(NEW YORK) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted thousands to leave the Eastern European country, but if North Carolina native Craig Lang left Ukraine and returned in the United States, he could be immediately arrested by federal authorities.
Lang, a 32-year-old US Army veteran turned murder suspect who once moved to Ukraine, is one of two former soldiers charged with killing husband and wife Danny and Deana Lorenzo in the Southwest from Florida nearly four years ago.
FBI investigators say the Lorenzos, who were also military veterans, were fatally shot in April 2018 in an Estero parking lot after traveling nearly three hours to respond to an online gun advertisement.
Sheriff’s deputies found 63 bullet casings at the scene, with bullet holes riddled with the Lorenzos’ vehicle.
“She was scared. I know she must have been,” Deana Lorenzo’s sister Angie Crowder told ABC News.
Residents of this suburb of Fort Myers were mystified by the alleged ambush for more than a year until the Justice Department announced federal charges against Lang and co-defendant Alex Zwiefelhofer in connection with the Lorenzos’ deaths. .
Zwiefelhofer was taken into federal custody in Wisconsin in 2019 and pleaded not guilty.
Lang has yet to appear before a federal judge. He denied any involvement in the Florida murders and fought extradition to the United States. Those close to the Lorenzos, including Crowder, are in anguish.
“We all want answers,” Crowder said. “I would like to see him come back and press charges.”
Living in plain sight on the other side of the world
In the spring of 2021, ABC News traveled about 5,000 miles to Ukraine looking for Lang. It was discovered that he was living openly with a Ukrainian woman and child in a Kiev neighborhood.
Lang, who had previously been arrested for brandishing a gun near the home of one of his American ex-wives after she disappeared, agreed to an on-camera interview with ABC News investigative correspondent David Scott. However, Lang declined to answer questions during the Florida murders interview.
“I can’t argue…anything about Florida [or] pretty much everything about my time in the United States in 2018,” Lang said. “I can’t talk about all this.”
As the DOJ continues to seek his extradition, Lang told Scott he was seeking asylum in Ukraine.
“I believe the United States government intends to prosecute me and other veterans of this conflict here for our service in Ukraine,” he said, claiming he was a victim of propaganda Russian and American political persecution.
After being discharged by the US military, he says he first arrived in Ukraine around 2016 and joined far-right militias such as the Azov Battalion and the Right Sector. Both groups have been accused of human rights abuses by Amnesty International and have alleged links to American white power organizations.
Lang denies being a right-wing extremist.
“I will say that the number of neo-Nazis or people with extreme views is very, very minimal, very, very minimal,” he said. “Is there a bit of extremism? There could be extremism, yes.
Small militias, major role
Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, to bolster its defenses against those in its eastern regions who seek to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, Ukraine has relied on local militias, some of which have been linked to far-right political movements in the country by Amnesty. International and the Soufan Center.
Such battalions linked to Ukraine’s far-right political parties may have enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to spread the false message that “denazification” was the goal of his invasion, despite the fact that the elected Ukrainian government had the support of the United States and other Western democracies. .
Scott asked Lang about the far-right ideology believed to be behind the Azov Battalion, but Lang said he did not believe the group’s members included people with extremist views.
More than an hour into the conversation, after being pressured by racist statements allegedly made by former Azov Battalion commander Andriy Biletsky, Lang ended the interview.
“I’m going to go there and go,” Lang told Scott.
“A Threat to the Homeland”
Lang is one of many Americans who have reportedly traveled to Ukraine over the past decade to fight for far-right paramilitary groups or sought to do so.
The FBI alleged that Jarrett William Smith, an Army veteran who pleaded guilty in 2020 to federal charges of distributing information related to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction, had a “desire to fight in Ukraine” and shared his plans with Lang on Facebook.
“It was as if [Smith] wanted to use the military to get the training he needed to successfully go overseas, fighting on behalf of this white supremacist organization,” former federal prosecutor Anthony Mattivi said.
Smith is not believed to have ultimately fought in Ukraine. Asked about Smith, Lang called him an extremist and confirmed they connected on Facebook, but said he hijacked Smith from his Ukrainian unit.
“I wasn’t going to recruit people. I wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, come and join us,’ Lang said. “What was happening is that I was just a point of contact for a lot of foreigners who came to this country, and there are a lot of good people who came into the country.”
The Soufan Center warned in a 2019 report that Ukraine had already become an attractive stage for far-right extremists.
“Americans went to fight as mercenary soldiers in far-right and paramilitary units in Ukraine,” said University of Chicago assistant professor Kathleen Belew. “They pose a threat to the homeland.”
From eastern Ukraine to the east coast
Lang and Zwiefelhofer are Americans, but the FBI says the two suspected killers first met in eastern Ukraine more than five years ago while fighting for a far-right militia against Russian-backed separatists.
Federal prosecutors allege that after returning to the United States together, Lang and Zwiefelhofer hatched a plot to rob and kill the Lorenzos in 2018 “to fund their planned trip to Venezuela.”
A replacement indictment also alleged that Zwiefelhofer and Lang conspired to travel to Venezuela and commit murder, kidnapping and maiming there as part of a “military expedition and enterprise”.
Lang, who said he had never been to Venezuela, declined to say whether he saw the South American nation as a potential frontline for him.
At some point after the Lorenzos’ death, Lang found himself in Ukraine and said he had become an English instructor there, although he was wanted in Florida on federal criminal charges.
Fighters and misrepresentations
While many Americans left Ukraine before the Russian invasion, some groups have made recent efforts to encourage others to do the opposite.
In January, an international bulletin board for neo-Nazis urged American supporters to join far-right militias to help fight Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, where local civilian fighters had been groomed to help. the Ukrainian army due to the mobilization of Russian forces.
The effort came a month before Putin falsely claimed he was seeking to rid Ukraine of Nazis and suggested that the country’s far-right were in control of his government, using those lies as pretexts for war.
Ukraine’s president is Jewish and, according to Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Russia has its own extremist militias fighting alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine.
One such group was the Russian Imperial Movement, which reportedly had ties to American neo-Nazis and offered to train white nationalists at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“An important thing to understand about white power and right-wing militant groups is that they are fundamentally opportunistic,” Belew said. “When we have a major point of tension…like we’re seeing in Ukraine right now, it’s very, very likely that the actors will exploit that tension.”
“I’m just gonna have fun and cry”
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s unclear when or if Lang will end up being forcibly returned to US soil to stand trial in federal court.
Back in Florida, Crowder says she still mourns the loss of her sister and brother-in-law while hoping for justice.
“I still have my moments and sometimes I’ll just break out and cry,” Crowder said.
Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.