Bootleg gun trade under attack

May 12, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

Federal agents and police yesterday responded to the public's growing fear of violent crime with a new mode of attack -- trying to intercept guns before they fall into the hands of criminals.

More than 30 people have been charged in the culmination of an 18-month investigation aimed at "straw" gun purchasers -- people who buy guns and turn them over to criminals or those who otherwise would not qualify to purchase a weapon. They were charged with violating state and federal weapons law.

Such buyers have become an important pipeline in the surge of guns to the streets, Margaret Moore, head of the Baltimore office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said yesterday. A straw purchaser helps shield the gun's true owner from police.

About 3,400 guns were seized in crimes in Baltimore in a year; Ms. Moore estimated that 25 percent were bought by straw purchasers.

"A lot of times, people making a straw purchase think it's probably no big deal," said Katharine Armentrout, who heads the violent crime group of the U.S. attorney's office. "The importance of these arrests is that we're sending a message that it is a big deal."

The investigation, spearheaded by the ATF, marks a departure for authorities, who acknowledged that they have paid little attention to straw purchasers. But with violent crime now heading their priority lists, the campaign dubbed "Project Intercept" will continue and expand to other areas, officials said yesterday.

"This is a manifestation of where we're going," said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia.

Others cooperating in the campaign are: U.S. attorney's office, Baltimore police, Prince George's County police and the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

Ms. Moore and other law enforcement officials announced the charges at Baltimore police headquarters as they stood before more than 100 seized guns, ranging from a two-shot derringer pistol to a .44-caliber Desert Eagle semiautomatic handgun. Also on display were 18 assault guns of types that the U.S. Senate and House recently voted to ban.

A total of 208 guns were seized in the investigation, none of them known to be linked to crimes. All of the weapons were seized within a couple of days of being purchased, Ms. Moore said.

Federal charges against 28 alleged offenders were unsealed late Tuesday. Another seven people have been charged with state weapons violations. All were accused of passing on or receiving the weapons.

Most of those charged were from Baltimore; 10 residents of Prince George's County also were indicted.

Among those charged was 23-year-old Yolanda Burden, who walked into an Essex gun shop on Jan. 13 and put down $1,700 cash for seven guns -- two Glock 9 mm semiautomatic pistols, and five .380 caliberpistols. There was nothing illegal about the purchase on its face, but it raised the suspicion of ATF Special Agent Richard Young, who showed up at Ms. Burden's house on Jefferson Street the next day to ask about it.

Ms. Burden told him she was starting a gun collection, but she couldn't produce any of the guns. According to court records, the weapons already had been turned over to her brother, Tyrone Rawls, and were soon seized by agents.

Agents who arrested Mr. Rawls yesterday at his home in the Woodlawn section of Baltimore County reported that they also seized 603 vials of heroin and $5,000 in cash. He and his sister have been charged with making false statements in the purchase of a firearm; drug charges will be filed against Mr. Rawls, prosecutors said.

According to court records, a Columbia man convicted two years ago of conspiracy to distribute cocaine also was helped by a straw purchase.

His sister, Sabreena Clemons, at first told agents that she had purchased the two Glock 9 mm pistols for her own protection. Later, she acknowledged buying the guns for her brother, Richard, and one of his friends.

Mr. Clemons, who is prohibited from owning a gun because of his drug conviction, denied that he owned the weapons. But investigators found his fingerprints on the gun boxes, according to an affidavit.

Ms. Moore said she also will step up inspections of area gun dealers to more carefully monitor their records. In an earlier phase of the investigation, two Maryland gun dealers were hit with federal charges for illegal gun sales.

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