Two U.S. Army veterans are charged with committing a heinous double murder in southwest Florida.
But as the case nears trial, only one of the defendants, Alex Zwiefelhofer, is likely to be sitting in a Fort Myers courtroom and facing a federal judge.
His co-defendant, Craig Lang, is in Ukraine.
The upcoming trial, likely slated for late spring or summer, highlights a longstanding concern on the part of the Department of Justice and the FBI that volunteer fighters from the United States — even while aiding a U.S. ally such as Ukraine — could pose a national security threat.
It also underscores how a trained killer with international savvy could potentially get away with the murder he’s accused of by seeking refuge in an active war zone. The split-screen justice process for Zwiefelhofer and Lang can be chalked up to a simple twist of fate.
When the government charged the two men with violations related to the 2018 double murder in Florida, Zwiefelhofer was already sitting in jail in Wisconsin for purchasing a firearm while under indictment for a felony.
Lang, in contrast, allegedly bought another man’s identity with cash and weapons to make a false passport, which he used to fly from Mexico City to Bogota, Colombia, and then onward to Madrid, Spain, in late 2018.
By September 2019, when authorities unveiled the Florida murder charges, Lang was back half a world away in Ukraine, where both he and Zwiefelhofer had previously fought Russian-backed separatists in disputed Ukrainian territory. Since then, Lang has successfully fought U.S. officials’ attempts to extradite him.
As recently as last August, the lead FBI agent on the case said that Lang was reported to be “fighting with Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces against Russian forces.”
The investigation and prosecution of Lang and Zwiefelhofer has ranged over more than half a dozen countries and is inextricably bound up with an ongoing war that claims strategic importance in U.S. foreign policy objectives.
And as the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine moves into its second year, the case casts a spotlight back to a more limited war between Ukraine and Russian-based separatists from 2014 to 2017 that provided a cover for lawless American adventure seekers such as Lang and Zwiefelhofer. That includes not only the alleged double murder in Florida, but also alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Sheri Polster Chappell, the federal judge overseeing the case, observed in an order last month that “given the current war in Ukraine, extradition before the trial term is unlikely.”
‘Googled the worst warzone in Africa’
In the spring of 2017, Lang and Zwiefelhofer found themselves looking for a new war.
They had traveled parallel tracks of personal upheaval that propelled them into a lawless fellowship of international mercenaries and adventure-seekers. Now, their paths converged in quest for violence. Literally, they were looking to take up arms in the most war-torn places on earth.
Lang, a veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the more battle-hardened of the two men. He has said that he suffered a combat-related brain injury in the Middle East, causing him frequent headaches and vision problems in his left eye. While stationed at Fort Bliss, Lang had been hospitalized for threatening suicide, his ex-wife testified in court. Convinced that his wife was unfaithful, he had driven 26 hours overnight from the base in west Texas to North Carolina with the intention of setting up a perimeter of Claymore mines around his wife’s condo and murdering her, he told a reporter from Vice in 2016.
Lang ended up going to jail for pointing a gun at one of his wife’s neighbors, and the Army dishonorably discharged him. Beset by mounting child support payments and with his state-side employment prospects diminishing, Zwiefelhofer eventually landed in Ukraine, where the country’s armed forces were scrambling to respond to a separatist rebellion.
Seven years younger, Zwiefelhofer followed Lang into the U.S. Army in 2015. But his tenure there was brief. He told FBI agents that he joined the Army for combat and trained for a position in the elite Rangers, but was assigned to a unit known for parade duty.
Meanwhile, personal challenges aggravated Zwiefelhofer’s disappointment: He had a drinking problem, was in a motorcycle accident and felt unsupported by his leadership, he told the FBI. As his fellow soldiers planned for a four-day leave in September 2016, Zwiefelhofer announced he was going AWOL.
He later told the FBI that he booked a flight for Paris, and got “trashed” during a layover in London. He signed up for the French Foreign Legion, but left after learning he would need at least eight years of service before he could deploy. On the advice of a friend he met online, Zwiefelhofer traveled to Ukraine in search of a war.
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Two days after his arrival there, he met Lang, and in late 2016 and early 2017, they fought together in the Right Sector, a far-right battalion that attracted international volunteers. When peace talks put the fighting on hold in the spring of 2017, Zwiefelhofer told the FBI, he and Lang literally “Googled the worst warzone in Africa and we got South Sudan.”
Following their aborted military expedition to the African country in 2017, Lang and Zwiefelhofer were deported to the United States. Back home with their parents, they began to plot their next adventure.
The audacious plan involved sneaking into Venezuela and carrying out raids against the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro. They met in Miami in April 2018, and according to the government, set in motion a ruthless plan to finance the military expedition, which ultimately resulted in them luring a couple — Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo — to a darkened shopping center parking lot outside of Fort Myers under the pretense of a bogus gun sale. The two men allegedly riddled the couple’s bodies with bullets and robbed them of $3,000 cash.
In September 2019, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted Zwiefelhofer and Lang on multiple counts, including use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence by murder. In December of that year, with the authorization of the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida expanded the charges to include two additional counts for violations of the Neutrality Act — a statute dating back to 1794 that the government has only sparingly enforced — and conspiracy to kill, kidnap, or maim persons in a foreign country.
Under federal statute, Lang and Zwiefelhofer could have faced the death penalty.
But in 2021, prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty against Lang, in a parry to his effort to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to avoid extradition. Last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida to also not seek the death penalty against Zwiefelhofer. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
James Chandler, Zwiefelhofer’s lawyer, declined to comment for this story.
Reached for comment, Lang requested that Raw Story submit questions in advance and conduct a live interview over Twitter Spaces; Raw Story would not agree to those terms.
Craig Lang in a Facebook photo from 2019, as seen in a Department of Justice exhibit. Source: Department of Justice
Lang has had little to say about the case until recently.
But last month, he posted a long Twitter thread that briefly addressed the double murder and robbery. Lang sought to undermine the case against him by ridiculing the notion that he would be motivated to commit murder for $3,000 in cash, as the government alleges.
Lang’s argument against the murder charges hinges on the facts in a separate federal case, in which he and three other men are charged with passport fraud. One of Lang’s co-defendants pleaded guilty in 2020 to selling his identity to Lang. A prosecutor told the judge that the defendant “received $1,500 in cash, several weapons, including an upper receiver of a rifle with silencer and some other Glocks” that he knew “had bodies on them.” The prosecutor went on to say that two of the firearms that Lang gave the defendant in payment for his identity were “forensically matched” to the Florida murders.
Lang argued the facts in the two cases aren’t logical, while hinting at a setup.
“In one document against me a witness claims that I had a briefcase full of money?” he wrote on Twitter. “Why would I shoot someone for 3K if I had a briefcase full of cash? Also, where would I get this so-called briefcase of cash, grenades and suppressors? Those seem like highly controlled items.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida declined to comment.
Potential national security threat
At least a year before Lang and Zwiefelhofer’s alleged rendezvous with Danny and Deana Lorenzo ended in a hail of bullets outside Fort Myers, the U.S. Department of Justice appears to have opened an investigation against one of the men for alleged war crimes violations in Ukraine, believed to have taken place in 2015.
In October, BuzzFeed was the first to report the investigation of Lang and six other Americans. The outlet obtained a copy of a DOJ appeal for assistance to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine that was leaked to an obscure pro-Russian website, which it authenticated through anonymous sources with direct knowledge of the investigation. (Zwiefelhofer is not among the seven men named in the war-crimes investigation.)
The DOJ document, according to BuzzFeed, includes a description by an American volunteer fighter named Santi Pirtle that says a second American volunteer fighter filmed interrogations, “including one in which a man was detained, thrown in a shower stall, and beaten with a sock filled with stones. Pirtle told investigators he saw Lang punch and push the man, demanding his password to a Facebook account because Lang thought it was holding information on pro-Russian fighters.”
After leaving Ukraine, Pirtle reportedly joined the U.S. Army, and his Facebook account indicates he is assigned to an infantry unit at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Pirtle could not be reached for comment for this story.
The facts of the U.S. war crimes investigation, as reported by BuzzFeed, are nearly identical to those in a case brought against an Austrian national described by Lang as a “former colleague of mine” — and resulted in the man pleading guilty to war crimes in an Austrian court in January 2022.
Lang has cited the DOJ war-crimes investigation, while speculating that the true purpose of the extradition request linked to the Florida double-murder is to get him back on American soil to prosecute him for war crimes.
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In the United States, the FBI was closely monitoring returning fighters in the summer of 2017. When Zwiefelhofer, Lang and a third American named William Wright-Martinovich were deported from South Sudan that summer, officers at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. State Department alerted Customs and Border Protection in Charlotte, N.C., that Zwiefelhofer would be on a flight from London on Aug. 2, according to an unclassified FBI report that his defense counsel received through discovery.
The mission of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, according to the agency’s website, “is to lead worldwide security and law enforcement efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy and safeguard national security interests.”
Zwiefelhofer was handcuffed and taken into custody on the plane, according to his lawyers, and a FBI Special Agent Kristen L. Sheldon and Customs and Border Patrol Officer Michael Newsom took him into a secure room for questioning at the Charlotte airport. According to a motion filed by the government in February, “the purpose of their interview was to assess Zwiefelhofer’s threat to the United States given his participation in foreign combat.”
The cover page for the FBI report drafted by Sheldon and Newsom to memorialize the interview with Zwiefelhofer includes a notation that further explains the federal agents’ interest in talking to him.
“(U)FOUO” — an acronym for “unclassified, for official use only,” it reads. “Europe/Eurasia; Human Rights Violations; War Crimes; Type 3 Assessment.” According to a March 2020 Department of Justice Inspector General report, a Type 3 assessment “is opened to identify, obtain, and utilize information about actual or potential national security threats of federal criminal activities or the vulnerability to such threats or activities.”
The agents appear to have asked the returning foreign fighter directly whether he was aware of Lang committing war crimes, because the report states: “Zwiefelhofer never witnessed Lang conduct any war crimes or participate in any bad behavior.”
But the report goes on to say: “Zwiefelhofer was a witness to war crimes, but he didn’t care because those involved were separatists. Zwiefelhofer witnessed chlorine — for making mustard gas, and POWs get their fingers cut off.”
The FBI declined to confirm or deny the existence of a war crimes investigation. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Zwiefelhofer freely shared with the agents that when he left Ukraine in 2017, his plan had been “to f--- around from war to war for ten years.” His imagination supplied him with a wild array of possibilities.
According to the report, Zwiefelhofer said he would not fight ISIS because he saw it as an FBI trap. But he would fight in the Philippines “to live out a Vietnam war fantasy.” He would “fight in Libya with the Tripoli government against Russians because he doesn’t care for Russians.”
The report continued: “Zwiefelhofer is not a fan of the Jews. Zwiefelhofer will fight against Hizballah. Zwiefelhofer on principle doesn’t like jihadis or Hamas. Zwiefelhofer doesn’t like the British but isn’t going to go to war with them. Zwiefelhofer will disagree verbally with Americans but will not kill his brothers.”
In fact, Zwiefelhofer is accused of doing just that in the indictment alleging his participation in the murder of Danny and Deana Lorenzo, two fellow military veterans.
Zwiefelhofer’s Facebook and Instagram pages in 2018 and 2019 promoted themes of violent white supremacy, including an eco-fascist meme that couches violence against migrants as a measure to preserve ecological diversity. Other posts celebrate the war waged in the 1970s to preserve white-minority rule in present-day Zimbabwe and one features a photo of himself posing with a narrow mustache commonly associated with Adolf Hitler.
Lang described himself as an anti-communist constitutionalist to a reporter from Vice visiting the warfront in 2016 and has denied that he’s an extremist. But according to the U.S. government he communicated by Facebook around the same time with Jarrett William Smith, who would ultimately be convicted of distributing bomb-making instructions to an FBI informant acting who told him he was looking for a politician to assassinate in Texas.
According to court records, after Smith expressed interest in traveling to Ukraine to fight in one of the volunteer battalions, Lang told him: “Alright, I’ll forward you over to the guy that screens people he’ll most likely add you soon.
“Also as a pre-warning if you come to this unit and the government comes to shut down the unit you will be asked to fight,” Lang added. “You may also be asked to kill certain people who become on the bad graces of certain groups.”
Smith wound up joining the U.S. Army instead of going to Ukraine, but he and Lang stayed in contact, according to the government. In a Facebook group led by Smith that included Lang, Smith wrote in December 2018: “Oh yeah, I got knowledge of IEDs for days. We can make cell phone IEDs in the style of the Afghans.”
By the time criminal charges for the alleged double murder/robbery were unveiled against Lang and Zwiefelhofer in September 2019, concerns about Ukraine as a vector of far-right radicalization were reaching critical mass among extremism analysts, members of Congress and U.S. government officials.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about the matter of American extremists traveling to Ukraine for training “and coming back to do God knows what” during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee in October 2019.
“I think you’re on to a trend that we’re watching very carefully,” Wray responded. “We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals overseas online certainly, and in some instances we have seen people travel overseas to train.”
‘They want us to do raids’
Preparation for the double-murder trial in Florida has required “extensive travel,” according to a filing by one of Zwiefelhofer’s lawyers, and the affidavit supporting the initial criminal charges lists eight different countries.
The government has been challenged by the need to track key witnesses — part of a floating community of foreign fighters — who are not in the United States. Last August, the government filed an application for an arrest warrant to bring Wright-Martinovich — last seen in the far north of Norway — before the court as a material witness. And the government plans to depose another witness, who remains unidentified, by video out of concern that they could be killed in a warzone before the trial begins.
Almost from the start, the government has committed to pursuing charges that emphasize the international significance of Lang and Zwiefelhofer’s alleged crimes. In December 2019, a second federal grand jury returned an expanded indictment that included new counts for violation of the Neutrality Act, a rarely invoked statute that requires approval from the highest levels of the Department of Justice.
Earlier this year, the government outlined evidence prosecutors plan to introduce at trial that promises to “prove that the defendant was motivated by a desire to engage in combat in areas of the world known to be in armed conflict. The defendant abandoned the U.S. Army in 2016 when his desire to fight could not be fulfilled. In search of conflict, he traveled abroad and arrived in Ukraine in October 2016, where he fought for months.”
Blazakis said he believes the Department of Justice is pursuing a Neutrality Act violation against Zwiefelhofer not just because it has evidence to support the charge or to create leverage for a potential plea deal, but also because “it illustrates irrespective of where the behavior occurs (even in a country that isn’t friendly to the United States) that Americans will have to confront charges associated with their alleged bad behavior.”
The filing previews some of the evidence the government plans to present at trial, including a Facebook exchange between Lang and Zwiefelhofer on March 8, 2018 — roughly a month before the Lorenzos were murdered.
“The resistance is begging us to show up sooner,” Lang wrote. “The politic side of s--- has been increasing protests. And they want us to do raids to show they have teeth.”
“We’re doing this as fast as we can,” Zwiefelhofer responded. “Taxes should come in this week or they just won’t and we’ll know what we can do.”
“I just don’t want to miss our chance and piss off our contacts and be stuck with nothing again,” Lang replied.
Now, Zwiefelhofer, who counseled patience on the Venezuela expedition, is sitting in jail awaiting trial. Lang, his gung-ho comrade, remains a free man in Ukraine.