Bank teller, city police help feds track down multi-state criminal
VERGENNES — It was just a routine call to Vergennes police on a Monday morning, in this case Nov. 30, 2015, made by an employee of the Monkton Road branch of Merchants Bank — there were suspicious people outside the bank in a car.
But because that call was made and because police followed up, 10 days later U.S. marshals arrested a New Jersey man, Arun Aftab, 33, on a federal felony weapons charge.
Federal authorities found firearms and large knives in Aftab’s home and, when they arrested him in a car in which he was about to flee, Aftab also had “several identification cards and paperwork” and $35,000 in cash, according to Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel.
Merkel said this case illustrates how the law enforcement system is supposed to function, with cooperation at all levels from the tipster to local police on up to federal authorities.
It was Merkel who took that call and started the investigation on that Monday morning that led to the arrest. It ultimately involved Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) personnel in Vermont, New York and New Jersey, and police, FBI and U.S. marshals in New Jersey.
Merkel acknowledged it’s hard to say exactly what Aftab and his mother, Ludvica Bukhsh, 61, who is also being investigated, were planning when they came to Vermont between Nov. 28 and Dec. 2, bought three guns at two stores (including in Addison County), opened a bank account in Johnson, and rented an apartment in North Troy, near the Canadian border.
They also made a Nov. 30 side trip to Oneida, N.Y., where they also opened a bank account, and withdrew $1,000.
But Merkel said whatever they were up to, before Aftab got ready to bolt in New Jersey, it wasn’t good.
“Why are you trying to leave? Why do you have $35,000 cash? Why are you trying to purchase weapons, and why are you testing the waters? Why are you moving all over New York and Vermont trying to conduct these types of transactions?” Merkel said. “You put it all together, and it sounds lousy.”
Merkel said the call from the bank came in at about 10 a.m. that Monday, and he was on duty and responded. At first all he knew was there was a suspicious man who had been in the bank, and Merkel did not talk with bank employees before interacting with Aftab and Bukhsh, who were on the scene when he arrived.
Merkel found their car not in the bank’s parking lot, but parked on the opposite side, near the bank’s ATM. When he pulled around the building, he saw Aftab hustle away from the ATM and jump into the car’s passenger seat, with Bukhsh. The car left the bank and turned left onto Monkton Road and then left again onto Armory Lane. Merkel followed and checked the license plate, which came up as a rental car from New Jersey.
At this point he knew the occupants had been sitting outside the bank for almost half an hour, they had reacted to his arrival by leaving quickly, the man had used an ATM even though he had just been inside the bank, and the out-of-state car was turning down a dead-end side road. All these were “little flags” popping up for Merkel.
“Rental vehicles are used for drug transactions and whatever else,” Merkel said. “And he had been sitting in the car for 20 or 30 minutes with somebody else. So I’m thinking, what are they up to?”
Merkel pulled along side their car and asked if they needed assistance. They said they were lost and wanted directions to return to New Jersey. He told them how to find Main Street and then the bridge to New York, and then followed them through town, stopping them south of Vergennes because their car was weaving. Again, they said they were looking to return to New Jersey. He repeated the instructions, and they headed south.
Merkel noticed Aftab appeared “very nervous” during that conversation and “would not look to me,” he said. “The alarms were going off here, so I went back to the bank.”
The bank employee who called him described Aftab as distracted. She told Merkel that Aftab stopped her midway through a discussion on bank accounts and told her he wanted to open an account for the woman in the car and he would bring her inside, but did not return. When the two then just sat in the car for 20 minutes or more, bank employees called police.
Having heard that account, Merkel then asked to speak to bank security personnel and alerted the Burlington branch of HSI “to let them know to do due diligence, because I didn’t know what this guy was up to.”
Merkel said he made that decision to contact Homeland Security based on Aftab’s suspicious behavior, inconsistent explanations, and, yes, his threatening appearance.
“I’m looking at him, like, there’s something strange here,” Merkel said. “And if there’s nothing to it, there’s nothing to it. But if this guy is lost, assuming he’s telling me the truth, his actions to this point are very suspicious.”
Merkel then became a conduit for information.
“I was updating information as it came to me,” he said. “I was passing it along, and I was getting feedback back from the people at the Joint Terrorism Task Force and HSI.”
Thanks to bank security personnel in Vergennes and Oneida, Merkel learned Aftab and Bukhsh had not returned to New Jersey from Vergennes, but had gone about four hours west into New York and withdrawn $1,000 from a bank account there. The investigation hit high gear.
“Now all of a sudden I’m like, this is really strange, so I relay that information to the people at HSI, and now the Joint Terrorism Task Force is involved,” Merkel said.
JTTF later told Merkel that Aftab and Bukhsh had in fact been in Vermont two days earlier, on Nov. 28, and had stopped at the Rack ’N Reel sporting goods shop in New Haven and the Powderhorn Gun Shop in Williston. JTTF also learned Aftab had been convicted of a felony in Texas for making false statements on a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) form, and had been released on probation. If he possessed firearms, it would be another felony.
“Things are beginning to sound kind of crazy,” Merkel said. “We find out that they visited a gun store in Williston and they visited a gun store in New Haven and it was kind of like they were fishing, and they expressed interest in an assault rifle.”
Next, Aftab and Bukhsh headed back to Vermont and on Dec. 1 opened a bank account in Johnson. Aftab also withdrew another $1,000 while at that bank, and Aftab and Bukhsh headed up to North Troy, where Bukhsh signed a lease for an apartment. Bukhsh later told authorities they planned to move to Vermont, and she also obtained a Vermont driver’s license. Cooperation with the banks again helped authorities retrace their movements.
Their next stop on Dec. 1 was the Powderhorn, where Bukhsh bought a shotgun and a handgun, and Aftab asked about assault rifles and attempted to add a second, larger handgun to his mother’s purchase, but was denied.
On Dec. 2, Aftab and Bukhsh went to Rack ’N Reel, and Bukhsh bought a Glock pistol that Merkel described as similar to the one Aftab tried to buy the day before. While in the store, the two did not associate with each other, he said. According to investigators, at that time Aftab had in his possession in the car a .38-caliber handgun, a felony.
Merkel said at one point someone from Rack ’N Reel contacted Vermont State Police in New Haven about Aftab and Bukhsh’s suspicious behavior. He added both stores followed the law, and Merkel wrote in his press release, “It should be noted both establishments were extremely helpful and cooperative during the investigation.”
The takeaway for investigators was that Aftab was trying to dodge detection while the guns were bought, Merkel said.
“Mom is the one that purchased the weapons and ammunition, because if they ran his name it would have been a hit,” Merkel said. “They stayed away from each other in the stores. They were trying to figure out how to make these things happen through Mom.”
On Dec. 3, the investigation that uncovered all these facts was opened and the case was transferred to the FBI office in Newark, N.J. Aftab and Bukhsh also returned to New Jersey.
On Dec. 4, FBI, JTTF and Woodbridge (N.J.) police interviewed Aftab and Bukhsh, and on Dec. 9 the weapons were taken from Bukhsh. On Dec. 10, a JTTF agent and a U.S. Probation Officer interviewed Aftab and family members, large knives were seized, and Aftab was arrested in his father’s car with the cash and IDs. Aftab was sent to Texas to serve out his sentence for the ATF form violation.
“They start digging into it, and the rest is history,” Merkel said. “They find the guy with weapons. They end up finding the guy with large knives. And then they find the guy with $35,000 cash … So you put all this together, and it doesn’t sound good.”
Merkel said the JTTF is saying this is a not a terrorism case, but is not discussing Aftab’s motives. Merkel can only speculate whether it is a gang case, a drug case, a weapons case, or something else entirely.
“I was told this guy did not have ties to terrorism. But if you look at it from when it started to the end, nothing measures up,” Merkel said. “There’s got to be some kind of motive. I don’t want anybody to think I’m saying he’s a terrorist, but for what reason would you put yourself in that position knowing full well if you get caught you’re going back to jail again?”
Two central takeaways, Merkel said, are that “dangerous people” do come through Vermont, and that citizens should call police if they see something that seems wrong.
“Starting at the beginning, from when the teller realized something was wrong and sensed something askew, to calling me and letting me know about it, and then me doing what I was supposed to do and contacting people and letting them know, if nothing comes of it, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do and no harm, no foul,” he said. “But what happens if we didn’t do this and something happened?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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