s son Garo, walked up and tapped me on the back. Garo said he was at the airport to meet a friend.
When we went to pick up our friends bags at the luggage carousel, there in front of me, bending over to get a bag was my pudgy friend Sarkis. His shirt was untucked so I pressed my finger into his side like it was a pistol. He stood up, turned towards me, and with a broad smile, he said “Howard, how are you?”
Sarkis said he was on his way to France, and I never saw him again.
I have read on the internet that Sarkis went on to sell machine guns to Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of Peru’s intelligence service, and the guns ended up with the Rebels in Colombia. The scandal brought down the government in Peru and Montesinos was put in prison.
Sarkis had always claimed that everything he ever did was with the permission of the U.S. Government, and most everything he did was for the benefit of the U.S. Government, and the C.I.A. He claimed he was a true U.S. patriot.
To me, Sarkis was a short pudgy fun neighbor, who always greeted me with a broad smile.
In 2001 Sarkis was ill and he contacted a reporter in the states that he trusted. He wanted to check with the Department of State to find out if he could return to the U.S. from France. The reporter said he could, but when the plane landed Sarkis was arrested and put in the Krome Avenue Detention Center in Miami.
I tried to follow up, and find out if he needed some assistance, he was sick, but no one would talk to me.
On Oct 8, 2011, I read in the Miami Herald that Sarkis, the “Merchant of Death” had died at age 82 in Hialeah Florida, just a few miles from where I live.