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U.S. charges 3 in alleged murder-for-hire plot to kill Iranian defector in Maryland

The U.S. Department of Justice seal is seen on a lectern.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Justice seal is seen on a lectern.

The U.S. Justice Department announced charges Monday against an Iranian national and two Canadians, including a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, for allegedly plotting to assassinate an Iranian defector living in Maryland.

The indictment unsealed in federal court in Minnesota is at least the third Iran-based murder-for-hire plot prosecuted by the Justice Department since 2022. The targets in the previous cases were former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton and a New York-based Iranian-American journalist.

Prosecutors say the latest alleged plot was orchestrated by an Iranian national, Naji Sharifi Zindashti, but the indictment does not accuse the Iranian government of directing the scheme.

However, the U.S. Treasury Department on Monday announced sanctions against Zindashti, and described him as a drug trafficker who leads a network that targets Iranian dissidents for assassination and kidnapping at the behest of the Iranian government.

According to the indictment, Zindashti worked with an unnamed co-conspirator also based in Iran to plot the murder of two people living in Maryland. Court papers do not identify either intended victim, but they say that one of the individuals had previously defected from Iran.

In January 2021, the indictment says, Zindashti used an end-to-end encrypted communication service called SkyECC to contact Damion Ryan, a Canadian member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, to discuss a job in the U.S.

Ryan began to assemble a "team of gunmen" to travel to Maryland to murder the two individuals. Court papers say Ryan reached out to Adam Pearson, a Canadian who was living illegally in Minnesota under a fake name.

According to the indictment, Ryan told Pearson that he needed two or three people, including a driver, and the two men texted on SkyECC about shooting the victims in the head.

Pearson allegedly told Ryan that he would "make sure I hit this guy in the head with ATLEAST half the clip," and that he'd tell his contacts "we gotta erase his head from his torso."

Meanwhile, Zindashti and Ryan finalized the financial side of the alleged plot, agreeing on a payment of $350,000 plus $20,000 for travel expense, according to prosecutors. Ryan later told the unnamed co-conspirator that "we have a 4 man team ready," the indictment says.

The co-conspirator then provided photographs of a man and woman—the two intended targets—as well as two maps with the known Maryland address for the victims.

In March 2021, the co-conspirator facilitated a $20,000 payment to Ryan for travel expenses, the indictment says.

It does not explain how the plot ultimately was foiled.

Zindashti, Ryan and Peason each faces one count of conspiracy to use interstate commerce in the commission of murder-for-hire. Pearson also faces two firearms charges.

The Justice Department says Zindashti is believed to be in Iran. Ryan and Pearson are both currently incarcerated in Canada on unrelated offenses, according to the department.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.