Cenon Rey Avelino avoided a possible 14-year prison term Monday when a federal jury acquitted him of trading with an enemy of the United States.
But Avelino was hardly tap-dancing his way out of U.S. District Court.
The angry Ontario businessman said he had been railroaded by federal undercover agents and will appeal his convictions on four other felony counts in connection with smuggling two Vietnam War combat jets over the Peace Bridge.
Undercover agents from the U.S. Customs Service "manufactured" a bogus crime and duped him into becoming a part of it, Avelino said.
Avelino, 41, a globe-trotting businessman from suburban Toronto, was convicted on two counts of filing documents that misstated the nature and value of the planes, and two counts of illegally importing 7.62mm machine guns in the aircraft.
But the jury acquitted Avelino of more serious charges -- two counts of trading with a U.S. enemy, two counts of money-laundering and another weapons charge. The verdict came at the end of a monthlong trial, after more than 21 hours of deliberations.
Authorities said Avelino, who spent more than a year in the Erie County Holding Center after being arrested Nov. 6, 1989, is unlikely to face any more jail time. But if convicted of trading with Vietnam he could have faced up to 14 years.
Avelino was arrested after agents seized two former U.S. Air Force fighter jets, equipped with guns and bomb chutes, at the bridge. The government targeted Avelino in a two-month sting investigation in which U.S. Customs agents posed as weapons buyers seeking military equipment for El Salvador and countries in the Mideast.
Agents accused Avelino of buying the jets from the government of Vietnam for $137,500 and selling them for $300,000.
During the trial, Avelino and his attorney, James P. Harrington, accused federal agents of entrapping Avelino by insisting he deliver the planes from Canada, through Buffalo, to Jacksonville, Fla.
One juror interviewed after the trial said he and others sympathized with Avelino. The juror, Joseph Franklin, 59, said agents seemed to go too far to push and prod Avelino into delivering the planes across the border.
But Avelino also created his own problems with his wheeling and dealing, Franklin said. "He was a man looking to make money," the juror said. "He had these planes available and was willing to sell them to anybody."
The claims of entrapment were scoffed at by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger P. Williams and David Wright, special agent in charge of Buffalo investigations for the Customs Service.
"Whenever you have a defendant on tape, entrapment is the only defense he can use," Wright said. "We are very careful to avoid entrapment from the beginning of any undercover investigation."
Outside Judge John T. Elfvin's courtroom after Monday's verdict, Avelino walked up to Williams and extended his hand.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Williams," he said, and walked away. Observers could not tell if the gesture was meant sarcastically or to show there were no hard feelings.