The Sarkis Soghanalian Story
Otherwise known as the “Merchant of Death”
Written 10/2011 Re-written 01/2016
In 1990, my company, CME Arma was just starting to deal in military vehicle replacement parts, it was a new venture for us.
Our main company office was located at 4500 NW 36 Avenue in North West Miami.
We were located a short distance from the intersection of 36 Avenue and 46th Street.
A short distance from us on the corner, was a gas station and catty-corner from the gas station was a large warehouse owned by Jack Olshen of Olshen Overseas a plumbing supplier.
When Jack Olshen decided to move to a larger building near the Palmetto Expressway, his building was available.
The building was way too large for us, so we anxiously waited to see who would buy it.
One day, a dark complexioned, 5 foot 8 inch, muscular, Mid Eastern looking fellow in a tight fitting business suit, came walking into our office. If I had to guess I would say he was from Turkey, and I was right.
He introduced himself as Tony, and he said he was Turkish and he said that represented a company that was moving into the Olshen building.
Tony asked if we would be interested in renting our empty fenced in lot on 36 Avenue.
He said that the company he represented would be leasing the large Olshen Overseas building, which was right across the street from our lot.
He said that they needed outdoor storage space for some aircraft equipment.
As we weren’t using the lot, we agreed to rent it for $400.00 per month.
Tony reached into his pocket and gave us $400.00 in cash.
He said he would return to write up an agreement with us.
That very same afternoon we watched as someone filled the fenced in lot with aircraft ground support equipment.
About a month passed by and Tony had not returned.
That’s when I noticed one of the large roll up doors on the Olshen building was now open, and there appeared to be a bit of activity going on there.
So out of curiosity, I thought I would walk down there to see who we actually were renting out our lot to.
I walked up a long ramp, and stepped into the large Olshen building.
As I did so, a giant growling German Shepherd dog confronted me.
I thought he was going to attack me when someone yelled “Down Kibbutz”, and the dog immediately backed off.
A middle aged man in military Khaki type shirt and shorts, approached me.
The fellow got right in my face and said, “What do you want?”
Stunned, and not knowing exactly what to say, I said, I own the lot you are renting across the street.
As I spoke to him, I could see all 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 at the card table raised his hand in the air and motioned with his fingers for me to come over.
The fellow in the Khaki uniform stepped aside with the dog next to him, and I walked to the middle of the building to the fellow at the card table.
As I approached, I saw he was a very short, and pudgy fellow, and he was all smiles.
He extended his hand to shake mine, but his fingers were 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 me, 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 very pleased to meet you, please have a seat.”
Sarkis proceeded to ask me what we did in our business, and I told him that we were getting into the military parts supply business.
I could see that Sarkis thought that was interesting.
Then he said, “My intention is to rebuild aircraft engines in this building, but we are waiting until we finish purchasing an airport in the Orlando area”.
You are buying an airport in Orlando I asked, “Yes” he said.
“The airport was owned by a movie star, and he had bought it for his girlfriend and she turned it into an animal zoo.
We are cleaning it up now, and I intend to eventually take the aircraft apart up there.”
I had once heard something years ago, about Burt Reynolds buying an airport for his girlfriend and I thought this must be what Sarkis was talking about.
Sarkis then asked if he owed me any money for renting the lot across the street, and I said yes. I really didn’t know if he did or not.
Sarkis then waved his hand towards the office area of the building and then he yelled to someone to bring a map, as well as bring some money for Howard.
In a minute a young man in his early twenties appeared with a map of the airport in Orlando,
Sarkis introduced the young fellow as his son Garo, as he unfolded the map.
As he was doing this, a young blond woman secretary appeared with another four hundred dollars in cash for me.
Sarkis asked his son Garo to bring another map, and shortly Garo appeared with a big map with Russian writing on it.
Sarkis said, “Howard, this is an airport we also own in Russia, It is bigger in square meters than Miami International airport”.
He went on to say, I am part owner of a French electronics company and we have contracts in Russia to upgrade the radio system on their T72 tanks.
We also are going to upgrade their MIG-29 aircraft.
After talking for about an hour with him, I said goodbye to Sarkis and his son Garo.
I had found Sarkis to be the most likeable fellow I ever met, but at that point I really didn’t know who he was or if I believed everything he said.
The next day, I happened to have an appointment with the vice president Rainer Obermann of Pan American Bank,
The bank is located on 36th Street in Miami right across from the Miami International airport.
While I was in Obermann’s office, I mentioned that I had a new neighbor named Sarkis.
Rainer said, “Do you know who Sarkis is?” No, I said, so he told me.
He said that Sarkis was also his client, and he was widely known as the “Merchant of Death”.
He said Sarkis was the second largest arms dealer in the world.
His company Pan American Aviation had recently been closed down, and Sarkis had been indicted for selling Bell helicopters and handheld missile launchers to the country of Iraq.
It turned out that my banker Obermann 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 his equipment on it.
Rainer said, Sarkis really was a nice guy and had his own personal chef.
He said and he often joined Sarkis for a lobster lunch in the office of his aircraft company.
With that, he swiveled his chair around and pointed to a big building right across 36th Street on Miami International Airport property, “That he said, was Sarkis’s Pan American Aviation Company”.
How exciting it was to find out who my new neighbor was.
So that afternoon, while I was talking to a friend Ted Henke in Detroit, I mentioned that my new neighbor was Sarkis Soghanalian, who was also known as the “Merchant of Death”.
I was surprised as my friend Ted, said he knew Sarkis well.
Ted said, that I should mention his name the next time I met with Sarkis, he said that when he was a young salesman working for the Cadillac Gage Company, he said he met Sarkis in Beirut Lebanon.
Ted then told me the whole story.
Ted had tried to arrange a meeting with the Defense Minister in Lebanon for two weeks with no success.
He was ready to fly back to the United States, when he was told to contact Sarkis Soghanalian. He was told he might be able to pay Sarkis to arrange a meeting with the Defense Minister.
Ted then went to Sarkis’s office, it was located on the second floor of an office building in down town Beirut.
In the office, Sarkis, was sitting at a desk with a big open safe behind him. Ted could see that the safe was piled high with U.S. currency.
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.
Ted asked Sarkis if he would help him arrange a meeting with the Lebanese Minister of Defense.
Sarkis said that he was very sorry, but it was just not possible to meet the Minister at this time.
Ted was disappointed, and he told Sarkis that he was leaving Lebanon the next day.
Sarkis said, that as this was his last evening in Beirut, he should come to his home that evening, as Sarkis was having a little party.
That evening, Ted went to the party by taxi.
Sarkis’s home was in the mountains high above Beirut, it was overlooking the entire city.
Ted said, he could see that there was a very large party going on at the house.
When he arrived, he was immediately greeted at the door by Sarkis, and they went right to the large open bar for a drink.
Sarkis then took Ted into the living room and introduced him to the Lebanese Minister of Defense. Ted said Sarkis then told him that the Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia was also there at the party he was in the next room.
It wasn’t long after that that Ted sold Cadillac Gage vehicles to both countries Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Ted said that two years later he returned to Sarkis’s office in Beirut and asked him if he owed Sarkis a commission for his 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 my having spoken to Ted, I again met with Sarkis, and I mentioned Ted’s name.
Sarkis said he remembered Teddy and the Cadillac Gage vehicles very well, and I should give Teddy his best regards.
Sarkis said, it was shortly after Ted left Beirut the second time, that he, had to leave Lebanon.
He said that it was because he had supplied weapons to both the Christians and the Moslems in Lebanon, but now the Moslems had gotten mad at him and issued a “fatwa” to kill Sarkis and his son Garo.
So Sarkis said, he had ordered his men to place two pounds of C4 explosives in his office in the city. He wanted to destroy any evidence of his being there.
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 20 pounds of C4 explosive in the office.
When the explosion went off it destroyed the entire city block in Beirut.
Sarkis said that it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off.
Unfortunately the building’s owner was in the building at the time.
Sarkis said “He was a no good Christian Moslem Jew bastard anyway”.
It was for this, reason, and probably others, Sarkis and his family moved to Miami, with two of his hired bodyguards.
The one bodyguard that watched over Sarkis’s son Garo was Avi, the Israeli with Kibbutz his attack dog. Then there was Tony the Turk who was Sarkis’s personal assistant as well as his second bodyguard.
Whenever Garo’s bodyguard Avi, had a few spare moments, he would stop by my office to talk, and joke around, but believe me he was ever vigilant when it came to protecting Sarkis’s son.
Over the next few months Sarkis and I became good friends and I visited with him regularly.
Sometimes I would drive our restored military Jeep over to his building.
I knew that Sarkis absolutely loved our restored Jeep, it was a Korean War era M38A1 with a fake 30 caliber machine gun mounted on it.
The Jeep had several fake hand grenades in it, and 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 surprised me, he took me into the far end of his building, and there behind a wall he had a vehicle under a tarp.
He pulled off the cover and there was a miniature military looking vehicle and it looked like a small version of a military Hummer.
Sarkis said his prototype had a Buick V6 gas engine in it, but the final production models would have German engines.
It appeared Sarkis trusted me enough to show me his secret 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 the door and 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 immediately excused ourselves and left the building quickly.
A few days later, Sarkis said, “Every time a new CIA or FBI agent that was assigned to Miami, they always came to ask him questions.
Sarkis said, “Its funny because I really don’t know anything.”
Another day, I walked over to see Sarkis and there was a Land Rover parked inside his building. I noticed that in back of the vehicle was a lot of olive drab web gear, and I thought I saw several web type gun cases.
Avi, who was the Israeli bodyguard, was now dressed in military mountain camouflage clothing.
He saw me looking and quickly pulled me aside and said the land rover was for the missionaries in Armenia.
He said, “They were loading Garo’s DC 3 aircraft full of humanitarian supplies and that Sarkis had pledged three million dollars towards the Armenian earthquake relief fund”.
That’s when I learned that Sarkis was a Lebanese 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?
Avi said, “Sarkis will introduce you to the president and you can do business with him”.
I said, do they have any money in Armenia?
Avi thought for a minute and said, “No they have no money, but they have plenty of women”.
I said, thanks for the invite but I will have to pass on the offer.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in 1991, I met with Sarkis and as I was leaving his office, I shook his hand and Sarkis said “I will see you on Monday Howard”.
That Sunday morning, as I was having a cup of coffee, and reading the Miami Herald.
There 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 Bell helicopters and handheld 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?
The newspaper article said that Sarkis was the largest arms dealer in the world, and was really the arms dealer to Iraq working for the C.I.A.
I later saw on television that Sarkis was convicted and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. for smuggling 103 Bell helicopters into Iraq
I kind of felt bad for him as it was pretty obvious he was working in conjunction with the C.I.A. and they had instructed him to do it.
Sarkis said he was always a patriot and did what the CIA wanted. But he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
I walked over to his building several times, asking, Avi, Garo and Tony if I could visit Sarkis in jail. They said “No”.
So I asked his son Garo, if anything could be sent to Sarkis, like books, and he also said, “No”.
All of Sarkis’s people appeared to be acting very evasive with me, and I never found out where Sarkis was being held.
Perhaps a year or so later, my wife Katherine and I were at Miami International Airport waiting for one of our suppliers who was flying in to visit us.
While standing there waiting for the flight to arrive, I met Sarkis’s son Garo, he had walked up and tapped me on the back.
Garo said he was also 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 short pudgy friend Sarkis.
His shirt was untucked so I pressed my finger into his side like it was a pistol.
Sarkis stood up, turned towards me, and with a broad smile, he shook my hand and said “Howard, how are you?”
Sarkis told me he was on his way to France, and after that I never ever saw him again.
The official story was he gave information to break up a Lebanese counterfeiting ring and his sentence was reduced.
Sarkis went on to help the government in other things and eventually his sentence was reduced to time served.
I read on the internet that Sarkis went on to sell 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, and probably is still there.
Sarkis had always claimed that everything he ever did was with the permission of the U.S. Government, and he said most everything he did was for the benefit of the U.S. Government, and the C.I.A.
He always claimed he was a true U.S. patriot.
To me, Sarkis was a short pudgy fun guy who always greeted me with a broad smile.
I read that in 2001 Sarkis, still in France, was ill,
He contacted in America a reporter that he trusted.
He wanted the reporter to check with the Department of State to find out if Sarkis could return to the U.S. from France.
The reporter told Sarkis he had checked and was told that there were no wants or warrants out for Sarkis’s arrest.
The reporter said it was safe for Sarkis to return to America.
When the plane landed Sarkis was arrested and put in the Krome Avenue Detention Center in Miami.
I tried to follow up, to find out if he needed some assistance, I knew 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 of heart failure at Hialeah hospital.
Unknown to me, he was living in Hialeah, just a few miles from where I live.
I read that by the time he passed on he was broke.