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Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory: A joint investigation by the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations recently helped secure the second-ever conviction under the United States’ federal torture statute since its implementation in 1994.

Ross Roggio—a U.S. citizen who set up an illegal weapons factory in Iraq—was found guilty of torture, conspiracy to commit torture, and a host of weapons crimes connected to his role at the facility. On April 15, he was sentenced to 70 years in federal prison.

Joint FBI-HSI efforts on this case—which started with a North Carolina gun shop—illustrated the tremendous power of the Bureau’s partnerships in the U.S. and abroad.

The investigation also showcased how both of our agencies carefully work with victims and witnesses to ensure they feel safe and supported throughout the investigative process.

On this episode of our podcast, we’ll share the story behind the investigation and how the case team’s collaboration with our domestic and international partners made the historic conviction possible.

[Please note: This episode contains discussion and graphic descriptions of physical and psychological torture. Listener discretion is advised.]

I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory, and this is Inside the FBI.

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Oprihory: FBI Special Agent Thomas O’Donnell wasn’t looking for proof of torture when he first started investigating Ross Roggio in 2016.

O’Donnell—who worked this case for the FBI Philadelphia’s satellite office in Scranton, Pennsylvania—was looking into allegations that Roggio had set up an illegal weapons factory in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He assumed he was working a pretty straightforward counterproliferation investigation into Roggio's role at the factory.

It’s not necessarily illegal for an American to stand up a weapons factory overseas, explained Homeland Security Investigations Agent Jeff Burke, who began partnering with O’Donnell on the case when HSI joined the investigation in 2017. They just have to get the necessary permissions and follow applicable laws. Roggio didn’t do that. Instead, Roggio—who owned a gun shop in North Carolina--agreed to help a member of a ruling family from Iraqi Kurdistan set up a gun factory in the region. Roggio met the man through a friend from church, and the man’s political connections in Iraq allowed him to set up the factory with little, if any, oversight from Kurdish authorities.

Here’s Special Agent O’Donnell:

O’Donnell: I called our assistant legal attaché overseas in Iraq and I mentioned the name of the family, the Talibanis, and the assistant legal attaché said to me, “Do you realize the people you're asking about, and you're telling me you have an investigation that concerns them?
One is the equivalent of the director of the FBI, and the other is the equivalent of the director of the CIA.”

Oprihory: Roggio was indicted and arrested for his alleged counterproliferation-related crimes in 2018. However, he was granted pre-trial release.


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In the meantime, the agents continued to work the investigation. They especially hoped to track down and interview former factory employees to help strengthen their case against Roggio.

Upon learning that one former employee—an Estonian citizen—was slated to come through John F. Kennedy International Airport, the investigators drove from Pennsylvania to New York to ask to interview her while she was on U.S. soil.

Fortunately, the woman agreed, and she provided an extensive account of Roggio’s dealings at the factory.

Oprihory: Her account was so detailed that it inspired O’Donnell and Burke to travel to Estonia for a more in-depth interview in a setting that’d make the witness feel more at ease. They hoped the dialogue would help them seal the deal on their investigation into Roggio’s dubious dealings.

But once the investigators arrived in Estonia, they got more than they bargained for.

In addition to reinterviewing their witness from JFK airport, the men got to speak with a second former employee of Roggio’s illicit weapons factory. And following their conversation regarding his business dealings there, the witness surprised them with an hours-long audio recording of Roggio.

In the recording, Roggio is heard threatening a factory employee and confessing to torture-related and other crimes at the factory. She’d secretly captured it on a cellphone six years earlier and had since moved it to an alternate phone for safe keeping.

O’Donnell: She had never shared it with anyone else. She thought she knew what most of the items on it were, but had never reviewed it. But she thought it was the right time and she had trusted us enough to provide it, which made her very vulnerable.

Oprihory: This was the first time they’d heard torture allegations concerning Roggio.
This bombshell development gave the investigators a new and urgent objective: to ask the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit for guidance and expertise about how they could investigate Roggio for torture.

They also wanted to track down other former employees who might've witnessed or been victim to these crimes and travel back to Estonia to interview them.

Stevens: In 2021, we got that call.

Oprihory: That’s Supervisory Special Agent Crystal Stevens, who works in the IHRU.

Oprihory: She said IHRU instantly reached out to their partners in the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division to discuss the information they’d received from O’Donnell and Burke and the potential pursuit of a torture case.

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Stevens: These are very nuanced and challenging cases, so we want to make sure that we get all our partners lined up in a row and we know how to handle moving forward.
So, the first step was great. The agents realized they had something new and different, and so they reached out to the right entity here at Headquarters.

We at the International Human Rights Unit, we coordinate and collaborate to go after these types of very difficult cases, so we work with our Department of Defense, our Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, all in a task force type of environment.

Once we got all our partners on board, then the agents do their due diligence.

Now that they had a whole new pool of potential victims and witnesses identified, they had to do interviews. And what makes it challenging on these type of international cases was that all this activity was happening in Iraq back in 2015. So you're talking about a historical case.

You're also dealing with a lot of foreign entities and our foreign partners and foreign employees of Ross Roggio’s.

So, once they were able to track all those individuals down, we had to coordinate with our legal attache offices here at the FBI. We have over, I believe, 60 around the globe positioned in all different countries who act on behalf of the FBI with our foreign partners in those countries.

Once we did that and we got the right approvals with our foreign partners—

Oprihory: The primary one being Estonia’s Internal Security Service, the Kaitsepolitseiamet—

Stevens: Our agents were able to travel overseas to Estonia specifically to interview our potential victim of torture and I believe, six or so witnesses. So they conduct those interviews. It's very time intensive.

Oprihory: Stevens said IHRU also brought in victim services providers to ensure...

Stevens: ...that our witnesses are being handled carefully and sensitive because of the situation that they're having to relive potential very critical moments.

Oprihory: FBI Supervisory Child and Adolescent Forensic Interviewer, or CAFI, Jackie Goldstein—who, at the time, had a parallel role at HSI—traveled to Estonia to have these hard conversations the right way.

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Goldstein: It was not a traditional case where a CAFI or a forensic interview specialist would normally be utilized. So I was contacted initially just to say, “Hey, we have these adults, we think that maybe we have one possible victim of torture, but we don't know, with some of these other victims, what they've experienced. At the very least, we think they've seen some pretty terrible things. Do you think a CAFI process would be appropriate?” And my answer was “absolutely.”

Oprihory: Goldstein is uniquely trained to question youth—as well as adults who’ve survived trauma—in a way that balances the needs of an investigation and the welfare of the person sharing their story. Forensic interviewers, she says...

Goldstein: ...are involved in an investigation where we're attempting to gather more information from them, either as a victim or as a witness, potentially. And we want to do that in a way where we're gathering information that meets the needs of investigators. It's designed to pass judicial scrutiny. So it's non leading, non-suggestive. But it's also trauma-informed so that the investigative interviewing process is uniquely suited to the developmental, cognitive, clinical needs of that individual and we're not creating additional trauma in that investigative process.

Goldstein: Victims, as they begin to process their experiences and speak about their experiences, may recall certain things that they had kind of buried away previously because it was so painful. Right? They didn't want to think about them on a daily basis.

And so now we have people here who are asking them to retrieve all of those memories, and that takes time. And so, you know, not only did we want to give them space for that, which is why we had several trips and we spoke to these people certainly more than once, but why it was important to build relationships with them so that they could trust us to give that information.

We didn't have this expectation that these individuals were going to meet us one time and automatically trust that they could share absolutely everything that they had experienced just because we're the U.S. government.

They were incredibly fearful. And much of that fear had to do with threats that Roggio made to them. And so we had to spend a lot of time building those relationships so that they could explain the entirety of their experiences.

Oprihory: The agents were also careful to keep interviewees separated to prevent their memories from becoming clouded.

O’Donnell: What we were very sure to do when we interviewed everyone in KAPO’s headquarters and over in Estonia, we never let them see each other, and we would not discuss with one that another was there or what they told us or anything. You want to preserve their specific recollection because when you get victims that experience something together talking, they tend to forget what they experienced and what someone else experienced.


Oprihory: As Stevens explains:

Stevens: The circumstances around the torture were allegedly that he knew what he was doing was illegal and he had employed many individuals to help with the factory and with the day-to-day administrative burdens of running the factory over in Iraq.

One of those employees became privy of the illegal activity, and once Ross Roggio found that out, he did not want that information getting out. So, he worked with the Kurdistan soldiers and had them kidnap and keep the employee under guard so that the information of his illegal activity would not be spread.
And while he was doing that, he also took the other employees as a deterrent measure and brought them into the holdings—

Oprihory: These holdings were actually a Kurdish military compound.

Stevens: —where the soldiers were holding that individual, the victim, and had them witness and watch the torture and the mental and physical abuse as a scare tactic to keep all his employees in line.

O’Donnell: When we first met the main victim in August of ‘21, we were totally caught off guard.

O’Donnell: He had very vivid recollections. Some people black out everything. This guy remembered every detail of a lot of what happened.

Oprihory: The agents said that the victim’s body language helped confirm the authenticity of his account.

Explains HSI Agent Jeff Burke:

Burke: A lot of that is the nonverbals. As we're interviewing this victim and we are getting into the minutia of what had happened to him, what he can recall, his arms and hands start shaking and he can't control it and he doesn't even realize he's doing it.

O’Donnell: The victim, as he was sharing those horrific activities, he would motion.

He was talking about getting tased in his elbow, for example, his right hand went to the spot where he still had scars from being tased numerous times by Roggio and the others working for him.

And you could see that the guy is recalling the event because he's moving his hands to the places where the wounds were.

Oprihory: In addition to being tased in multiple areas of his body the victim recalled being suffocated by Kurdish soldiers until he passed out, having his chest stomped on, being kicked while on the floor of a Kurdish military facility, and more.

According to O’Donnell, the victim also recounted being tortured by Roggio.

O’Donnell: He described being pulled up by a belt and choked by Roggio himself.

Oprihory: The victim also said that, while being interviewed at a table, Roggio approached him from behind and yanked him off the floor.

O’Donnell: Roggio is 6’2 or 6’3. Our victim is shorter and he's getting pulled up and looking down at his feet off the ground. And then he wakes up on the ground.

Oprihory: All told, the victim was held in captivity for 39 days. Of the audio recording, Burke said:

Burke: It was absolutely very difficult to listen to what this person went through.

Oprihory: But, Burke said:

Burke: Ross made it tremendously easy to corroborate by bringing all of the other employees in to watch his power and watch what he did to this victim.


Stevens: So our agents went over, both the FBI and HSI, interviewed witnesses, collected evidence. We had great assistance from our foreign partners. And then once they collected all that, sat down with the attorneys, made sure that we were hitting the mark for all the violations, then they move forward with the potential indictment.


Oprihory: Their efforts paid off.

Oprihory: In 2022, a federal jury returned a superseding indictment that added two new charges against Roggio, and he was arrested.

The first charge was torture, for his alleged abuses of his former employee. The second charge was conspiracy to commit torture, for allegedly directing Kurdish soldiers to kidnap, detain, and inflict harm on the man.

After the investigators repeatedly reassured the victim and witnesses that Roggio was no longer an immediate threat to their lives and safety, they all agreed to testify against him in U.S. federal court.

Burke: They had all had the belief that he was [a] U.S. super soldier, a assassin. You know, he told them he was Navy SEAL, Special Forces.

Oprihory: Little did they know, Roggio was a pathological liar—a trait that became increasingly apparent during the agents’ interactions with him during the investigation.

O’Donnell: When we did the search warrant, we got his list of his top three Google searches. The top Google search was “how to stop lying.”

Oprihory: And the case agents said it was a trend that continued throughout the investigation.

Burke: I couldn't believe—just when you thought you couldn't hear any anything more ridiculous, he would go into a new story involving him and his exploits and what he did in the military or—

O’Donnell: —in the government.

Burke: Yeah.

O’Donnell: And with the police and with the FBI. He's the most well-trained interrogator maybe in the history of the world.

Burke: At one point, he is bragging to a witness about his ability to get into someone's brain. “Nobody can get into a person's brain like I can.” And he's asked, you know, “were you always this good? Did you get training?” “Oh, of course I had training.” And he states that he had training from the FBI interrogation school, CIA interrogation school, the Army, trainings that he can't talk about.

Oprihory: But his lackluster lying abilities didn’t make him any less terrifying to his employees.

O’Donnell: He controlled whether they went to the pharmacy, whether they could go out to lunch or dinner. Everything they did, he controlled the cars. He had control with the Kurdistan guards at the checkpoints throughout Sulaymaniyah and the surrounding area.

Burke: They were scared to death of him.

He would carry guns around, wave guns, point guns at them, threatened them.


Oprihory: The combination of the audio recording and the victim’s and witnesses’ firsthand accounts played a pivotal role in winning his conviction.

O’Donnell: We had four eyewitnesses that watched and the torture victim himself, in addition to the recording where Roggio bragged about it.

Oprihory: And, the investigators added, Roggio’s behavior and testimony in the courtroom did him no favors.

O’Donnell: At one point, upon cross-examination, when the human rights prosecutor is asking him about the victim taking a beating, Roggio says two things: “Well, better to be beaten than dead,” and after he discussed the victim going to the corner to try and defend himself, Roggio said the victim was being very melodramatic when he was being tortured.

Burke: He would say things and the jury would audibly gasp, like, as a group.

Oprihory: The jury found Roggio guilty on all 33 counts he ultimately faced: one count of torture, one count of conspiracy to commit torture, and 31 other counts related to his illegal export of weapons parts, weapons tools, and defense services from the U.S. to Iraq.


Oprihory: If you’ve survived or witnessed torture or any other human rights violation, we encourage you to share your story with the FBI.
You can submit tips to the Bureau—anonymously, if needed—by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or by visiting tips.fbi.gov.

You can also reach out to your nearest FBI field office or legal attaché office, if you’re located overseas.


Oprihory: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.

I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.

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