The U.S. Department of Justice will waive the death penalty in the case of Craig Lang, an army veteran who fought with a far-right paramilitary unit in Ukraine and whose authorities charged the murder of a married couple in southwest Florida in April 2018.
The case is being closely watched by US officials and experts working on right-wing extremism. They are increasingly concerned about Americans traveling to Ukraine to train with far-right militant groups and gain combat experience.
During a status hearing held on Monday on Zoom in Fort Myers, Jesus Casas, U.S. assistant attorney for the Middle District of Florida, told the court that the government had decided to waive the death penalty in the hopes of Langs Expedite extradition from Kiev, where he is currently living under limited house arrest.
Ukraine is sensitive to the issue of the death penalty, which was abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers have brought in the European Court of Human Rights, which has ordered the extradition of Lang to be suspended pending a review of his case. An ECHR spokesman did not say when the review would be completed.
Casas said during the hearing on Monday that the U.S. government would continue to petition Lang’s co-conspirator Alex Zwiefelhofer, an army veteran who also fought right-wing extremists in eastern Ukraine and has been in U.S. custody since 2019.
The 30-year-old Lang and the 23-year-old Zwiefelhofer are accused of luring Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo to a nightly meeting with the wrong person in a business complex in the city of Estero, where the couple wanted to buy guns for the men and resell them for a profit. Instead, Lang and Zwiefelhofer allegedly shot the Lorenzos down in a dramatic attack, let them die and stole 3,000 dollars.
After killing the couple, the former soldiers planned to use the money to flee the yacht to South America, where they would “take part in an armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and kill “communists,” the authorities claimed. The escape did not go according to plan, however, and Zwiefelhofer was later captured in his home state of Wisconsin and taken to Florida, where he is awaiting trial in December. Lang managed to return to Ukraine, but was arrested by the Ukrainian authorities in August 2019 after returning from a brief trip to Moldova. Border guards stopped him after discovering that an Interpol arrest warrant had been issued against him.
In a text message, Lang’s leading lawyer in Ukraine, Dmytro Morhun, declined to comment on the new development on Monday.
A relative of the Lorenzos told BuzzFeed News Monday that they were happy with the way things were going. In April, the relative, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety, said he did not want Lang to be sentenced to death. They just want him returned to Florida to be tried. “We just want him to pay,” said the relative.
Bjorn Brunvand, a US court-appointed attorney for Lang, told Judge Sheri Polster Chappell that he had “investigated” Lang’s possible extradition, but said it was not yet known when, if at all, Lang would be in US custody will be.
In view of the uncertainty about Lang’s status, Casas told Judge Chappell that the government was pursuing Zwiefelhofer’s case in a different way.
Government lawyers, Lang and Zwiefelhofer, agreed that the pandemic had slowed their progress in collecting the things needed to prepare for the trial. Zwiefelhofer’s attorney D. Todd Doss said he needed more time to travel, meet witnesses and collect documents for his client’s defense.
Lang and Zwiefelhofer met for the first time in Ukraine, where they joined the right-wing extremist group Right Sector in 2016. Known for its neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights violations, it emerged from an alliance of right-wing militant groups formed during the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014. The right sector later reformed as a voluntary combat battalion after Russia annexed Crimea and a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Other Americans who fought in Ukraine told BuzzFeed News in interviews that Lang and Zwiefelhofer became increasingly radical in their right-wing extremist views and behaviors during their time in the country.
The two men left Ukraine in 2017 after the fighting subsided and then tried their luck to unite in South Sudan. They never made it and were instead arrested and deported back to the US, where authorities claimed they would eventually regroup and plan their attack on the Lorenzos to fund more foreign combat adventures.
Since then, Lang has been either in detention or under some form of house arrest in Ukraine. He currently lives in Kiev with his fiancé and toddler and has to wear an ankle monitor. In a trial attended by BuzzFeed News in February, he said he was teaching English to Ukrainians online to support his family.
In the same trial, Lang claimed that the US government also wanted to prosecute him for alleged war crimes on the battlefields of Ukraine.
“Any separatist or Russian soldier I killed would be a murder charge,” he told a Ukrainian court. “Understand that any soldier I captured would be a kidnapping charge.”