Ex-US soldier extradited from Ukraine for murder

A foreign volunteer fighter who is not Craig Austin Lang holds a gun in Donetsk in 2015
Foreign volunteer fighters have played a controversial, albeit crucial, role in Ukraine's resistance against Russia [Getty Images]

A US Army veteran turned foreign volunteer fighter has lost his bid to avoid extradition from Ukraine on murder and robbery charges.

Craig Austin Lang, 34, will appear in a Florida court on Monday in connection with a 2018 double homicide and armed robbery.

Mr Lang is said to have killed Serafin and Deana Lorenzo, and stolen from them to fund a new escapade in Venezuela.

Earlier this year, a federal jury found his alleged accomplice guilty on all of the charges Mr Lang now faces.

Mr Lang's extradition is the culmination of a decade-long globe-trot that saw him desert the army and join volunteer paramilitary forces against Russian separatists in Ukraine and al-Shabab terrorists in East Africa.

He has lived and fought in Ukraine on and off since 2015, and has been under the threat of extradition for at least the past five years.

According to a US justice department statement, he "went on an international crime spree" and evaded the government "by trading guns, a grenade, and cash... to apply for a US passport under an assumed name".

“Lang’s alleged conduct is shocking in its scope and its callous disregard for human life," Nicole Argentieri, head of the criminal division, said.

The Arizona native served as an infantryman for the US Army from 2008 to 2014 before - according to his father - developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from overseas tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2013, he deserted his posting at Fort Bliss, Texas and drove non-stop for nearly 2,000 miles (3,218km) with all his military equipment in an alleged attempt to kill his wife amid the couple's divorce proceedings.

He was jailed for several weeks and later dishonourably discharged. His ex-wife subsequently won a restraining order and sole custody of their child.

After struggling to find work and taking on debt, Mr Lang fled to eastern Ukraine, where he joined the Right Sector volunteer militia in their fight to wrest control of the Russian-controlled Donetsk region.

Soldiers of the Right Sector are believed to hold overtly far-right nationalist ideologies but have fought alongside Ukraine's armed forces in the ongoing war against Russia.

In a 2021 interview with Buzzfeed News, Mr Lang said he joined the group "because I thought they were the most active on the front line". Fighters who knew him, however, told the outlet he held extremist political views and routinely displayed troubling conduct.

The US government alleges that Mr Lang met Alex Jared Zwiefelhofer, a fellow army deserter who had joined the Right Sector, and that they together concocted a plan to fight the jihadists of al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Africa.

But they were arrested at the border between Kenya and South Sudan for trying to cross without proper documents. Both were deported back to the US after spending two months in a Nairobi jail.

By 2018, authorities say they had hatched a new plan - to fight alongside the rebels seeking the overthrow of Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

They met that April in Florida, where they allegedly developed a scheme to steal money for their journey.

A fake classified advertisement offering a trove of firearms for $3,000 (£2,343) attracted the attention of Serafin and Deana Lorenzo, from Brooksville, authorities say.

The couple, both military veterans themselves, had previously exchanged guns for profit and promised cash on hand when the deal was made.

Authorities said Mr Lang and Zwiefelhofer allegedly ambushed the Lorenzos and stole their money at a meeting point in a car park in the village of Estero on 10 April 2018.

Neither man travelled to Venezuela. Federal authorities arrested Zwiefelhofer a month later.

In March this year, a federal jury convicted 27-year-old Zwiefelhofer, a Wisconsin native, on robbery, conspiracy and weapons charges. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison, while also facing separate charges for possession of child sexual abuse material.

Mr Lang fled to Kyiv, where he married a local woman and had two children.

Since 2019, he has staved off efforts to extradite him back to the US in relation to the murder.

In past interviews with ABC News and Buzzfeed News, he has claimed the US is persecuting him over alleged human rights abuse and war crimes from his volunteer service in Ukraine.

Last November, the European Court of Human Rights cleared the way for Mr Lang's deportation after American officials agreed not to seek the death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But he may still face life in prison over the charges in the Middle District of Florida.

Monday's court appearance could be one of many for Mr Lang. He also faces charges in North Carolina for passport fraud and identity theft, and in Arizona for passport misuse.