Exactly 13 months after his arrest on charges of smuggling two combat jets from Vietnam to Buffalo made international headlines, Cenon Rey Avelino told his side of the story Thursday, for the first time in public.
Describing himself as a former pilot for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the Philippines-born businessman took the witness stand in his smuggling trial before U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin.
Avelino said that the U.S. government used big lies and promises of big money to lure him into the deal.
Avelino, 41, of Rexdale, Ont., claimed undercover customs agents pushed and prodded him into bringing the jets through Buffalo, even after he told them it might be unsafe to take the planes into the United States.
"He told me, 'There's no problem bringing it into the United States,' " Avelino said of one of the undercover agents. "I said Canada would be a safer place."
Despite a U.S.-Vietnam trade embargo, the agents insisted the jets had to be delivered from Vietnam -- through Canada and Buffalo -- to Jacksonville, Fla., Avelino said. It was to be the first step in a $16 million deal for planes and aircraft parts, he testified.
"They said they had to prove it to their buyers, that it could be delivered into the United States," Avelino said.
His five-hour appearance before a jury was Avelino's first public statement on the case since his arrest last year. Questioning by defense attorney James Harrington and Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Williams is scheduled to continue today.
Speaking in a low, deliberate voice, Avelino told a colorful story of his life. He described himself as a wheeling-and-dealing businessman always on the lookout for ways to make money. But he insisted that he was not a lawbreaker.
"What is your occupation?" Harrington asked.
"I'm a trader," Avelino said. "I carry practically everything."
He said he was educated in a Filipino college and trained as a commercial pilot before going to work for that nation's First Family. Avelino said he flew a government plane for the family of former Filipino President Marcos and his wife before getting a job at the Filipino Embassy in Paris in the 1970s.
Avelino said he then studied in England and worked as a computer programmer for a British steel company before moving to Newfoundland, Canada, to become a car salesman. Later, he said, he moved to Toronto, where he sold cars, worked as a private investigator and then worked on an assembly line for an aircraft manufacturer.
In 1982, Avelino said, he began flying back to the Philippines on business deals, some involving sporting goods. He said he also designed a tennis racket, which he tried to market. In 1985, he said, he began buying and selling parts for helicopters, other aircraft and model planes.
In early 1989, he said, he visited Vietnam for the first time and renewed acquaintances with an old friend from Paris, who turned out to be the son of a high-ranking military official in the Vietnamese government. Through that connection, Avelino said, he learned that Vietnam wanted to sell thousands of old U.S. military aircraft left behind after the Vietnam War.
At the same time, Avelino said, he was running a soup kitchen for the poor in Vietnam and trying to market a tooth spray that would prevent cavities.
When Harrington asked him what other business deals he hoped to arrange in Vietnam, he said: "Basically, anything that I could put my hands on."
Avelino said he checked with several officials in the U.S. Department of State, who told him there were no restrictions on Canadian businessmen buying or selling former U.S. aircraft left in Vietnam.
His problems began in August 1989, when he responded to an ad placed in an aviation trade magazine by Roy Stafford, a Jacksonville plane buff. Stafford became the Customs Service's chief informant in the case against Avelino.
Avelino said Stafford introduced him to other undercover agents, who played the roles of big-time buyers of weaponry and aircraft.
He testified that one of the agents, a "Mr. Sharam," offered him $16 million if he could get dozens of aircraft and aircraft parts. The plans and parts, Avelino said he was told, eventually would be shipped to El Salvador and unspecified countries in the Middle East.
The first two jets -- the ones recovered at Buffalo's Peace Bridge -- were supposed to be a test of his effectiveness as an arms dealer, Avelino said.
Avelino said he repeatedly told the agents that he had no qualms about bringing the jets into Canada, but was concerned about crossing the border into the United States because of the trade embargo. "Sharam" and the others insisted, he said.
"He (Sharam) said there's no problem," Avelino said. "It is intended to go out of the country."