BILLINGS — A fugitive captured in Mexico is due in a U.S. courtroom Tuesday on accusations that he orchestrated an elaborate scheme to export handguns to countries with restrictive gun laws.
Eric Daniel Doyle was indicted by a grand jury on federal firearms charges in 2015, but fled before he could be arrested and eluded authorities for more than two years.
Authorities allege the 37-year-old Kalispell man used the internet to set up handgun sales to customers in Australia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The weapons were shipped through the U.S. Postal Service.
Doyle pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance last week. His attorney, Andrew Nelson, told The Associated Press that he had no comment on the case ahead of Tuesday's detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch will decide if Doyle remains a flight risk. He faces 44 counts of illegal gun exports and related crimes.
Details on the allegations against Doyle were unsealed by a federal judge following his capture Nov. 8 in the Mexican state of Sonora by a joint operation between local authorities and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Authorities allege that in 2014, at least 14 firearms — primarily high-caliber handguns — were shipped by Doyle to customers in Australia, Norway and Sweden, court documents show. The suspects also attempted to export at least one handgun to Denmark and four more to customers in Australia.
Court documents contained only the initials of the buyers. It was unclear if U.S. authorities had reached out to their counterparts in the destination countries to inform them of the sales.
In most cases, the serial numbers on the weapons had been obliterated, according to the 2015 indictment. Many of the guns had been obtained through a "straw purchaser" who would buy firearms from a licensed dealer on Doyle's behalf, according to the indictment.
Doyle had been prohibited from possessing firearms because of felony convictions in Illinois in 2006 on drug and burglary charges, according to public records.
Four alleged accomplices were previously sentenced. Among them was Doyle's uncle, Jay Isles, also of Kalispell.
In sentencing those defendants last year, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the case had far-reaching implications because the alleged scheme's customers resided in countries with highly restrictive gun laws. Molloy rejected plea deals that had been offered by prosecutors for everyone in the case but Doyle, saying they were too lenient.
"This is the most obvious conspiracy that I have seen on 20 years on the bench," Molloy said in his sentencing order.
But after attorneys for the other defendants made their cases, Molloy ended up handing down relatively light sentences. The punishments ranged from time already served for Isles, to five years of probation with periods of home confinement for defendants Jeffrey Lee Palmer and Tanna Lee Meagher. Brian Spain received two years of probation.
Defense attorney Peter Leander, who represented Palmer, said his client had been taken advantage of by Doyle, who purported to be Palmer's friend. Prosecutors said in court documents that it was Doyle who first came up with the idea to use the internet to sell firearms to foreign customers.
"It was my impression that he was really manipulating and taking advantage of a lot of guys," Leander said. "The bad guy got away, literally and figuratively, and these guys were left holding the bag."