A former United States Army sergeant with the nickname Rambo who assembled a team to kill a federal drug agent and a government informer was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday in Manhattan.
The Army veteran, Joseph M. Hunter, 51, had worked as a sniper instructor and senior drill sergeant and was honorably discharged in 2004 after two decades. But a few years later, prosecutors said, he went to work as a mercenary for a shadowy South African businessman, helping to orchestrate murders and other violence before becoming ensnared in a sting operation run by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
In late 2012, as part of the sting operation, Mr. Hunter began assembling a security team for what he had been led to believe were Colombian narcotics traffickers but were actually confidential sources working under the direction of the D.E.A., the government has said. The following March, he told team members that they would have the opportunity to do “bonus work” — that is, assassinations — for which they would be paid extra, prosecutors said.
In May 2013, the government said, Mr. Hunter was asked if his team would carry out the killings of the drug agent and the informer, who was said to be a boat captain who had been providing tips to the D.E.A. “My guys will handle it,” Mr. Hunter responded, asking if he would receive a financial bonus as well.
“He approached this murder plot as meticulously and thoroughly as he approached his legitimate work in his military career,” Judge Laura Taylor Swain of Federal District Court said before she sentenced Mr. Hunter.
In court, Mr. Hunter, a burly man with a dark beard, wept at times as he addressed the judge. He apologized and acknowledged his crimes.
“If I only had asked myself what God would want me to do,” he said, adding, “This is my biggest crime, and one that I intend to fix the rest of my life.”
Mr. Hunter’s lawyers have said in court papers that after leaving the Army, he passed the entrance exam for the New York Police Department, but declined to pursue a job with the police because he felt the cost of living would have been too high in New York.
Mr. Hunter pleaded guilty in February to conspiring to murder the agent and the informer, to import cocaine into the United States and to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. He could have received a maximum sentence of life in prison. Prosecutors had sought a sentence within the range stipulated in federal guidelines of about 24 to 30 years.
His lawyers had sought a 10-year sentence, the minimum he faced. They argued that Mr. Hunter had operated under duress while working as a mercenary for the South African businessman, Paul Le Roux, an international outlaw who had threatened to kill him if he did not follow his orders. (Mr. Le Roux was later arrested, and he has cooperated with the government.)
Marlon G. Kirton, a defense lawyer, suggested that Mr. Hunter, who he said had post-traumatic stress disorder, believed that he had no choice but to carry out Mr. Le Roux’s orders.
But prosecutors in the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, disputed that claim, arguing that Mr. Hunter knew Mr. Le Roux’s organization was involved in illegal activities, but nonetheless left the group and later rejoined it because he wanted to make money. “Greed, not duress” had led him to a courtroom, a prosecutor, Emil J. Bove III, said.
Judge Swain made it clear she agreed, noting that Mr. Hunter had associated himself with Mr. Le Roux voluntarily and had remained with him after becoming aware of, and involved in, his illegal activity.
“The safety of law enforcement agents, those helping them and of innocent people,” Judge Swain said, “depends on right choices, even if those choices are life or death choices.”
“As between killing someone sworn to uphold the law,” she added, “and risking his own demise at the hands of people he had chosen to join in criminal activity, Mr. Hunter made the dishonorable choice.”