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Former US soldier wanted for Florida killings released from Ukrainian jail

Old prison hall. (MaxPixel/Released)
September 30, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A former U.S. Army soldier who is wanted for a double murder in Florida has been released from a Ukrainian jail, his lawyer said amid uncertainty over whether the United States will seek his extradition.

Craig Lang — who fought for a Ukrainian right-wing paramilitary unit and is one of two U.S. Army veterans implicated in the killing of a couple in Florida in 2018 — was freed on September 28, defense lawyer Dmitry Morhun told RFE/RL.

Morhun said September 29 that the court in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, where the hearing took place, also placed him under house arrest. Morhun said Lang does not face criminal charges in Ukraine.

Lang’s Ukrainian fiancée, Anna Osipovich, told RFE/RL that the house arrest order was for 60 days.

Morhun said there was confusion over whether there was an official U.S. request for Lang’s extradition. He said prosecution documents had come from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv but were not translated into Ukrainian. Those documents were cited by the court in ordering Lang’s release.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv offered no immediate response to queries from RFE/RL.

Lang’s case is one of a growing number involving U.S. military veterans, U.S.-based extremists, and white supremacist groups that have cultivated ties with Ukrainian far-right groups. Many of those Ukrainian groups’ members have fought in the five-year war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Florida, where the 2018 killing occurred, Lang and former U.S. Army soldier Alex Zwiefelhofer allegedly robbed a couple in Estero, Florida, in order to fund a plan to travel to Venezuela and fight with an anti-government resistance group there.

According to the complaint, Zwiefelhofer said he and Lang had fought in Ukraine alongside the far-right volunteer unit, Right Sector.

The complaint, which was unsealed earlier this month in a Florida federal court, said Zwiefelhofer was being held in a Wisconsin detention center while Lang was being held in Ukraine.

Kansas Bomb Plot

The 29-year-old Lang is also linked to another former U.S. soldier who allegedly was involved in a bomb plot and arrested on September 21 in Kansas.

That soldier, 24-year-old Jarrett William Smith, had asked Lang for help with traveling to Ukraine to fight for the Azov Battalion, another far-right paramilitary group.

Smith appeared in a U.S. federal court in Kansas on September 26 where he pleaded not guilty to charges of distributing information on explosives online and making threatening interstate communication.

Smith’s attorney said his client was merely “spouting off” online, according to news reports.

Before his arrest for the alleged bomb plot, Smith had communicated over social media with Lang about coming to Ukraine, according to an FBI affidavit.

“No former military experience, but if I cannot find a slot in Ukraine by October I’ll be going into the Army…To fight is what I want to do,” Smith told Lang, according to the FBI.

Lang responded by saying he would forward Smith to “the guy that screens people.”

‘We Wanted To Be Married’

Lang’s fiancée, Osipovich, told RFE/RL that Lang was detained on either August 20 or 21 while he was returning to Ukraine from Moldova.

He had left Ukraine to receive a new stamp in his passport, Osipovich said, adding that a new stamp would allow him to extend his stay in Kyiv and obtain legal documents so the couple could marry.

Border guards detained Lang after discovering an Interpol notice related to the Florida case, Osipovich said.

She said that Lang had already left the Ukrainian paramilitary group and was teaching English in Kyiv. The two met in June and began dating, she said.

According to video taken during Lang’s courtroom appearance by a Ukrainian activist for prisoners-of-war, Lang confirmed to the court that he had left Right Sector and stopped fighting due to health issues.

“I have problems with vision in my left eye. I often have problems with headaches,” he told the court, speaking through a translator. “This is from, basically, I was in a [fighting] position, a round came in, it exploded, and caused a brain injury.”

Lang also said he had been convicted previously in the United States for assault and violation of a protective order in a case involving his ex-wife.

Osipovich told RFE/RL that Lang rarely talked about his past and when he did, he was not very specific.

She said Lang told her he had no part in the Florida killings and she didn’t push him to know more.

“All I know is that they are charging him,” she said of the prosecutors in the Florida case.

The group Lang fought with, Right Sector, emerged from the mass protests that erupted in Ukraine beginning in November 2013. The group later transformed into a volunteer fighting battalion after Russia fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

After leaving Right Sector, Lang fought in eastern Ukraine, alongside a group of Georgians who called themselves the Georgian Foreign Legion, according to Lang’s former commander with the group.

The issue of U.S. white-supremacist organizations being drawn to Ukrainian groups is a concern that was raised by U.S. law enforcement officials as recently as 2017.

That year, the FBI warned that Azov’s military wing was “believed to have participated in training and radicalizing United States-based white supremacy organizations.”

The founder of the Azov Battalion later went on to found a Ukrainian political party known as the National Corps, which has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “nationalist hate group.”

There’s no indication that Lang espoused white supremacist or other extremist views.