By Mark Fazlollah and John Shiffman Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Hundreds of guns seized by Upper Darby police are back in circulation, many after police supplied them to two of the region's most notorious gun shops, The Inquirer has learned.
These guns included illegal sawed-off shotguns and assault rifles. Just last month, special-education students found one of Upper Darby's confiscated guns as they collected litter near their school.
One of the dealers who sold Upper Darby's weapons is now in prison for selling guns to felons. "I don't care if you kill a cop," he told an undercover federal agent wearing a wire.
The second shop owner lost his license after authorities linked guns he sold to 19 Philadelphia homicides, including the killing of a police officer.
"This involves hundreds of guns," said retired police detective Ray Britt, one of four current and former officers who told The Inquirer that police routinely resold seized firearms.
"Lots of people knew it was happening, and some officers tried to stop it," Britt said. "But it went on for years."
Upper Darby suspended the practice in 2005, shortly after federal agents raided one gun shop and quickly traced a sawed-off shotgun to the Police Department.
"We don't need to be putting guns used in crimes back out on the street," said Township Manager Thomas Judge Jr., who said he had learned of the practice after the raid. "Guns used in crimes are now melted down."
On Friday, the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, citing new information provided by The Inquirer, referred the matter to the Pennsylvania attorney general for investigation.
Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are conducting an even broader investigation.
Under Pennsylvania law, police departments may resell seized or donated guns. In this case, ATF agents are trying to determine whether the proceeds from the guns went back to the township - or into the pockets of the officers, sources said.
An ATF spokesman declined to comment.
Upper Darby Police Chief Michael Chitwood said an ATF agent had visited him two weeks ago. He said he was cooperating.
"I have not seen anything - anything - that says that the Upper Darby Police Department illegally took guns out of here and sold them to anybody else," said Chitwood, who became chief of the 127-member force in August 2005, after all the transfers apparently had stopped.
But he added: "What happened prior to me coming here, I'm not responsible for, I wasn't involved in, I don't know."
Vincent J. Ficchi was Upper Darby's police chief for 11 years before retiring in July 2005. He did not respond to phone calls and visits to his homes in Upper Darby and Somers Point, N.J.
Sales worried some officers In interviews, several current and former Upper Darby officers said the practice had troubled them. "I tried to stop it," said one officer who asked not to be identified because he feared repercussions. He said a supervisor had told him to mind his own business.
"They beat you down. After a while, you try to justify it. You get to thinking what they're doing is OK. But I wake up at night worrying about where the guns went."
Harry T. Davis, a retired senior Upper Darby officer, called it a "a moral issue."
"It sickens me," he said of the gun selling.
Britt, the former detective, said the department had kept seized guns in haphazard fashion, many dumped in cardboard boxes on the second floor of police headquarters. Officers came and went with no controls on what they carried out, Britt said.
And Davis, an accountant by training, said the department's record-keeping was abysmal. "There's no chain of evidence in Upper Darby," he said.
Britt said gun seizures increased dramatically after 2001, when patrol officers were asked to confiscate weapons whenever there was a domestic dispute.
"The patrol officers would say, 'We're going to take your guns until you cool down,' " Britt said.
"Officers would bring armloads to the second-floor detective room," he said. "I've seen as many as 20 to 25 guns come in at a time.
The guns typically were not returned, Britt said. If owners complained, he said, they were told that they'd have to spend a lot of money hiring lawyers and getting a court order.
Upper Darby had no trouble finding outlets for guns.
One gun dealer said he had visited the department at least once a year and bought 20 or 30 firearms at a time.
"I would cherry-pick. . . . I don't take junk," said Thomas S. Milowicki, owner of the Targetmaster gun store in Chadds Ford.
Milowicki said he had written checks to the Police Department and always provided required documentation. Without explanation, Upper Darby stopped selling him guns about 2001, he said.
But records, including ATF investigative reports obtained by The Inquirer, confirm the guns continued to flow for years.
According to one ATF document, a senior Upper Darby officer, Capt. George Rhoades, said police had supplied weapons to three gun shops.
One of them was Lou's Loans on 69th Street in Upper Darby, known for more than a decade as a problematic gun dealer.
Between 1995 and 1997, the ATF traced 111 guns used in Philadelphia crimes to Lou's.
Later, ATF agents traced weapons sold there to 19 Philadelphia homicides, including the 1996 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Lauretha Vaird.
Finally, in July 2006, ATF revoked Lou's federal gun license.
Soon afterward, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence issued a report on the shop, titled "Lethal Lou's." It quoted Rhoades.
"Every time you turn around another crime is being committed with a Lou's gun," he said. "If Lou's tightened their sales even a little bit, how many people would have been saved?"
Reached this month, Rhoades declined to be interviewed.
Recycled sawed-off shotgun The events that brought the gun sales to light began Sept. 8, 2004.
That day, police responded to a report of a man threatening to kill himself - Larry Pluck, a township sanitation supervisor and part-time bounty hunter.
Pluck was found outside his home "with two shotguns strapped to his legs and a silver black handgun on his waist," the police incident report said.
Pluck was "tackled to the ground," the report said, and taken to a psychiatric facility. Officers seized assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and switchblades.
About nine months later, police took Pluck's 14 guns from the evidence locker to a gun shop.
How did this happen?
The participants tell different stories.
Chitwood, the chief, contended that because police believed that Pluck had not broken any laws, they approached Delaware County prosecutors with a plan to prevent the mentally unstable man from getting the guns back: The guns would be sold by Mac's Gun Shop in Clifton Heights and Pluck would get the money.
At the time, prosecutors agreed that made sense. Now they aren't so sure.
A spokesman for District Attorney Michael Green said Friday that prosecutors had not known that one of Pluck's guns was an illegal sawed-off shotgun until The Inquirer told them.
In a statement, prosecutors said: "Based upon information provided by The Inquirer and our review of information provided by other sources, Mr. Green believes that this shotgun should never have been returned to the stream of commerce."
Pluck told the ATF that he had never asked for his guns back, and was "shocked that the guns he had given up a year prior had not been destroyed already."
Pluck said that he had met Rhoades at Mac's, and that they had carried the 14 weapons - including two sawed-off shotguns - into the shop.
In an interview Friday, Pluck said, "I never got any money, but I didn't worry about that." What was important, he said, was that "no one got hurt."
Records show Mac's Gun Shop resold at least five of Pluck's weapons, putting them back on the street.
ATF raids Mac's Mac's might have sold more, but on July 28, 2005, ATF agents raided the store and arrested owner Michael McGinnis. Unbeknownst to Upper Darby police, McGinnis, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had been the target of an unrelated ATF probe.
As agents took dozens of weapons during the search, they questioned McGinnis. When they asked about a sawed-off shotgun, agents got a surprising answer.
"McGinnis replied that he had just gotten that from the Upper Darby Police Department a couple days ago," an ATF agent wrote in his report.
McGinnis later told the ATF about another gun he had gotten from Upper Darby police - an AR-15 assault rifle confiscated during a domestic dispute. McGinnis said he had resold the gun for $500, and had given the cash to the husband in the quarrel, an old friend.
McGinnis pleaded guilty and is serving a 41/2-year sentence for selling guns, including a fully automatic machine gun, to informants and ATF agents posing as felons.
"I don't give a f- what you do with this gun," McGinnis said during one secretly recorded conversation at the gun shop.
"I don't care if you kill a cop."
After the raid, the Police Department buzzed with talk about the guns sold to Mac's, said Davis, who became acting chief days later. He said he hadn't known about the gun sales. He called Judge, the township manager.
"I said, 'There's a problem here that's got to be dealt with,' " Davis recalled. "Judge was, like, livid."
"I was not happy," Judge said.
Judge said the township had received some money for guns, but declined to elaborate, citing the federal investigation.
Asked about the guns, Chitwood, the current chief, said he believed they had not been sold, only traded for ammunition. He said an internal report had indicated the gun transfers ended by 2002.
When told about Rhoades' statement to ATF - that police were supplying guns to dealers as late as 2005 - Chitwood said he hadn't seen that statement and could not comment.
Judge and Chitwood declined to provide any records to The Inquirer, citing the federal investigation.
Recently, though, ATF agents began collecting those financial records, a source said.
A frightening find In mid-April, a group of students from the Kanner Learning Center, a school for mentally challenged children in West Whiteland Township, were on a nature walk outside the school. As part of their walks, the students collect trash thrown from cars using nearby Boot Road and Kirkland Avenue.
Hidden in a plastic shopping bag dumped in the brush, the children found a pistol.
West Whiteland Police Chief Ralph Burton called the discovery "very scary," the kind of thing that every parent fears.
When West Whiteland police traced the gun, they learned that it had once been owned by a suicidal woman in another town. Her worried family had wanted to get it out of her hands. So they called their local police, who took it.