Gardenia Blanding walked into the Baltimore Gunsmith shop on South Broadway one day in 1991 and bought firearms for the first time in her life.
She purchased $6,000 worth of high-powered handguns, including an Israeli Desert Eagle .44-caliber Magnum, two Beretta semiautomatics and a laser-sighted Taurus pistol.
But she didn't walk out of the store with them. She gave them to a man she had never met before. He was Nathaniel Dawson Jr. -- a felon who by law was barred from purchasing firearms. Dawson picked out the guns at the counter and gave her the cash to pay for them.
He also paid Ms. Blanding $500 for "brokering the transaction," court papers said, and the two parted ways, never to see each other again.
Dawson took the guns and went back to his world of running a murderous drug ring in East Baltimore. He soon would become one of the city's most notorious killers.
And Ms. Blanding, 39, of Northwest Baltimore went back to her world, that of a working mother who manages a jewelry counter at a local department store.
The transaction is a classic example of a growing national phenomenon known as "straw purchasing," in which felons pay people without criminal records to buy firearms. Federal agents say ordinary citizens like Ms. Blanding are becoming the arms merchants for today's violent drug trade.
"I had no intention of ever hurting anyone. That's not me," said Ms. Blanding, who contends she was fast-talked into the deal by a friend who knew Dawson. "Who that young man [Dawson] was, I didn't know."
Dawson is serving four life sentences in a federal prison now, convicted of being a drug kingpin responsible for two murders, including the Nov. 4, 1993, shooting of 10-year-old Tauris Johnson.
The boy was playing football in the street when he was killed during an East Baltimore shootout between a rival drug organization and Dawson's bodyguards, who were routinely armed with the guns bought by Ms. Blanding, court records said.
Ms. Blanding was given immunity from prosecution for her cooperation in the case against her friend, Laird Hank Davage, who in January received a suspended 18-month prison sentence for illegally purchasing firearms.
Like many straw purchasers, Ms. Blanding says she was unaware she had done anything wrong until detectives called to say the guns were turning up in murder and drug cases.
"I had gone to the shop to just buy a firearm for my own protection. Unfortunately, I was taken advantage of, and it turned into something else," said Ms. Blanding, who denies being paid money by Dawson.
The bullet that killed Tauris came from a 9 mm Glock, although it wasn't one purchased by Ms. Blanding. But among the weapons that Dawson provided his bodyguards were the Desert Eagle pistol and the laser-sighted Taurus, both purchased by Ms. Blanding, according to firearm records.
Law enforcement sources said another of the handguns purchased by Ms. Blanding may have been used in a separate murder and is being checked by ballistics experts at the National Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) laboratory in Rockville.
"This is the typical profile of a straw purchaser," said Margaret D. Moore, head of the Baltimore division of the ATF. She said as many as 25 percent of guns used in Maryland crimes are bought through straw purchases.
Many of the illegal purchasers, who in essence have sold their clean criminal record to felons looking to buy firearms, are young drug addicts and relatives of the felons. But there's always the occasional housewife or girlfriend who doesn't realize what she's getting involved in, firearms agents say.
"It's a real problem for us. I'm not trying to be sexist, but if a woman goes in to buy six high-powered semiautomatic handguns, it's a good bet she's not buying them for herself," Ms. Moore said.
Gun shops say they are in a bad position, because it's difficult to tell whether customers are buying guns for their own protection or to supply to a felon.
"Suppose that woman came in here to buy those guns for her and her five brothers as birthday presents. Sure, it's unlikely. But how do I know she wasn't?" said Larry DiMartino, a co-owner of the Baltimore Gunsmith shop.
Mr. DiMartino said the shop caters to a large clientele in a major city and thus some weapons are bound to be used in crimes. He pointed to signs posted on the counter at the shop warning customers that third-party or straw purchases are illegal.
In a six-month period in 1991, another woman, 22-year-old Sheila Kelly, spent $5,274 to buy eight powerful guns at Baltimore Gunsmith, according to court records. Among them were a Cobray Street Sweeper 12-gauge shotgun and a Calico assault pistol.
Court papers said the real purchaser of the guns was Anthony Jones, 18, later convicted of running an East Baltimore cocaine operation. Prosecutors said he used Ms. Kelly, whom they contend used drugs, to buy the guns because he was under 21, the minimum age to buy guns legally.