BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The federal agents tailing a Mazda van and its load of illegal guns lost their quarry when a train rumbled between them, cutting them off. When it had passed by, on that fall day in 1993, there was just the empty Alabama blacktop on the other side of the tracks, stretching into a mystery.
The five men in that van, firearms traffickers from Brooklyn, N.Y., almost got away with 26 new guns, including four MAC 10 machine pistols. The guns, all illegally purchased from a licensed Birmingham gun dealer, almost made it to the sidewalks of New York.
But almost everyone, sooner or later, gets hung up on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Alerted to a description of the van and to its license plate number, a New Jersey state trooper stopped the gun traffickers at a bottleneck. It was a small victory for federal agents who try to dam the flow of guns bought over the counter in states with loose gun-control laws, then resold to criminals. But the guns continued to flow.
This week, federal agents believe, they tapped that constant, steady flow of guns -- including those from the 1993 Birmingham purchase -- at a significant source.
A brother and sister, once partners in two Birmingham gun shops, were taken into custody this week on charges that they illegally sold more than 2,000 guns, about half of them used in violent crimes across the country, including 322 in the New York metropolitan area.
They are the final two co-conspirators and the major players in a gun-running operation that spread firearms illegally into New York and 10 other states, say federal agents who worked the case.
The charges cap an investigation that began in 1993 with cases like that of the seizure on the New Jersey Turnpike. It is a whisper of good news for federal agents who have seen the South become a sort of shopping mall for criminals, and provides rare glimpse of how even properly licensed gun dealers can manipulate the system to put guns into the hands of criminals.
"Less than 1 percent of all licensed gun dealers are involved in something like this," said James M. Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Birmingham office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "But one bad gun dealer is like a bad police officer. They can cause a lot of pain. That's because society gives them such responsibility."
A nine-count indictment unsealed this week in Birmingham charges William O. Dollar, 49, and his sister, Connie Jean Dollar, 29, with falsifying federal forms and gun sales records and knowingly supplying handguns to firearms traffickers.
It charges that the Dollars concealed the identities of the real buyers by using the names of friends, acquaintances and strangers on the paperwork at their gun shops, Traders and Traders Two.
The fake buyers, called "straw buyers," came to the shops with a shopping list, federal agents said, and sometimes even brought the real buyers along, to point out what they wanted.
The straw buyers signed the federally required forms, then passed the guns on to people who cannot legally buy them because of criminal records or stringent gun ownership laws in ++ their own states.
The Dollars made it possible for them to get a gun "without fear of being caught," said Caryl P. Privett, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
The investigation has already resulted in guilty pleas from 15 people who illegally bought or sold the guns, federal agents said.
By manipulating the paperwork, the federally licensed gun dealers became a "floodgate for the illegal distribution of firearms," Cavanaugh said.
The guns from the Birmingham shop made their way to Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, according to the indictment.
Of the 2,135 guns illegally sold from 1990 to 1994, 901 were traced by federal agents and other law-enforcement officials to violent crimes, including those in the New York area, Cavanaugh said.
The special agent would not comment on specific crimes that were committed by criminals using guns from the Birmingham shop. But there is no doubting the misery they caused, he said.
ATF agents in and outside Alabama said that they ran traces on violent crimes, and that the serial numbers from the guns in evidence led again and again to the two shops owned by the Dollars in Birmingham.
Alabama, long ranked among the top states that are sources of guns, makes it easy for most people to get one.
Here, anyone who has not been convicted in a violent crime and holds a valid driver's license can buy a handgun after a five-day waiting period. County sheriffs' offices conduct a background check, but such checks are usually generous. In New York, for example, the state authorities decide whether the purchaser has a legitimate need for a gun.
Federal agents have long said that this disparity in requirements for buying a gun will only increase the interstate trafficking of guns.
Pub Date: 5/10/97