Optics, lasers and radios: 3 charged in $2 million Fort Hood heist
Army veteran Jessica Elaintrell Smith allegedly drove onto Fort Hood twice on June 16, 2021, first at 8:23 p.m. and again at 9:04 p.m.
She used her status as a disabled veteran to get on base, and knew her way around after having served there until her discharge in 2016. It was there that she met up with fellow veteran Brandon Dominic Brown, according to court documents filed after a probe by the Department of Homeland Security and Army Criminal Investigation Division.
Base security footage showed Brown arriving separately at 9:19 p.m., wearing all black. Brown, who had been discharged from the Army in 2019, had access to the base through his job as a contractor, but had not been scheduled to work that night.
The tale of what happened once the two veterans were on base together varies, with both Smith and Brown telling different stories. What is known, however, is that about $2.1 million-worth of thermal scopes, night vision goggles and military radios were reported missing the next morning.
Both Smith and Brown have been charged as members of a group conspiracy to steal and sell Army equipment online. Both have also pleaded not guilty.
In total, the two veterans are accused of steaming 68 PAS-13 thermal scopes, 47 RT-1523 radios, nine AN-PSC-5 satellite communication terminals, four PVS-14 night vision devices, three PEQ-15 lasers, three AN-PRC-117 radios, two receiver-transmitters and one AN-VRC-90 radio.
When questioned, Brown admitted to being present at the time of the theft, according to court documents. He also allegedly admitted to procuring the bolt cutters that had been used to break into the 17 shipping containers with missing items.
However, Brown told investigators that he didn’t like Smith’s plan, and only stayed with her right up until the theft, at which point he left the scene of the crime.
As Smith tells it, though, the night went down very differently.
Court documents show that Smith told investigators Brown met her at the crime scene, and that it was Brown, and not her, who hopped the security fence, cut the bolts on the Conex boxes, and threw the stolen gear over the fence for her to put in her car and drive to Nathan Nichols, a civilian businessman living in nearby Corpus Christi.
Phone records obtained by investigators confirm that both Brown and Smith were at the scene of the crime from 11:08 to 11:42 p.m. that night, according to court filings. They also reveal that Brown re-entered base a few minutes after midnight.
Further going against the statements Brown allegedly made to investigators, Smith’s phone records reportedly show that Brown was the one to tell Smith in March that not only did he have access to Fort Hood because of his job, but that he could steal items from base without being caught by destroying any related documents.
Following that conversation, Smith told Brown about Nichols, and for the next few months — as Brown sent pictures of gear to Smith — she discussed with Nichols what he wanted to buy, according to court documents.
Everything must go
The investigation, which was jointly conducted by the DHS and Army CID, went quickly after Special Agent M. Yokubaitis with CID completed a simple internet search for the missing items just days after the theft, which was noticed by Army personnel the next morning, and confirmed after an inventory was completed June 21.
Yokubaitis started his investigation by checking to see if the stolen gear had been listed online for resale. It had, on Ebay.
He first found a AN PCS HWTS Thermal Scope listed for $4,500 in Corpus Christi, just hours from Fort Hood. After confirming the serial number, which was shown in the product’s pictures, Yokubaitis continued his search for some of the other items noted as missing in the Army’s inventory.
The agent found them listed on Nathan Nichols’ account, us-everythingmustgo.
By July 9, a search warrant was executed at Nichols residence, where 80 stolen items — 58 PAS-13s, 12 PVS-7s, 4 VS-30s, 3 PEQ-15s and 3 PSQ-23As — were recovered, worth around $1.2 million. The remaining stolen gear had already been sold.
With evidence in hand from the completed search warrant, investigators were able to go through Nichols’ phone records, which led them directly to Smith and Brown.
Lady Luck ran out
Both veterans have entered pleas of “not guilty” to one count of conspiracy to commit theft of government property. Smith has also been charged with a second count of theft of government property. Both are currently awaiting trial.
Brown and Smith each face up to five years in prison and maximum fines of $250,000 if found guilty of conspiracy to commit theft of government property.
Smith also faces up to 10 years imprisonment for the second charge against her.
Nichols pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft of government property, a March 21 press release from the District Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Texas revealed.
The 46-year-old also pleaded guilty to running an illegal gambling business after operating illegal gaming devices at his co-owned businesses Theo’s Bar and Lady Luck.
Nichols agreed to forfeit the $2.1 million that allegedly made up the total proceeds of his illegal ventures. He also faces up to 5 years for each conviction and is set to be sentenced June 21.