Anatomy of a gun trafficking case
By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There were 501 guns in all, the government says — revolvers and pistols, Glocks and Rugers, a few rifles, too, a giant cache of firearms suitable for sport or self-protection.
Five hundred one guns, tied to one man — 36-year-old Mark Nelson, a former Columbus cop who masterminded a conspiracy that flooded the streets with weapons.
Nelson insists he didn't knowingly do anything wrong. But prosecutors say he enlisted his family and others (including a drug dealer) to illegally acquire 501 guns, then directly — or indirectly — sold many of them.
And soon after — within days, in a few cases — some of these guns began turning up in the wrong hands and the wrong places:
A Raven Arms .25-caliber pistol used in a Brooklyn, N.Y., shooting. A Ruger 9 mm handgun found on a man charged with crack possession in Washington, D.C. A Smith & Wesson .40-caliber pistol recovered in Youngstown, Ohio, in a car driven by a man inexplicably wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a winter face mask — in May.
It's all part of the shadowy world of gun trafficking, where lies, stealth and cold cash make it alarmingly easy for deadly weapons to be bought and sold — and surface days, months, even years later in crimes.
This is the story of how one trafficking case unfolded and how a handful of people, bogus paperwork, the lure of a profit and the constant demand for weapons combined for a black-market scheme that could haunt investigators for decades. More than 300 guns remain missing.
"They're lost in the system," says federal prosecutor Doug Squires. "The point is we don't know where they are — and that's the real danger."
At 5:59 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2005, a young Somali man, Mohammed Dirie, was stopped as he crossed the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, N.Y., to Fort Erie, Ontario.
Duct-taped to his thigh: a 9 mm pistol.
Agents also found a second gun on his thigh and an ammunition clip and bullets in his socks. His companion had a gun tucked in his waistband.
The two were imprisoned for illegal gun possession, but that wasn't the end of it; last summer, they were among 18 people charged in an alleged terrorist bombing plot in Canada. They were also accused of importing weapons and ammunition.
The Taurus PT-111 pistol, authorities say, was traced back to Nelson's group.
Where Dirie bought the gun is a mystery.
But one fact is not: It was purchased within five days of his arrest at the border.
When a federal judge recently sentenced Nelson to the maximum 10 years in prison, he called the former officer's behavior "a great risk to the public."
In a voice choking with emotion, Nelson, told the judge he had "high respect for the law." He portrayed himself as a man misunderstood and wronged.
Nelson claimed he was trying to sell guns as a business to supplement his police disability — he wasn't working because of back problems sustained on the job. He said he was misled by a firearms dealer who continued to sell him weapons even though the man knew it was illegal.
Nelson also said the dealer — who also pleaded guilty — told him to have others sign the legal paperwork for guns that would go to him. That's known as a "straw purchase," where an intermediary poses as the buyer for someone who can't pass the background check.
Nelson, a police officer for almost eight years, couldn't buy a gun himself because he was facing a charge in a road rage incident. So he enlisted five others to claim they were the purchasers.
His wife, Phaedra, for instance, said she had bought 168 guns, his brother, Ricky, 83, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His father-in-law and two other men bought the others. All seven have pleaded guilty.
As proof he didn't believe he was doing anything wrong, Nelson had handed out business cards at gun shows and even sold to police officers, he said in a letter to the judge days before his sentencing — written, he said, against his lawyer's advice.
But federal agents paint a far more sinister picture.
They say Nelson traveled to Minnesota and Washington, D.C., to make deals and sold guns from his car trunk, hotel rooms and guns shows, where an undercover ATF informant bought 26 weapons — even though the informant told him he had a "lot of felonies" and planned to resell them to drug dealers.
"He had no regard for who the guns were going to," says Wayne Dixie, the Columbus ATF chief. "He didn't care because it was a moneymaking scheme. Maybe there was some prestige, too. He's known as the guy to go to for guns. ... 'You need a quick firearm, you can come to me. I'm your man.'"
Agents also point out that when Nelson was arrested last summer, he seemed braced for trouble: He was wearing a bulletproof vest.
So far, law enforcement has traced 51 guns.
In Silver Spring, Md., a .25-caliber pistol turned up outside a high school. Witnesses said one student pointed the gun at another student's head; the incident was believed connected to the Bloods street gang.
In Minneapolis, a 9 mm pistol was discovered under a trash can by police responding to a report that some young men were pointing guns at people.
In Columbus, a 9 mm pistol was involved in the death of a man in a domestic dispute.
In Newark, N.J., a .22-caliber Derringer ended up in a very strange spot: The Essex County jail property room. A ballistics test was negative. Inmates and staff were interviewed. Cameras were checked. Nothing.
Nelson's weapons have surfaced in six states — New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland and Ohio — as well as Washington, D.C., and the Canadian border.
Ohio has been known to funnel illegal guns to the East Coast, partly because of its proximity to big cities such as New York and Washington, where it's difficult to buy weapons.
But gun trafficking knows no geographic boundaries, says John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It's rampant. It's a national problem ... and very often it goes unrecognized," he says.
"It's also a moveable feast. Gun traffickers aren't stupid, they move on," Firman adds. "The corridors of transportation in this country are wide open. Nobody stops me at the border of Kansas and says, 'Let me look in your trunk.'"
Many Southern states — where gun laws tend to be less stringent — also have long been regarded as part of an "iron pipeline" feeding weapons to gangs and other criminals in big cities in the North.
In Alabama last year, 11 people were arrested — many in their 60s and 70s — and more 700 guns were seized or purchased in undercover operations in flea markets and a gun show. Investigators linked hundreds of guns they previously sold to crimes, including a murder-for-hire scheme in New York and the attempted murder of a Chicago police officer.
A relatively small number of people can cause enormous damage. About 1 percent of licensed dealers account for nearly 60 percent of all crime guns sold in this country, says Joe Vince, a former ATF agent who now runs a consulting firm.
Like so many businesses, trafficking is fueled by supply and demand: The more desperate the buyer, the higher the price. A drug dealer, gang member or another criminal in a city where gun laws are strict will fork over three, four, even five times the store price for an unused weapon.
"When they get a new gun from a box, they know it hasn't been used in a crime so there's no investigative trail than can trip them up," says Patrick Berarducci, a 30-year ATF veteran who recently retired to become police chief in Boardman, Ohio. "When they're buying is not the gun. What they're buying is the anonymity that goes with it."
In Newark, N.J., a 9 mm pistol was found in a car along with a dead man and about four kilos of cocaine; another was found on two teens suspected in a cocaine-related robbery.
In Brooklyn, N.Y, a .762-caliber rifle was recovered on a man carrying 75 grams of marijuana. He was identified as a member of the Bloods street gang.
In New York City, a .38-caliber revolver turned up with cocaine, marijuana and fake IDs after police stopped a car and two men tried to flee.
In Columbus, a 9 mm pistol was found along with suspected marijuana, crack, cocaine and drug paraphernalia after police approached a car that had been reported stolen and used Mace to subdue one man who tried to run away. — __
Nelson pleaded guilty to a single charge of falsifying paperwork, which states he had acquired more than 300 guns illegally. (Federal officials put the total count at 501; Nelson's lawyers claims they overcounted.)
The ATF has recovered more than 100 guns, mostly from his home or the undercover ATF informant, along with the 51 others found on the streets.
Nelson met with federal agents several times to track the missing guns, but it did no good, says Squires, the prosecutor. "He kept things from us," he says. "He minimized and evaded. He didn't know his customers. He didn't know their true identities."
For example, Squires says, Nelson didn't tell them he was robbed of his guns when he met with some prospective buyers in a hotel room outside Washington, D.C.
Nelson ordered guns from Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Florida — sometimes on the Internet — and had them shipped to a licensed firearms dealer in Ohio, Robert Cook, who was in on the deal, making $10 for each gun, according to the ATF.
Nelson wasn't trying to get rich, says Mark Collins, his lawyer. "He was not trafficking drugs making $2 or $3 million," he says. He estimates Nelson probably made less than $40,000.
Squires, the prosecutor, says that while two men who were part of the scheme did receive some guns — he doesn't know how many — Nelson's family did not.
"They knew what they were doing was wrong," he says. "But they were shocked by who the end users were and that they were the portals of crime."
Some of the crimes occurred quickly. Others took months, or more than a year.
"With guns, there is no shelf life," says Steve Horwood, a detective with the Provincial Weapons Enforcement in Ontario who traced the Canada pistol. "Other contraband — alcohol, tobacco, drugs — they're gone immediately once they get in circulation. With guns, you can keep them 20 years and kill as many people as you want."
While only 51 guns have surfaced on the streets, federal agents say more may have been used in crimes; they hear only of those traced by law enforcement. Large police departments track weapons, but many smaller ones don't have the resources.
Two young ATF agents following the gun trail say they wouldn't be surprised if weapons from this case trickle in for the rest of their careers.
Collins, the lawyer, says Nelson never intended this to happen and was "distraught and upset" when he learned where guns had surfaced.
Squires doesn't buy it. He says Nelson was a police officer, a man who took guns away from criminals, then turned around and put them in their hands.
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"He should have known better," he says, "and he DID know better."