The US Department of Justice will waive the death penalty in the case of Craig Lang, an Army veteran who fought with a far-right paramilitary unit in Ukraine and whom authorities have charged in the killing of a married couple in southwestern Florida in April 2018.
The case is being watched closely by US officials and experts studying far-right extremism who have been increasingly concerned about Americans who travel to Ukraine to train with far-right militant groups and gain combat experience.
During a status hearing held via Zoom in Fort Myers on Monday, Jesus Casas, assistant US attorney for the Middle district of Florida, told the court that the government has decided to waive capital punishment in hopes of expediting Lang’s extradition from Kyiv, where he currently resides under a limited house arrest.
Ukraine is sensitive to the issue of capital punishment, which it abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers have involved the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered a stay on Lang’s extradition until it could review his case. An ECHR spokesperson did not say when the review would be completed.
Casas said during Monday’s hearing that the US government would still seek the death penalty against Lang’s coconspirator, Alex Zwiefelhofer, a fellow Army veteran who also fought alongside far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and who has been in US custody since 2019.
Lang, 30, and 23-year-old Zwiefelhofer are accused of using a false persona to lure Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo to a nighttime meeting at a business complex in the town of Estero, where the couple hoped to buy firearms from the men and resell them for a profit. Instead, Lang and Zwiefelhofer allegedly gunned down the Lorenzos in a dramatic attack, left them to die, and stole $3,000.
After killing the couple, the former soldiers planned to use the money to flee by yacht to South America, where they wanted to “participate in an armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and kill “communists,” authorities alleged. The escape didn’t go according to plan, however, and Zwiefelhofer was later captured in his home state of Wisconsin and transferred to Florida, where he is awaiting trial set for December. Lang managed to make his way back to Ukraine, but he was eventually detained by Ukrainian authorities in August 2019, after returning from a short trip to Moldova. Border guards stopped him after seeing that an Interpol warrant had been issued for his arrest.
In a text message, Lang’s lead lawyer in Ukraine, Dmytro Morhun, declined to comment on the new development Monday.
A relative of the Lorenzos told BuzzFeed News Monday that they were pleased with the development. In April, the relative, who asked not to be named out of concern for their safety, said they don’t want the death penalty for Lang; they just want him to be returned to Florida to face trial. “We just want him to pay,” said the relative.
Bjorn Brunvand, a US court-appointed lawyer for Lang, told Judge Sheri Polster Chappell that he had “made inquiries” about Lang’s possible extradition but said it’s still unknown when, if ever, Lang will be in US custody.
Given the uncertainty around Lang’s status, Casas told Judge Chappell that the government is pursuing Zwiefelhofer’s case on a different track.
Attorneys for the government, Lang, and Zwiefelhofer agreed that the pandemic had slowed their progress in gathering the things needed to prepare for trial. Zwiefelhofer’s lawyer, D. Todd Doss, said he needed more time to travel to meet with witnesses and gather documents for his client’s defense.
Lang and Zwiefelhofer first met in Ukraine, where in 2016 they joined the far-right extremist group Right Sector. Notorious for its neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights abuses, it grew out of an alliance of right-wing militant groups formed during Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Right Sector later restyled itself as a volunteer fighting battalion after Russia annexed Crimea and sparked a war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Other Americans who fought in Ukraine told BuzzFeed News in interviews that Lang and Zwiefelhofer grew increasingly radical in their far-right views and behavior during their time in the country.
The two men left Ukraine in 2017 after fighting eased and then tried their luck joining forces in South Sudan. They never made it and instead were detained and deported back to the US, where authorities alleged they would eventually regroup and plan their attack on the Lorenzos in order to fund more foreign fighting adventures.
Since then, Lang has been either in a detention facility or under some form of house arrest in Ukraine. He currently lives in Kyiv with his fiancé and their toddler and must wear an ankle monitor. He said in a court hearing attended by BuzzFeed News in February that he teaches English lessons to Ukrainians online to support his family.
At the same court hearing, Lang claimed that the US government wanted to also prosecute him for alleged war crimes carried out on the battlefields of Ukraine.
“Any separatist or Russian soldier that I have killed would be a murder charge,” he told a Ukrainian court. “Understand that any soldier I may have captured would be a kidnapping charge.”