Packing a Tune

“Change” by David Packouz:

David Packouz talks about nanotech the way 12-year-old girls talk about Zac Efron. In a great, fawning gush of words, he explains it will bring about a technological utopia on Earth. Humans, he says, will interface with computers, replace their bodies with machinery, and become immortal. Spacecraft will mine asteroids, and robots will reach human levels of intelligence and self-replicate. "At that point," he says, looking excited and a little worried, "we can only hope that the robots are friendly."

Packouz is 26 years old and has a shaved head; perfect, pale skin; a slightly menacing goatee; and deep-set light blue eyes. He's wearing black slacks and a navy blue button-down shirt with sneakers. When his Blackberry buzzes, which it does constantly, he excuses himself, knocks out a text message, and returns to conversation in the manner of a friendly businessman. He laughs often and chats enthusiastically about religion, science, philosophy, and politics. ("I'm a total nerd," he admits.) His hero, listed on his MySpace page, is the Little Train That Could.

You'd never know he's an aspiring pop star, a massage therapist, and an accused arms dealer — or that he faces a possible 500-year jail term. You couldn't guess from hearing or seeing him that he was vice president of a firm that allegedly conspired with the Albanian prime minister and his son, as well as a U.S. ambassador and a Swiss arms trafficker, to procure cheap ammo from ammo dumps, strip it of Chinese markings, and sell it to the U.S. government for tens of millions of dollars. But indeed, this past June 20, federal prosecutors charged him and three others who worked for a Miami company called AEY with conspiracy, lying, and procurement fraud. So far, no trial date has been set. The case has been covered around the world.

"People are saying that we're screwing our allies by giving them crappy shit," says Packouz, who — like his fellow accused arms dealers — hasn't spoken to the press until now. "You know, everything that we gave them while I was there worked perfectly."

David Packouz's story begins with his father, Kalman Packouz. A rabbi, he founded the first branch of Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah), a global Orthodox organization, in St. Louis in 1979. A year later, he created the Jewish Computer Dating Service, one of the first of its kind.

David was born in St. Louis on February 16, 1982. The family moved to Jerusalem three weeks later and stayed eight years before relocating to Miami Beach. He's one of nine children. "[David] had a normal childhood — nothing outstanding," his mother, Shoshana Packouz, says in a small, soothing voice with a hint of weariness. "He loved science and liked to read science fiction. He was always a very deep thinker."

In his senior year at a Jewish high school, Packouz had his first run-in with trouble. He says he smoked pot every day and even grew psychedelic mushrooms while maintaining straight A's. But a drug test outed him, and he was expelled (though issued a diploma). His parents sent him to an Israeli program for wayward teens. "Now that was a little bit ridiculous, wasn't it?" he says. "I mean, I definitely wasn't a drug addict."

The school in Israel took students who had become nonreligious and used drugs. But it wasn't strict. Some of Packouz's friends went there too, and he had a wonderful time — he was even able to drop acid on the shores of the Dead Sea. "I was with a few friends," he says. "We were tripping on acid when we came across this guy, this old American hippie, and his name was Moses... I actually experienced infinity."

He studied for a time in Israel and then enrolled at the University of Florida, where he stayed for two semesters before dropping out to become a massage therapist. In 2005, he briefly studied chemistry at Miami-Dade Community College before running into Efraim Diveroli, the 19-year-old CEO of AEY Inc., an arms dealership in Miami.

"And now the whole world knows Efraim," Packouz says with a sigh before explaining he had known Diveroli when they were kids. At the time, Packouz was looking for something to do, and his longtime acquaintance was looking for a partner. So, when Diveroli offered the vice presidency of AEY Inc., a munitions company he had inherited at age 19 from his father, Packouz accepted.

Soon, Packouz says, he got married to a fellow massage therapist named Sarah, and in February 2007 their daughter, Annabelle, was born. A month earlier, the U.S. Army had awarded AEY a $298 million contract to equip Afghan security forces, which NATO was training. Suddenly, AEY was among the largest suppliers of arms to Afghanistan and a pillar in the fight against the Taliban.

By then, Diveroli was 21 and ran the company from an unmarked office, according to Packouz. AEY had only a few employees. Most were 20-somethings. Packouz doesn't say much about the job. He mentions traveling to arms expos in Abu Dhabi and Las Vegas. In a photo on his MySpace page, buried among others of him playing the guitar and standing over a massage table, he smiles in front of a tank draped with a corporate slogan. In another picture, he poses with a gun in one hand and a steel briefcase in the other. The caption reads,"We only have the finest AK-47s in stock."

Packouz contends he left the company in July 2007 and never spoke to Diveroli again. (He won't say why he left.) Then, on March 27, 2008, both men were thrust into the national spotlight by a story on the front page of the New York Times. A team of writers had reported AEY fulfilling its contract with Chinese ammo purchased from aging caches in Albania, a formerly Communist country legendary for corruption. AEY had shipped $10 million of Chinese ammo to the U.S. government.

(In fact, the Albanian official who allegedly helped repackage the ammo and might have been key to the AEY case was found dead — possibly murdered — on a remote dirt road this past September 12.)

Under a 1968 federal law, selling Chinese armaments to the U.S. government is illegal, so this past June 20, a federal grand jury charged Packouz, Diveroli, and two others with 70 counts of fraud and conspiracy. According to the indictment, AEY's contract required it provide "serviceable and safe ammunition," but a government inspector in Afghanistan found that some of the ammo was "unsafe for transportation" because of corrosion and a termite infestation in the packaging.

Packouz would say little about his involvement with AEY except the following: "I was only at AEY until July of '07. And throughout the time that I was there, all the quality of all the ammunition was fully functional and fully acceptable. We had done inspections on the ammunition on the stuff that shipped while I was there."

Packouz is out on bond now and keeping busy with massage therapy and consulting work — "nothing in the arms business," he says. He's also taking care of his daughter and polishing off a stoner-rock/grunge music album with humanitarian themes, called MicroCOSM. He's even rented out a studio and hired a group of professional musicians, including a classically trained pianist. The songs, written over a period of eight years, are, according to Packouz, "meant to tell a story of love spanning outwards."

The record, a cross between Pink Floyd and Nirvana, is layered with harmonies and is full of sweet, vaguely silly sentiments such as "We are all human/We are all family/We must care for each other/We all share this humanity," and "Love is why we're alive/Love is how we survive." Asked about the contrast between the song's message and his involvement in a violent global trade, he gets prickly: "I just want to point out that we were arming the people fighting the Taliban. I don't think the fight was wrong."

Packouz's producer, lead guitar player, bassist, and engineer is Fernando Perdomo. "I'm not political at all," he says. "The David I know is a totally normal dude who writes great songs and has a great album out. Everything else does not bother me... [except for the fact that] he has a bad habit of clearing his throat on the mike in the studio."

When MicroCOSM is released in a few weeks, Packouz will almost certainly be the world's first and only rocker-cum-masseur-cum-arms-dealer. On his MySpace page, Packouz says he dreams of winning a Grammy. He'd like to tour, but by the time the record hits stores, if it hits stores, he might be in prison.

"I try not to do anything that's even remotely risky," he explains. "Especially now that I have a child and that I'm a family man, I realize it's not worth taking these big risks. Which I did. So that, in general —" Packouz's voice drops into a lower register, and for the first time he sounds afraid: "I'm just trying to keep my nose clean, so to speak. No matter how bad things seem. To look at the moment... there's always... you can always strive for better things... down the road."

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Penn Bullock