A former Marine Corps staff sergeant who served three combat tours in Iraq pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing $880,000 worth of military gear from the Marine Corps base in Garden City, and selling much of it on eBay, officials said.
Vincent Vulaj, 32, who now lives in the Bronx, pleaded guilty to the theft of government property at arraignment in federal District Court in Central Islip, Eastern District prosecutors said.
The stolen gear included tactical helmets, goggles, jackets, vests, sleeping bags and backpacks, officials said. No weapons or munitions were taken, according to federal prosecutor Allen Bode.
Vulaj stole the equipment between 2009 and 2013 while assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment at the Marine Corps Reserve Base in Garden City, where he is stationed, officials said.
Before admitting to the thefts, Vulaj said in court that he had been a Marine for 13 years, mainly in the infantry, specializing in mortars.
Vulaj served in Iraq from January to December 2002, March to August 2003, and May 2008 to June 2009, according to Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Tyler Balzer. Vulaj was discharged from the Marines in September 2009 and assigned to the Individual Ready Reserve, meaning he could be recalled in emergency situations, officials said.
In court, Bode said that Vulaj was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Vulaj answered all questions put to him by U.S. District Judge Sandra Feuerstein in a clear crisp voice before she accepted his plea.
But when a reporter asked him afterward about his military service, Vulaj broke down in tears and could not speak. That behavior is part of his PTSD symptoms and has been his typical reaction to questions about his military service, sources familiar with the case said.
Marine Corps officials discovered that the military gear was missing from a warehouse on the Garden City base and reported it to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, officials said.
NCIS agents noticed that some of the missing items were available for sale on eBay. The agents purchased the equipment and traced the sales back to Vulaj, officials said.
As part of the investigation, agents found Vulaj's fingerprints on the package wrappings from some of the stolen equipment, sources said. The wrappings were hidden in ceiling panels after they had apparently been removed by Vulaj to carry the equipment more easily from the base, the sources said.
On Memorial Day in May of 2009, Vulaj was interviewed by a Westchester County newspaper before a parade in New Rochelle. The paradeincluded a float from Vulaj's Garden City Marine unit that featured weapons used by his battalion, including a .50-caliber machine gun and two mortars, the article in the Journal News said.
Vullaj was asked about the weapons by children watching the parade preparations, the article said. He was quoted as saying, he enjoyed answering the questions because, "It builds a lot of support for the troops and that's what they need."Vulaj faces up to 10 years in prison, said Eastern District spokesman Robert Nardoza. But under the terms of a plea agreement, he is more likely to be sentenced to 21 to 27 months.