Nikolay Ivanov Nedeltchev thought that the Cold War had thawed. A retired Bulgarian major, he was now a U.S. citizen living in South St. Louis, his old military-intelligence days and Communist Party membership long past. He saw no reason not to apply for a dealer's license and help friends at a Bulgarian gun company trade with U.S. companies.
He forgot that here, the phrase "Bulgarian intelligence" conjures visions of spies with poison-tipped umbrellas. He forgot that to U.S. officials desperate to forestall terrorists they couldn't even identify, he might look a little dubious himself. And he had no idea the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had just embarrassed itself by approving transactions with an entirely different -- and notorious -- Bulgarian arms dealer.
Nedeltchev came to St. Louis in 1995 with his American wife, a Peace Corps volunteer. After a grisly experience as a deputy chief of staff with the United Nations task force in Cambodia, he was eager for a simple, peaceful life. His wife took a job with the state as a child-support-enforcement investigator, and he found work as a security guard, first at Ralston-Purina, then at the Millennium and Sheraton hotels.
But he got a little bored.
Stocky and handsome, with knowing blue eyes and the gravitas of those in command, Nedeltchev graduated from Bulgarian military academies with top marks, certified first as a military interpreter with a civilian specialty in Greek philology and then for a military specialty of tactical intelligence. Only 42, he was a hard worker whose bosses praised him in tones of amazement, writing testimonies to his honesty, maturity, judgment and discipline. He spoke five languages, and except for the cigarettes he gave up regularly, he was healthy.
But there's not much Greek philology in St. Louis.
Nedeltchev sent his résumé to the United Nations. He also talked to a close friend from his academy days, Nikolay Chavdarov, who'd suggested they go into business together back in 1993. At the time, Nedeltchev felt too dispirited to even consider the offer. He had just returned from Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge had killed three of his men. He'd warned his commander that an attack was imminent, but the officer had refused to move the platoon.
So Chavdarov started his company, Elsan-Bulgaria, with a man named Rossen Shalliev, and they began selling legal weapons, parts and equipment -- all easier had in Bulgaria -- to big U.S. companies such as Smith & Wesson. Chavdarov came to U.S. gun shows every year, and in March 2001, Chavdarov raised the idea again: Why didn't Nedeltchev become the company's U.S. representative? U.S. companies kept placing huge orders at reduced prices, then canceling the orders after the first shipment. Elsan-Bulgaria couldn't do anything about it in Bulgaria; they needed someone to make the contracts binding in U.S. courts.
Nedeltchev agreed, and in August 2001, he applied for a license to import small-bore arms and accessories.
He had no idea that the previous fall, the ATF had found a stockpile of automatic rifles and other weapons, obtained with fraudulent papers, from a longstanding and notorious Bulgarian weapons company called Kintex. Red-faced, the ATF had to admit it had approved the bogus transactions.
Now here was Nedeltchev, a Bulgarian with a background in military intelligence, applying for a license to deal in arms. Different company, different documents, different purpose -- but Bulgarian.
One month later, on September 11, 2001, terrorism changed the U.S. landscape.
That October, a former Bulgarian intelligence officer -- again, no connection to Nedeltchev -- announced that he'd been approached by a middleman for Osama bin Laden to buy radioactive material.
In December, Nedeltchev -- who was expecting his license any day -- was informed that the South Broadway office space he'd arranged to rent would have to be inspected by an ATF agent.
"I explained to them at the time that I had no intention of storing guns at the office," he says. "The big U.S. companies have their own storage. I would just be a broker."
On January 18, 2002, ATF inspector Michael Lawson showed up at the office -- accompanied, Nedeltchev says, by another man who did not identify himself.
"He had this folder; he knew where I worked and where my wife worked, and he said I had to give them information for September 11."
Elsan, the name of Nedeltchev's company, is a Muslim name.
Granted, it came from one of their largest shareholders, Osman Mayatepek, CEO of the large and reputable Elsan Corp. in Turkey. Educated here, Mayatepek gave the little company many U.S. contacts because in Turkey, only the government trades in weapons.
Still, Elsan is a Muslim name.
"They start asking about my finances and my background," says Nedeltchev, who asked his friends to send an itemized list of companies and exports. "Please try to explain to BATF representatives," wrote Shalliev, "that we would like to export for USA goods which are subject of BATF import permission and most of them will be spare parts, bolt-action rifles or non-firing guns for collectors."
In March, Nedeltchev called the ATF to see whether they'd satisfied themselves.
"Lawson said he was proposing they deny my license," he says. "He gave no explanation; he just said, 'You will get it in writing.'"
Meanwhile, Nedeltchev noticed that the Sheraton security director was acting a little differently toward him, and the director of human resources seemed downright scared. "They are expecting me to blow myself up because I am a terrorist now," he sighs. "So I think, 'OK, I should be more careful,' and I start watching."
In June, his $150 license fee was returned to him -- no explanation, no letter.
"Then my friends from Bulgaria, they stop calling me." Nedeltchev draws a breath. "We are not stupid people. The Bulgarian government is ready to do whatever the U.S. government wants, and if they don't want Elsan-Bulgaria in business, they will not give them a license."
Nedeltchev insists he was never a spy; he worked for the Ministry of Defense. "More like your Special Forces," he explains. "It is organized differently in my country: We all receive the same basic training; then some are sent to be, say, diplomatic attachés. I went into the army, military intelligence. I have never tried to hide my background."
His friends at Elsan-Bulgaria were also intelligence officers. "That does not make them enemy," he says, fury thickening his accent. "Bulgaria has been invited to join NATO. We are no longer communist." He cocks his head. "Your Senator McCarthy, he is still alive?"
He means the late Joseph McCarthy, who headed up the infamous witch hunt for communists in the 1950s. Nedeltchev doesn't wait for an answer but leans forward.
"I used to live in a society where the executive branch of the government was investigator, judge, jury and executioner. Now the FBI is running this country. You have Gestapo right around the corner," he says.
When Donna Nedeltchev heard her husband talking like this, she humored him, thinking he was perhaps a little paranoid after all those Cold War games. The letter about his license probably just got lost in the mail, she thought.
But when a license is refused, the applicant has only 10 days -- from receipt of the letter -- to request a hearing.
Nedeltchev's time was already up.
This fall, he hired an attorney, Ellsworth Ware III, who wrote the ATF. The bureau sent a certified-mail receipt indicating that a letter had been mailed to Nedeltchev on April 11.
When Nedeltchev saw the receipt, the old instincts kicked in. He took it home and looked at the signature under a magnifying glass: A series of loops, utterly unreadable. No printed name above it. No postmark on the slip.
He showed the signature to Eugene Schaller, who runs the real-estate company where he rents an office. Schaller wrote Nedeltchev "to confirm that whatever notice the enclosed receipt copy covered was not received in this office by any of our personnel. I do not recognize the signature as shown as anyone who worked here.... In our opinion there could be no way that this item was delivered to our office."
Nedeltchev spent hours searching the U.S. Postal Service database, using the certified-mail tracking number. "Your item was returned to the sender on May 02, 2002," reported the system.
Simple clerical error, no doubt. Perhaps a passerby obligingly signed an illegible name and the ATF forgot that the letter had been returned to them.
But Nedeltchev lived in a country where such things were not simple errors.
The ATF rejection letter -- when he finally saw it -- says Nedeltchev, "willfully made materially false statements in connection with the application, in that Nikolay Ivanov Nedeltchev certified under penalties of perjury that the information he had provided in the application was true, correct and complete when, in fact, Nikolay Invanov Nedeltchev well knew at the time that he did not intend to engage in the business of dealing in firearms from the premises he indicated on the application."
"I'm the one who found the office for him," exclaims Donna Nedeltchev, who'd helped research the logistics of setting up the business. "They said you have to have a separate office space, not your home. So what was the problem?"
ATF spokesman Bob Mosley says anything that transpires between a license applicant and the bureau is confidential.
Could someone act as a broker and not store weapons at that location?
"Something like that can be legitimate, yes," he answers. "But they have to have a premises from which they conduct business."
And is the reason stated in the rejection letter always the real reason?
"Oh yes. We make it as straightforward as possible."
Nedeltchev asked his attorney about reopening the case so he could get his hearing -- maybe they just wanted him to hang a sign or something. Ware predicted that the ATF "would rely on the fact that someone at the Broadway building signed for the letter on your behalf" and refuse.
Nedeltchev snorts: "I am not reapplying until I find the truth. I was in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. These bureaucrats do not scare me. I wait for them one year to investigate, to find the truth, to apologize. Instead, they decide to play me for a fool."
On December 6, Nedeltchev, by now suspicious of the entire Justice Department, used the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts to request all information about himself from the FBI files.
He grins -- a recognition of irony.
"I have not heard from them."