From Bulgaria With Love

Nikolay Nedeltchev wanted to be a gun broker in America. Fat chance.

Nikolay Ivanov Nedeltchev thought that the Cold War had thawed. A retired Bulgarian major, he was now a U.S. citizen living in South St. Louis, his old military-intelligence days and Communist Party membership long past. He saw no reason not to apply for a dealer's license and help friends at a Bulgarian gun company trade with U.S. companies.

He forgot that here, the phrase "Bulgarian intelligence" conjures visions of spies with poison-tipped umbrellas. He forgot that to U.S. officials desperate to forestall terrorists they couldn't even identify, he might look a little dubious himself. And he had no idea the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had just embarrassed itself by approving transactions with an entirely different -- and notorious -- Bulgarian arms dealer.

Nedeltchev came to St. Louis in 1995 with his American wife, a Peace Corps volunteer. After a grisly experience as a deputy chief of staff with the United Nations task force in Cambodia, he was eager for a simple, peaceful life. His wife took a job with the state as a child-support-enforcement investigator, and he found work as a security guard, first at Ralston-Purina, then at the Millennium and Sheraton hotels.

Nikolay Nedeltchev
Jennifer Silverberg
Nikolay Nedeltchev

But he got a little bored.

Stocky and handsome, with knowing blue eyes and the gravitas of those in command, Nedeltchev graduated from Bulgarian military academies with top marks, certified first as a military interpreter with a civilian specialty in Greek philology and then for a military specialty of tactical intelligence. Only 42, he was a hard worker whose bosses praised him in tones of amazement, writing testimonies to his honesty, maturity, judgment and discipline. He spoke five languages, and except for the cigarettes he gave up regularly, he was healthy.

But there's not much Greek philology in St. Louis.

Nedeltchev sent his résumé to the United Nations. He also talked to a close friend from his academy days, Nikolay Chavdarov, who'd suggested they go into business together back in 1993. At the time, Nedeltchev felt too dispirited to even consider the offer. He had just returned from Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge had killed three of his men. He'd warned his commander that an attack was imminent, but the officer had refused to move the platoon.

So Chavdarov started his company, Elsan-Bulgaria, with a man named Rossen Shalliev, and they began selling legal weapons, parts and equipment -- all easier had in Bulgaria -- to big U.S. companies such as Smith & Wesson. Chavdarov came to U.S. gun shows every year, and in March 2001, Chavdarov raised the idea again: Why didn't Nedeltchev become the company's U.S. representative? U.S. companies kept placing huge orders at reduced prices, then canceling the orders after the first shipment. Elsan-Bulgaria couldn't do anything about it in Bulgaria; they needed someone to make the contracts binding in U.S. courts.

Nedeltchev agreed, and in August 2001, he applied for a license to import small-bore arms and accessories.

He had no idea that the previous fall, the ATF had found a stockpile of automatic rifles and other weapons, obtained with fraudulent papers, from a longstanding and notorious Bulgarian weapons company called Kintex. Red-faced, the ATF had to admit it had approved the bogus transactions.

Now here was Nedeltchev, a Bulgarian with a background in military intelligence, applying for a license to deal in arms. Different company, different documents, different purpose -- but Bulgarian.

One month later, on September 11, 2001, terrorism changed the U.S. landscape.

That October, a former Bulgarian intelligence officer -- again, no connection to Nedeltchev -- announced that he'd been approached by a middleman for Osama bin Laden to buy radioactive material.

In December, Nedeltchev -- who was expecting his license any day -- was informed that the South Broadway office space he'd arranged to rent would have to be inspected by an ATF agent.

"I explained to them at the time that I had no intention of storing guns at the office," he says. "The big U.S. companies have their own storage. I would just be a broker."

On January 18, 2002, ATF inspector Michael Lawson showed up at the office -- accompanied, Nedeltchev says, by another man who did not identify himself.

"He had this folder; he knew where I worked and where my wife worked, and he said I had to give them information for September 11."

Elsan, the name of Nedeltchev's company, is a Muslim name.

Granted, it came from one of their largest shareholders, Osman Mayatepek, CEO of the large and reputable Elsan Corp. in Turkey. Educated here, Mayatepek gave the little company many U.S. contacts because in Turkey, only the government trades in weapons.

Still, Elsan is a Muslim name.

"They start asking about my finances and my background," says Nedeltchev, who asked his friends to send an itemized list of companies and exports. "Please try to explain to BATF representatives," wrote Shalliev, "that we would like to export for USA goods which are subject of BATF import permission and most of them will be spare parts, bolt-action rifles or non-firing guns for collectors."

In March, Nedeltchev called the ATF to see whether they'd satisfied themselves.

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