In the summer of 2016, a federal agent contacted the owner of a Delray Beach dive equipment company and warned him not to proceed with his plans to export more than $100,000 worth of advanced gear to Libya because the sale would violate a U.S. embargo on doing certain business with the war-torn nation.
But prosecutors say the message was ignored and the rebreather equipment was shipped from the company’s warehouse in August of that year. European customs officials stopped the load before it could reach its destination.
After 12 hours of deliberation beginning Thursday, a jury on Friday convicted the company’s owner, Peter Sotis, 57, and his shipping manager, Emilie Voissem, 45, on charges of smuggling, conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and attempting to violate the act.
They were both released on personal surety bonds. They each face a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines after their scheduled Jan. 6 sentencing hearing.
“Well, any time a jury deliberates for 12 hours over two days, you know someone saw reasonable doubt somewhere. It’s a shame they ultimately didn’t see it our way, but they did the job we entrusted them with,” Tony Moss, Voissem’s attorney said Friday afternoon.
Moss said he planned to appeal his client’s conviction. Sotis’ attorney, Bruce Udolf, was unavailable for comment.
Began with a wire transfer of $40,000
According to Sotis’ 2019 grand jury indictment, his company, Add Helium, received a wire transfer of $40,000 in April 2016 from what prosecutors called “Company 1.” This is likely Ramas, LLC, of Patrick Springs, Virginia, according to emails obtained by the Miami Herald in April 2017 about the transaction.
Ramas was a liaison between Add Helium and a man named Osama Bensadik, who wanted to buy the equipment, according to the emails. Bensadik had residences in both Virginia and Libya.
In an interview with the Herald in October 2017, Sotis said the deal was “in excess of $100,000.” He said Add Helium sells the equipment and trains people how to use it.
“These guys were well-funded and ready to buy everything under the sun,” Sotis said in the interview.
Add Helium, Ramas and others only identified in court documents as “Individuals 1, 2, and 3” corresponded multiple times over the next month about shipping the gear, and Add Helium received multiple wire transfers.
Shipper backs out of deal over Libya
But, in late June, the shipping company that Add Helium hired backed out of the deal. Company representatives sent Voissem an email saying they couldn’t proceed because they risked breaking U.S. law.
The Obama administration issued an executive order in April 2016 expanding an arms embargo against Libya because of the ongoing violence in the country after the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, who was captured and killed in October 2011.
According to the emails obtained by the Herald, one of Sotis’ business partners at the time warned him that the rebreathers and other gear he planned to sell the Libyans likely violated the embargo because they had both civilian and potential military uses.
Rebreathers recirculate air, eliminating bubbles, which allows divers to stay underwater longer and to go relatively unnoticed compared with traditional scuba tanks.
Federal officials say Voissem emailed the “individuals” on Aug. 2, 2016, saying they should pick up the equipment directly from Add Helium’s warehouse rather than have the company arrange the shipment as originally planned.
“It may be appropriate and in the best interest of time for the shipping to go through you,” Voissem wrote, according to the indictment. “We do apologize regarding the shipping issue, however, it is out of our hands and there was no indication from our shipping company of any issues or concerns until they went to book it.”
Federal agent says not to send equipment to Libya
In early August, a federal agent with the Department of Commerce told both Sotis and Voissem not to send the equipment, prosecutors say.
After the conversation with the agent, Sotis “instructed his employees to cease communicating with him on email regarding the rebreather shipment to Libya,” the indictment reads.
On Aug. 17, 2016, a federal agent called Sotis and Voissem about the equipment. What the agent did not know was the gear had already been picked up, which Sotis and Voissem did not divulge, according to federal prosecutors.
Sotis told the Herald in 2017 that the Libyans planned to use the dive gear for shipwreck hunting in the Mediterranean.
“If someone wants to pick something up from us and ship it overseas, it’s none of our business,” Sotis said. “How do I stop a shipment from a company I didn’t hire?”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a press release Friday that Sotis and Voissem “lied and misled” Ramas, LLC about what the Commerce agent “had told them and about whether the rebreathers had a military use.”
Bensadik was a U.S. businessman of Libyan descent and served as an ambulance driver for the resistance during the 2011 Libyan civil war that overthrew Gadhafi, according to press reports.
His 21-year-old son and another relative were in Benghazi, Libya, setting up a business when the civil war started in 2011. Multiple press accounts say his son took up arms against the government and was killed. The family’s story was told as part of a 2014 documentary on the 2011 Arab Spring called “We Are the Giant.”
Relationship with Rob Stewart
Peter Sotis also made headlines in the past few years because of his involvement with Canadian conservationist and documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart, who died in a diving accident off the Florida Keys in early 2017.
Stewart hired Sotis to help train him on rebreather gear for his planned documentary on sharks, which he was filming off Islamorada at the time of his death.
On Jan. 31, 2017, both men emerged from a 225-foot dive on the Queen of Nassau shipwreck. It was their third dive that day using rebreathers, which, without the required expertise, can be dangerous to use.
Sotis boarded the dive boat first. Seconds later, however, he began convulsing. The boat’s crew, Sotis’ wife and Stewart’s business partner tended to him, and he quickly recovered.
But, while this was going on, Stewart disappeared below the ocean’s surface. A massive, three-day air and sea search ensued, covering 6,000 square miles. Stewart is well-known in Canada and the international dive and environmental communities, and the search gained worldwide press coverage.
On Feb. 3, 2017, the operator of an unmanned remote-control submarine caught sight of Stewart’s body on the ocean floor. He was lying almost straight down from where he was last seen on the surface.
Sotis was among several people named in a sprawling lawsuit filed by Stewart’s estate over his death.