From Bulgaria With Love

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

"Lawson said he was proposing they deny my license," he says. "He gave no explanation; he just said, 'You will get it in writing.'"

Meanwhile, Nedeltchev noticed that the Sheraton security director was acting a little differently toward him, and the director of human resources seemed downright scared. "They are expecting me to blow myself up because I am a terrorist now," he sighs. "So I think, 'OK, I should be more careful,' and I start watching."

In June, his $150 license fee was returned to him -- no explanation, no letter.

"Then my friends from Bulgaria, they stop calling me." Nedeltchev draws a breath. "We are not stupid people. The Bulgarian government is ready to do whatever the U.S. government wants, and if they don't want Elsan-Bulgaria in business, they will not give them a license."

Nedeltchev insists he was never a spy; he worked for the Ministry of Defense. "More like your Special Forces," he explains. "It is organized differently in my country: We all receive the same basic training; then some are sent to be, say, diplomatic attachés. I went into the army, military intelligence. I have never tried to hide my background."

His friends at Elsan-Bulgaria were also intelligence officers. "That does not make them enemy," he says, fury thickening his accent. "Bulgaria has been invited to join NATO. We are no longer communist." He cocks his head. "Your Senator McCarthy, he is still alive?"

He means the late Joseph McCarthy, who headed up the infamous witch hunt for communists in the 1950s. Nedeltchev doesn't wait for an answer but leans forward.

"I used to live in a society where the executive branch of the government was investigator, judge, jury and executioner. Now the FBI is running this country. You have Gestapo right around the corner," he says.

When Donna Nedeltchev heard her husband talking like this, she humored him, thinking he was perhaps a little paranoid after all those Cold War games. The letter about his license probably just got lost in the mail, she thought.

But when a license is refused, the applicant has only 10 days -- from receipt of the letter -- to request a hearing.

Nedeltchev's time was already up.

This fall, he hired an attorney, Ellsworth Ware III, who wrote the ATF. The bureau sent a certified-mail receipt indicating that a letter had been mailed to Nedeltchev on April 11.

When Nedeltchev saw the receipt, the old instincts kicked in. He took it home and looked at the signature under a magnifying glass: A series of loops, utterly unreadable. No printed name above it. No postmark on the slip.

He showed the signature to Eugene Schaller, who runs the real-estate company where he rents an office. Schaller wrote Nedeltchev "to confirm that whatever notice the enclosed receipt copy covered was not received in this office by any of our personnel. I do not recognize the signature as shown as anyone who worked here.... In our opinion there could be no way that this item was delivered to our office."

Nedeltchev spent hours searching the U.S. Postal Service database, using the certified-mail tracking number. "Your item was returned to the sender on May 02, 2002," reported the system.

Simple clerical error, no doubt. Perhaps a passerby obligingly signed an illegible name and the ATF forgot that the letter had been returned to them.

But Nedeltchev lived in a country where such things were not simple errors.

The ATF rejection letter -- when he finally saw it -- says Nedeltchev, "willfully made materially false statements in connection with the application, in that Nikolay Ivanov Nedeltchev certified under penalties of perjury that the information he had provided in the application was true, correct and complete when, in fact, Nikolay Invanov Nedeltchev well knew at the time that he did not intend to engage in the business of dealing in firearms from the premises he indicated on the application."

Huh?

"I'm the one who found the office for him," exclaims Donna Nedeltchev, who'd helped research the logistics of setting up the business. "They said you have to have a separate office space, not your home. So what was the problem?"

ATF spokesman Bob Mosley says anything that transpires between a license applicant and the bureau is confidential.

Could someone act as a broker and not store weapons at that location?

"Something like that can be legitimate, yes," he answers. "But they have to have a premises from which they conduct business."

And is the reason stated in the rejection letter always the real reason?

"Oh yes. We make it as straightforward as possible."

Nedeltchev asked his attorney about reopening the case so he could get his hearing -- maybe they just wanted him to hang a sign or something. Ware predicted that the ATF "would rely on the fact that someone at the Broadway building signed for the letter on your behalf" and refuse.

Nedeltchev snorts: "I am not reapplying until I find the truth. I was in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. These bureaucrats do not scare me. I wait for them one year to investigate, to find the truth, to apologize. Instead, they decide to play me for a fool."

On December 6, Nedeltchev, by now suspicious of the entire Justice Department, used the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts to request all information about himself from the FBI files.

He grins -- a recognition of irony.

"I have not heard from them."

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