ATLANTA — Five years ago, Army Ranger Sgt. Randy Spivey took part in one of the most publicized operations of the Iraq war: the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.
On Thursday, Spivey saw his future in the armed forces in jeopardy, as the 32-year-old Dahlonega-based soldier pleaded guilty in federal court to covering for three fellow soldiers caught up in an undercover sting.
Spivey, of Whiteville, N.C., was stationed in Dahlonega’s Camp Frank D. Merrill in November when an undercover agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives approached him and others with a plan to rob drug traffickers at gunpoint. Three of Spivey’s fellow soldiers from Camp Merrill agreed to the plan, authorities said. One, Army Ranger Sgt. Carlos Lopez, pleaded guilty alongside Spivey on Thursday in U.S. District Court before Judge Beverly Martin. Lopez pleaded guilty to attempted robbery by use of threat of force or intimidation.
Spivey pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of failing to report a felony.
Prosecutors say he refused to go along with the plan but agreed to cover for his fellow soldiers when they were absent from the base on the day the robbery was to take place in Atlanta.
"He had no intention of going through with any robbery," Spivey’s attorney, Page Pate, said after Thursday’s plea hearing. "But he did not want to turn in his friends."
On the day of the planned robbery, Jan. 25, Spivey told a supervisor that Lopez was absent from the base because of a dental appointment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney told the judge. McBurney said Lopez asked Spivey to cover for the absent soldiers.
Meanwhile, Lopez, along with Ranger David Ray White and medic Stefan Andre Champagne, were arrested by ATF agents when they showed up at a location in Sandy Springs armed with loaded handguns and an assault rifle with 15 magazines of ammunition. The soldiers, who stayed at a Buckhead hotel the night before, also bought a ski mask, latex gloves and items to make flexible handcuffs at an area Wal-Mart, McBurney said.
The men thought they were going to raid a Mexican "stash house" and steal at least 25 kilograms of cocaine, which they planned to split up and sell, prosecutors said.
There was no stash house or drug trafficker.
Lopez faces up to 20 years in prison, though it is likely to be much less after he agreed to a negotiated plea that reduced the initial drug conspiracy charge against him. McBurney told the judge that Lopez agreed not to argue for less than three and a half years in prison.
Spivey, who also saw his charges reduced in a plea agreement, faces no more than three years in prison. Both men are scheduled to be sentenced in August.
White was also scheduled to enter a guilty plea to attempted robbery today. Champagne is expected to plead guilty to the same offense, though a plea date has not been set.
Spivey’s attorney said he will present evidence of his client’s exemplary military record at sentencing, including Spivey’s role in the rescue of Lynch.
The much-heralded rescue of Lynch from a hospital in Iraq made international headlines in April 2003 and inspired a book and at least one TV movie. It was later determined that the Pentagon overstated both Lynch’s actions and the resistance her rescue squad faced.
Spivey was one of several Army Rangers who served in the rescue operation, according to published reports.
"He was directly involved," Pate said. "He was one of those who went in and got her out."
Pate acknowledged that the prohibition against convicted felons possessing firearms would make his client’s future in the armed forces questionable.
"He’s currently on active duty," Pate said. "It’s our hope he will be able to continue to serve in the U.S. Army."
Pate said Spivey, who has been free on bond, remains stationed at Camp Merrill. He said disciplinary proceedings had begun but no formal action had been taken.
A fifth defendant connected to the case, Sandeo Pablo Dyson, pleaded guilty in April to burning down an Atlanta strip club. Prosecutors said Dyson, who was an Army medic stationed at Camp Merrill, told an undercover officer during the course of that arson investigation that he knew soldiers from the base who would be willing to rob a stash house for a cut of the cocaine.
Dyson, who faces a minimum prison term of five years, has not been sentenced.