Federal agents arrested a Delray Beach dive instructor and equipment owner — who was at the center of the 2017 accidental death of a Canadian filmmaker off the Florida Keys — on charges he conspired to smuggle high-tech scuba gear in 2016 to Libyans in violation of export embargoes imposed on the war-torn nation.
Peter Sotis faces 35 years in federal prison and more that $1 million in fines after a grand jury last week indicted him on conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, attempting to smuggle goods to Libya, and another smuggling charge.
Sotis was arrested Tuesday, according to a Justice Department press release.
Sotis was with Canadian filmmaker and environmentalist Rob Stewart the day he disappeared beneath the waves off Islamorada on Jan. 31, 2017, while Stewart was filming a documentary on shark conservation.
Sotis provided and trained Stewart on the rebreather equipment used during the film shoot.
Libyan connection first reported
The Miami Herald broke the story in October 2017 that the FBI and the Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement were investigating the sale by Sotis’ company of four rEVO rebreather dive units to a Libyan company.
Rebreathers are scuba equipment, but unlike conventional scuba tanks, they don’t produce bubbles, making them popular among filmmakers and other people who don’t want to draw notice to themselves underwater.
They also allow divers to stay submerged longer.
In August 2017, the Miami Herald obtained emails that were sent to Sotis’ company, Add Helium, LLC, the summer before by a Commerce special agent stating the $100,000-plus deal with the Libyans violated U.S. export law.
Add Helium’s shipping manager, Emilie Voissem, was also named in the Oct. 24 indictment on identical charges as Sotis, plus another charge of lying to federal agents.
According to the indictment, Add Helium’s bank account received a wire transfer of $40,00 on April 20, 2016, from what prosecutors call “Company 1.”
Company 1 is likely Ramas, LLC, a Patrick Springs, Virginia, company that served as the middleman between Add Helium and a man named Osama Bensadik, who has residences in Virginia and Libya, according to emails obtained by the Herald.
The number listed for Ramas has been disconnected, and an attorney representing the company could not be reached for comments.
In an October 2017 interview, Sotis told the Herald that the deal was “in excess of $100,000.” He said Add Helium, which sells dive equipment and trains people to use it, typically makes large deals, but usually people pay “in piecemeal.”
“These guys were well-funded and ready to buy everything under the sun,” Sotis said in the interview.
According to the indictment, Add Helium accepted a $50,000 payment on May 3, 2016, from a person whom the charging document identifies as “Individual 2” for the purchase of the four rebreathers “and other dive equipment.”
On June 6, 2016, Voissem, the shipping manager, emailed “Individuals 1, 2 and 3” and quoted them a price of $5,297 for airfreight to Libya, according to the indictment.
Add Helium accepted a wire transfer of $22,923 for “the cost of shipping to Libya and the balance payment for other dive equipment,” prosecutors stated.
Libya on ‘restricted list’
But, on July 27 of that year, the shipping company that Add Helium contracted to haul the gear sent an email to Voissem stating it couldn’t send it “since Libya is on restricted list.” The Obama administration issued an executive order in April 2016 expanding an arms embargo because of the ongoing violence in the country after the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi.
One of Sotis’ business partners at the time warned him that the rebreathers and other gear would likely violate the embargo, according to emails that the Herald obtained.
The next day, Voissem emailed Sotis, telling him the shipping company would not take the merchandise because of “red flags” and “concern for terrorism,” according to the indictment.
Voissem emailed “Individuals 1 and 2” on Aug. 2, 2016, saying they should pick up the equipment from Add Helium’s warehouse, rather than Add Helium arranging the shipment as originally planned.
“It may be appropriate and in the best interest of time for the shipping to go through you,” Voissem wrote, according to the indictment. “We do apologize regarding the shipping issue, however, it is out of our hands and there was no indication from our shipping company of any issues or concerns until they went to book it.”
On Aug. 4, 2016, a Commerce agent told Voissem and Sotis not to ship the items, but they continued to arrange the transaction, according to the indictment.
Sotis then “instructed his employees to cease communicating with him on email regarding the rebreather shipment to Libya,” the indictment reads.
Prosecutors say a transportation company picked the gear up from Add Helium’s warehouse on Aug. 9, 2016.
A federal agent called Sotis and Voissem on Aug. 17, 2016, asking about the equipment, and they concealed that it had already been picked up, prosecutors stated in the indictment.
According to the records obtained by the Herald in 2017, European customs officials confiscated the equipment in Aug. 2016.
In an October 2017 interview with the Herald, Sotis admitted to selling the equipment to Ramas, the Virginia company, and Bensadik, the Libyan customer. Sotis said they told him they planned to use it for shipwreck hunting in the Mediterranean Sea.
“If someone wants to pick something up from us and ship it overseas, it’s none of our business,” Sotis said. “How do I stop a shipment from a company I didn’t hire?”
Libyan businessman tied to Gaddafi’s overthrow
Bensadik, who could not be reached for comments, was a U.S. businessman of Libyan descent and served as an ambulance driver for the resistance during the 2011 Libyan civil war that overthrew Gaddafi, according to press reports.
The Daily Mail reported he, his son, Muhannad Bensadik, and another relative were in Benghazi, Libya, setting up a dollar store when the fighting broke out in 2011. Muhannad Bensadik took up arms against government forces and was killed. He was 21.
The Bensadiks’ story was part of the 2014 documentary, “We Are the Giant,” about the 2010-2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Stewart’s fateful day
Sotis, too, was part of a documentary project.
He and Stewart, the Canadian filmmaker, were in the Keys diving in early 2017. Both men emerged from a third, 225-foot dive on the Queen of Nassau shipwreck on Jan. 31, 2017.
Sotis was first on the dive boat but quickly convulsed. While the boat’s crew, Sotis’ wife, and Stewart’s friend and business partner tended to Sotis, they didn’t notice Stewart disappear into the waves.
A three-day air and sea search, which included the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, local law enforcement. fire rescue, and civilians, covered 6,000 square miles.
On Feb. 3, 2017, a camera on an unmanned remote-control submarine spotted Stewart’s body on the ocean floor, almost straight down from where he was last seen. He was 37.
Stewart’s estate filed a sprawling lawsuit a month later. It included Sotis, the dive company hired to take Stewart out to the wreck, and the company that manufactured the rebreather equipment that Stewart and Sotis used on the day Stewart disappeared.
The lawsuit is pending.