Authorities Seize Mercedes That May Have Belonged To Saddam


NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Federal customs agents seized a Mercedes-Benz on Thursday from an Army reservist who said the armor-plated, bulletproofed luxury car likely belonged to Saddam Hussein.

First Sgt. William von Zehle said he bought the car while serving in Iraq. U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement agents said the car, which was also equipped with loudspeakers and hidden microphones, was being treated as a "possible war trophy."
It belonged to the former Iraqi regime," ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said.

He said investigators were unsure whether the former Iraqi dictator actually owned it.

Von Zehle, of Ridgefield, was quoted in news stories last summer as saying he bought the white 1988 Mercedes Benz 560 SEL for about $5,000 in 2003 while serving in Baghdad with the Danbury-based 411th Civil Affairs Battalion.

"I can't prove it, but yeah, this was Saddam Hussein's car," he said last summer.

Von Zehle said he learned through research that Mercedes sold three armored 560s to the Iraqi government in 1988, while it was headed by Saddam Hussein. Von Zehle said he also saw three photos of the former Iraqi dictator driving in a white armored Mercedes.

Von Zehle spotted the car in a driveway in an upscale neighborhood soon after he arrived in Baghdad in April 2003. The negotiated the sale with the owner, who produced a sales receipt that identified the previous owner as "the Iraqi government."

His Mercedes was shipped through Jordan and Syria to Greece to Spain before finally arriving in May 2004 in the United States. Von Zehle repaired several parts on the car and parked it in his garage once he returned from Iraq.

Among its unique features: The vehicle was equipped with a series of pipes that shoot flames out the side of the car.

A message left at von Zehle's home Friday was not immediately returned.

Federal agents were holding the car while investigating possible violations of federal smuggling laws, as well as an executive order barring the importation of property from the former Iraqi regime.

Von Zehle was not charged with a crime. Customs officials did not immediately say what will happen to the car. The case is being investigated by customs agents and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Von Zehle was among the soldiers and civilians who attempted to rescue victims of the Aug. 19, 2003 terrorist bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Twenty-two people died in the blast, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Von Zehle and another man tried to rescue de Mello from the rubble, but he died before they could get him out.