Jurors acquit Helter, Kassel on all counts in Naples gun-dealing case

William DeShazer/Staff
Homer Helter, 68, of Naples, makes his way into the U.S. District Courthouse in Fort Myers on Wednesday March 27, 2013. Helter is charged with offering to sell - but not selling - two rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff Homer Helter, 68, of Naples, makes his way into the U.S. District Courthouse in Fort Myers on Wednesday March 27, 2013. Helter is charged with offering to sell - but not selling - two rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011.

Homer Helter on NewsMakers 7-1-12.

Homer Helter on NewsMakers 7-1-12.

Dania Maxwell/Staff
Homer Helter’s Antique & Military Mall owner Homer Helter, left, arrives with Tim Helter, a relative, for a preliminary hearing before U.S. District Court Magistrate Douglas Frazier in August 2012. He's charged with engaging in the business of selling firearms without a federal license.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL, NAPLES DAILY NEWS // Buy this photo

Dania Maxwell/Staff Homer Helter’s Antique & Military Mall owner Homer Helter, left, arrives with Tim Helter, a relative, for a preliminary hearing before U.S. District Court Magistrate Douglas Frazier in August 2012. He's charged with engaging in the business of selling firearms without a federal license.

Dennis Jarstad

Dennis Jarstad

— The owner of Homer Helter’s Antique & Military Mall and a store vendor questioned their costly prosecution after they were acquitted Friday of gun-dealing and conspiracy charges.

U.S. District Judge John Steele read the jury’s verdict — “not guilty” — four times, twice each for 68-year-old Helter and James Kassel, 61. They were acquitted of engaging in the business of selling firearms without a license and conspiracy to engage in the business of selling firearms.

Kassel’s daughter turned beet red, gasped and cried. Helter’s son, Tim’s, eyes welled with tears as he smiled broadly, letting out a sigh of relief. After the 12 jurors left, a dozen supporters, relatives and veterans smiled, cried and comforted each other, then gathered in the hallway to congratulate the men.

Since their arrests in August, they’d faced a maximum of five years in a federal prison on each charge.

Kassel, a gray-haired, bearded Vietnam veteran who walks with a cane, said he was “overjoyed.”

“The truth prevailed,” Kassel said. “If you have to use a convicted felon to go after people, something’s wrong.”

He referred to a twice-convicted felon with a lengthy rap sheet who has earned at least $87,000 from the government over the past few years, including $7,500 for this case, which also involved another vendor, Dennis Jarstad, 59. Jarstad pleaded guilty before trial.

The ordeal caused Kassel to no longer trust his own government.

“I’m very sad about that because I loved my country,” Kassel said. “The tactics that they used to tear down good people, it’s not right. I just want all the collectors out there to know this nightmare could happen to them. We broke no law, we committed no crimes.”

Jurors weren’t told the star witness’ convictions involved murder, attempted murder and assault in aid of racketeering.

Some jurors couldn’t be reached for comment later Friday, while others didn’t return messages.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas, the prosecutor, couldn’t be reached for comment, but William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said: “We respect the decision of the jury and thank them for their service.”

The government built its case on gun purchases by convict Osvaldo LaTorre, 42, over a year beginning in August 2011 and ending in an Aug. 3, 2012, raid and the men’s arrests at the store.

The indictment charged Helter with offering to sell, not selling, two old rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011, guns from a dead veteran’s collection he was selling to help the man’s widow because his $2,950 pension ended. Kassel was charged with selling two revolvers with Jarstad in June 2012 and one in July, both from his Jeep in the parking lot.

Most sales involved Jarstad, whose first was in August 2011 and the last in July 2012, nine guns during six purchases. Defense attorneys focused on Jarstad, and so did Casas, who alleged they all conspired together, so they were all culpable for Jarstad’s sales.

The 58 guns seized, many historically significant, will now be returned to the Shirley Street store, which is full of mannequins in uniform, many now gunless, and other military memorabilia. Helter said he didn’t plan on changing his 12,000-square-foot store, noting he isn’t in the gun-selling business.

“It’s been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress basically for nothing,” Helter said.

Kassel also said he wasn’t going to change how he operates, selling and trading his gun collection, and selling Civil War buttons, vases, and other antiques on eBay or in the store. His gun sales involved his personal collection, something defense attorneys told jurors was legal, even if 100 were sold.

“I haven’t done anything to require a license,” Kassel said. “I’m a collector, I’ve always been a collector and I’ll continue to collect.”

Kassel’s lawyer, Landon Miller of Naples, said they wanted to thank the jury for looking at the facts and the lack of evidence.

“We believe they were truly innocent men who have been caught up in the gun debate and we now see what can happen without clear mandates from Congress,” Miller added.

Veterans portrayed Helter as a man who would help anyone, someone who sends care packages to overseas troops, and who helped a veteran’s widow after she lost his pension when he died, only to have the sales of the dead man’s gun collection used against them at trial.

Ralph Esposito, a Marine veteran, blurted out: “It’s like the persecution of Christ.”

Helter’s lawyer, Donald Day of Naples, said the point is the law isn’t understood by many collectors and veterans — even federal agents.

“(Helter) feels the law should be made clearer … so that citizens can know when, where and how many firearms they can trade,” Day said, adding that there are “tons” of collectors like Helter, Kassel and Jarstad. “Even the government’s own agents admitted the law is confusing.”

Jarstad said he pleaded guilty because he was threatened with 60 years in prison and massive fines. He faces up to five years at sentencing in July after pleading guilty to engaging in sales of firearms in a plea deal that dropped charges of conspiracy and selling to a convicted felon.

Like Helter and Kassel, Jarstad had no criminal record.

“Two weeks ago, I was deemed a felon,” Jarstad said. “You have no idea what it’s like to see your handicapped wife and 87-year-old mother crying because they don’t know your future. Who’s going to go to the drugstore for them if I go to prison?”

He questioned why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went after people who help overseas troops, financially strapped veterans, sick vets and widows left without their husbands’ pensions.

“He hires murderers to go after innocent people after all the things we’ve done for people in Naples?” Jarstad said of Special Agent Robert Cekada, the lead investigator. “You bring in murderers and take their word?”

POSTED EARLIER

Jurors deliberated more than six hours over two days before finding Homer Helter and a vendor at his Naples-area military mall not guilty of engaging in the business of selling guns without a license and conspiracy to sell guns.

After deliberating two hours today, the seven men and five women walked into the Fort Myers courtroom as Helter and Jimmy Kassel stood with their attorneys at the defense table. A dozen family members and veterans sat in hushed, fearful silence as the foreman handed the verdict form to a bailiff.

U.S. District Judge John Steele read "not guilty" of engaging in the business of selling firearms without a license, first for 68-year-old Helter, then for Kassel, 61, prompting Kassel's daughter to turn beet red, gasp and cry. Helter’s son Tim’s eyes welled with tears as he smiled broadly and let out a sigh of relief.

After the judge read “not guilty” of conspiracy to engage in the business of selling firearms, the jurors left and the veterans, supporters and family members smiled and began sobbing and wiping away tears.

The judge called Helter and his defense attorney, Donald Day, then Kassel and his lawyer, Landon Miller, to the center of the courtroom and adjudicated each of the defendants not guilty of the two counts against them in the indictment.

“You’re free to go,” Steele said.

“Thank you, sir,” both men replied, then walked out of the court seven months after their arrests in August. The many museum-quality guns and rifles seized by federal agents will be returned to them, except for those linked to another vendor who pleaded guilty before trial.

“I feel great,” Helter said as veterans and family members gathered around him in the hallway. “It’s been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress basically for nothing.”

Veterans have portrayed Helter as a man who gave veterans cash if needed, helped out widows and paid to mail 100,000 pounds of care packages overseas to troops. His store was a drop-off point and a pickup location for care packages.

Helter said he planned to head to Homer Helter’s Antique & Military Mall on Shirley Street after not being there for three days after lengthy days in court during the seven-day trial.

“I can’t wait to get back to doing that,” he said.

He doubted he’d change anything, noting that he doesn’t really sell guns at the store, which is full of museum-like military displays of uniforms, guns, plaques, awards and other military memorabilia.

“If I got a call from a widow and she says her husband died and she lost all his $2,950 in monthly benefits because he didn’t have a 100 percent disability after 10 years … I’m going to help her,” Helter said of two guns he offered for sale and a large collection list the prosecution used as evidence of gun dealing.

Helter had put out word through the Collier County Marine Corps League and the 300 members told hundreds of others, ending in the guns getting sold, with all the cash going to the widow of Jimmy Howard.

“The prosecutor asked why she didn’t go down the street to sell them,” Helter said of a nearby licensed gun dealer. “She would have lost $2,400.”

Day said the point is the law isn’t understood by many collectors and veterans.

Helter "feels the law should be made clearer … so that citizens can know when, where and how many firearms they can trade,” Day said, adding that there are “tons” of collectors. “Even the government’s own agents admitted the law is confusing.”

Kassel’s lawyer, Miller, said they wanted to thank the jury for looking at the facts and the lack of evidence against them.

“We believe they were truly innocent men who have been caught up in the gun debate and we now see what can happen without clear mandates from Congress,” Miller said as Ralph Esposito, an elderly Marine veteran, blurted out: “It’s like the persecution of Christ.”

Kassel said he was “overjoyed.”

“The truth prevailed,” Kassel said. “… If you have to use a convicted felon to go after people, something’s wrong.”

He referred to the government's star witness, a twice-convicted felon with a lengthy rap sheet who has earned at least $87,000 from the government over the past few years, including $7,500 for this case. Jurors are unaware his convictions involved murder, attempted murder and assault in aid of racketeering or that each time he was arrested, he avoided any felony convictions.

The case was built on gun buys by the convict, Osvaldo LaTorre, 42, over roughly a year beginning in August 2011. The undercover videotapes were jumpy, blurry, dizzying and sometimes inaudible at key points, when the transcript said “U/I” numerous times, indicating “unintelligible.” In one, the machine malfunctioned and there was dead silence for several minutes.

Most sales involved Jarstad, whose first sale was in August 2011 and his last was in July 2012, a month before the arrests.

The indictment charged Helter with offering to sell, not selling, two old rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011, guns from the dead veteran’s collection. Kassel was charged with selling two revolvers with another vendor, Dennis Jarstad, 58, in June 2012 and one in July, both from his Jeep in the parking lot. Jarstad was involved in the most sales, 10.

Jarstad pleaded guilty earlier this month, something jurors didn’t know.

Defense attorneys pointed the blame at Jarstad, arguing he was selling guns “discreetly,” something the Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas used to prove a conspiracy. Defense attorneys called them vendors with separate booths at the mall who weren't dealing in guns or making profits from any sales.

Kassel said he wasn’t going to change how he operates, selling and trading his gun collection.

“I haven’t done anything to require a license,” he said of selling guns from his personal collection. “I’m a collector, I’ve always been a collector and I’ll continue to collect.”

He said he was saddened by what was done to them.

“I’m very sad about that because I loved my country,” Kassel said, noting that was in the past and he no longer trusted the government.

“The tactics that they used to tear down good people,” Kassel said. "It’s not right. I just want all the collectors out there to know this nightmare could happen to them. We broke no law, we committed no crimes.”

Jurors couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said: "We respect the decision of the jury and thank them for their service.”

POSTED EARLIER

Jurors have found Homer Helter and a vendor at his Naples-area military mall not guilty Friday on all counts in a gun-dealing and conspiracy case. Return to naplesnews.com for more on this developing story.

The case: Homer Helter, 68, and a vendor, James Kassel, 61, were on trial in federal court in Fort Myers on charges of conspiring to and engaging in the dealing of firearms at a Naples-area store, Homer Helter’s Antique Mall. The trial began a week ago Tuesday with jury selection.

The charges: Helter was charged with offering to sell two rifles he kept in a safe in his office in December 2011. Kassel was charged with selling two revolvers in a deal with another employee, Dennis Jarstad, in June 2012 and selling a revolver in July 2012 — both from his car in the parking lot. Jarstad, 59, another store vendor, pleaded guilty recently to selling guns without a license in a deal that dropped charges of conspiracy and selling guns to convicted felons.

The consequences: If convicted, each of the three faced up to five years in federal prison.

EARLIER:

Jurors deliberated more than four hours Thursday in the gun-dealing and conspiracy case against Homer Helter and a vendor at his Naples-area military mall, but asked to continue their discussions Friday.

The seven-man, five-woman federal jury stopped only once after four hours deliberating in a room full of dozens of guns, documents and photos of the Shirley Street store.

They asked U.S. District Judge John Steele if they could view a videotape of Helter, 68, and James Kassel, 61, talking in a patrol car in the 95-degree heat in August, as federal agents searched Helter’s Antique & Military Mall.

“This is crazy,” Kassel told Helter in the patrol car. “I mean, what could we have done so bad? This is ridiculous ... I mean, clearly, we don’t go through that many guns … There’s been a half-dozen times I’ve told people we don’t sell guns here.”

Helter told him: “We either get a firearms license or we, uh, whatever we get, we hold onto for a month or two and we take them to a gun show.”

Kassel questioned why they were being charged with gun dealing.

“Why are they in cases? It’s a display. It’s a club,” he said of veterans and collectors gathering there daily. “They want to see somebody else’s gun and they put it here in the case.”

Helter blurted out: “Jesus Christ. They aren’t going to take those ... pistols. Those are history … This is enough to put you out of business.”

Jurors didn’t indicate what they were looking for in the requested information before asking the judge to allow them to return Friday.

Helter and Kassel are charged with engaging in the business of selling firearms without a license and conspiracy to engage in unlicensed sales of firearms. They face five years in federal prison if convicted.

Helter is charged with offering to sell, not selling, two old rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011, guns from a dead veteran’s collection to help his widow after his $2,900 monthly pension ended at death. Kassel is charged with selling two revolvers with vendor Dennis Jarstad, 58, in June 2012 and one in July, both from his Jeep in the parking lot.

Jurors are unaware Jarstad pleaded guilty this month or that the paid confidential informant’s two felony convictions involve murder and attempted murder, and assault, all in aid of racketeering.

During closing arguments Thursday, the sixth day of trial, Helter’s attorney, Donald Day, asked them to focus on Jarstad, who is heard on undercover videotapes selling 10 guns. Day argued the government’s theory that the men were employees involved in a conspiracy was wrong because they were vendors with separate booths who didn’t share profits.

“The government has absolutely no direct evidence of a conspiracy, nothing,” Day argued. “Mr. Kassel, one of the alleged co-conspirators, says: ‘We don’t sell guns here.’ ”

Day contended there’s no evidence they were “regularly engaged” in gun sales for profit. He noted the list of guns found in Helter’s safe, a key part of the case, belonged to the widow and Helter made no profit.

“Remember, the government’s entire case is built on assumption upon assumption upon assumption,” he said.

Most of the guns were on display or on uniformed mannequins, museum-quality pieces not intended for sale, he said, adding Helter is heard saying on one tape: “I ain’t gonna sell it.”

Day said the old guns in framed display cases were marked with prices a month before the arrests because Helter needed money to buy a collection. The sales would have been legal, Day said, due to Helter’s agreement with a nearby licensed gun dealer to handle sales for $30 per gun.

Defense attorney Landon Miller told jurors the primary objective of engaging in the business of selling firearms is that it’s a livelihood. He pointed out Kassel sold the guns from his car and his hobby was to go to yard sales and homes to buy antiques, sell them on eBay and the store.

“The helmets, the vases, the buttons, the hats,” Miller said. “That is Mr. Kassel’s business. It is not dealing in firearms.”

There is no law against selling your personal firearms, he argued, even 100 guns. Miller focused on the law’s definition, which doesn’t say how many can be sold before a license is required. When the grand jury heard the case, he noted, a juror asked about the law and the lead agent admitted it was “confusing.”

“Yet the citizens are expected to know the law,” Miller argued.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas, who presented his opening argument Wednesday, did a rebuttal closing Thursday, telling jurors he didn’t have to prove they were employees or that they made a profit.

“It’s indisputable guns were being sold at the store and they were being sold outside the store,” Casas argued. “Mr. Kassel, Mr. Jarstad and Mr. Helter were not merely friends. They were business associates … The laws are there to protect people who shouldn’t have guns from getting guns.”

Posted earlier

Editor's note: The jury was out for four about four hours and decided to come back Friday to resume deliberations on a verdict.

Return to naplesnews.com later for more on this developing story

FORT MYERS _ Twelve federal jurors have begun deliberating in the gun-dealing and conspiracy trial involving Homer Helter and a vendor at his Naples-area Antique & Military Mall.

U.S. District Judge John Steele in Fort Myers instructed jurors in the law on engaging in the business of selling firearms without a license and conspiracy to engage in the sales of firearms without a license. Helter, 68, and his vendor, James Kassel, 61, face five years in a federal prison if convicted of each charge. Today is the sixth day of their trial.

During closing arguments this morning, Helter’s defense attorney, Donald Day of Naples, turned most of the focus on another vendor, Dennis Jarstad, 58, who was seen and heard on most of the undercover videotapes selling firearms. Jurors are unaware he pleaded guilty.

Helter is charged with offering to sell, not selling, two old rifles he kept in his office safe in December 2011, guns he was selling to help a widow financially after an elderly veteran died. Kassel is charged with selling two revolvers in a deal with Jarstad in June 2012 and selling a revolver in July 2012 — both from his Jeep in the store parking lot.

Day contended that the government’s theory that the men were employees furthering a conspiracy was wrong.

“The government has absolutely no direct evidence of a conspiracy, nothing,” Day said during his hour-long summation. “… Mr. Kassel, one of the alleged co-conspirators, says ‘We don’t sell guns here.’ ”

Day said there’s no evidence this was like a Wal-Mart or a Bass Pro Shop, a store that regularly engaged in the sale of weapons for a profit. He noted the list of guns found in Helter’s safe belonged to the widow and she got all the money, which shows it wasn’t for profit. He also noted that many of the guns jurors saw are old, not modern weapons that are against the law to sell.

“Remember, the government’s entire case is built on assumption upon assumption upon assumption,” he said, noting they weren’t employees, they weren’t conspiring, they didn’t share profits and weren’t in retail.

During his 45-minute closing, Kassel’s defense attorney, Landon Miller of Naples, told jurors the primary objective of engaging in the business of selling firearms is making a livelihood. He pointed out the guns Kassel sold came from his car, not the store and noted his business after retirement, a hobby, was to go to yard sales and sell items on Ebay and some at the store.

“The helmets, the vases, the buttons, the hats,” Miller said. “That is Mr. Kassel’s business. It is not dealing in firearms.”

He noted that the judge will tell them that there is no law against selling your personal firearms, even 100 of them. He also noted that many conversations with the confidential informant weren't recorded and there was much they didn’t hear, but he pointed out that the tapes show Kassel’s “sincere compassion” for the informant, whom he tried to help find a security job.

He noted that even when the grand jury heard the case, a juror asked about the law and the lead agent in the case told them the law was confusing.

“They conceded they were not curios and relics experts, yet the citizens are expected to know the law,” Miller said of the agents not being familiar with an unclear legal definition.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas, who presented an hour-long opening summation Wednesday, finished his arguments with a 25-minute rebuttal argument today in which he told jurors that “being employees” was not something he had to prove, nor whether they made a profit.

“You are considering only whether the guns were related to the business of dealing firearms,” Casas argued. “… It’s indisputable guns were being sold at the store and they were being sold outside the store. Mr. Kassel, Mr. Jarstad and Mr. Helter were not merely friends. They were business associates. … The laws are there to protect people who shouldn’t have guns from getting guns.”

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Comments » 2

FECOYLE writes:

If the US Goverment put as much effort into solving FAST & FURIOUS (their major screwup) as they have persecuting these fine patriotic citizens Holder would have solved the case a year ago.Im sure the parents of the murdered US Border Patrol Officer would agree

Ocram (Inactive) writes:

Why should the Democrats in charge do that? They care less about good law abiding citizens than they do about getting votes.

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