The Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Six months after its creation, a police task force targeting gun trafficking in northern Indiana has dented the number of weapons on the street and helped solve several violent crimes.
Project Disarm, a joint law enforcement effort set up under a U.S. Justice Department program in April, seeks to take dangerous criminals and gang members off the streets by prosecuting them under federal gun laws.
Since April, prosecutors have charged 31 people from St. Joseph and Elkhart counties in federal court.
In September alone, 13 of 15 indictments returned by a federal grand jury in South Bend involved firearms. Six named defendants involved in an alleged "straw purchase" group with links to drug dealing and a shooting in Elkhart.
The task force also has gathered information helpful to solving three homicides and led to the capture of a fugitive wanted on a murder charge in Chicago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Schmid said.
Agents also have made inroads into the gun-trafficking activities of a half-dozen gangs, he said.
"We believe we've had an impact on reducing violence already," he said.
Authorities can more efficiently prosecute suspects for possessing or using firearms than for their pattern of criminal activities or their violent crimes, he said.
Senior Special Agent David Allbritten of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives coordinates Project Disarm.
In the Elkhart "straw purchase" case, two women and a man are accused of making false statements on firearm transaction forms to buy weapons for three other men, who could not lawfully possess them. Each of the defendants faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
In a detention hearing for one of the defendants, Frederick Williams, Allbritten testified Williams admitted paying $100 to co-defendant Mamie Army to obtain a gun she had purchased.
The task force also discovered the whereabouts of a man wanted in connection with a Chicago slaying and uncovered evidence of crack cocaine deals and a February shooting in which Williams' brother was wounded, Allbritten said.
The stiffer sentences under federal firearms laws, compared to those under state law, came into play in the case of two South Bend men, Luis Melendez and Victor Delgado.
Melendez, 21, and Delgado, 19, were charged in federal court with illegal possession of a sawed-off shotgun. They had been charged in state court for an assault in which the shotgun was shown and used. The assault was over a $400 drug debt, Melendez has admitted.
Although the state case produced a misdemeanor conviction and probation, the federal case against Melendez carries a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison. Both defendants have been ordered held in custody pending trial.