History of gun points to tracking problems

Weapon used to kill city officer had been in police hands

May 07, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The investigation into who killed Detective Troy Chesley moved quickly. Within hours of his death, police found a suspect, witnesses and the weapon used in the killing - a Sig Sauer handgun customized with a laser targeting system.

The serial number: U540876.

At a news conference held the day Chesley died, police commanders angrily complained that the suspect, Brandon Grimes, had been arrested 17 times - twice for handgun possession - yet was still on the street.

But police later learned some disturbing news: The gun used to kill Chesley in January had slipped through their hands - twice.

A Sig Sauer with serial number U540876 was one of eight weapons seized by police in a 2001 firearms investigation but returned to the owner when the case fell apart. Last year, the gun owner reported some of his weapons stolen, including that Sig Sauer, but a city police officer never followed through on her investigation and didn't obtain an arrest warrant for the prime suspect, the gun owner's son.

"It would be a stretch to say that getting that warrant would have prevented [Chesley's] death," said Col. Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the deputy police commissioner. "Brandon Grimes was bent on using guns and being involved in violence."

Still, police have gone through significant hand-wringing over what they did and didn't do with that single Sig Sauer. It illustrates gaps in the department's ability to track the source of weapons in the city, a new priority for Mayor Sheila Dixon, who announced last week that city police will resurrect a gun unit staffed with detectives who will go after individuals and gun stores that provide weapons to criminals.

The man who legally owned the gun that killed Chesley is Mustafa Alif, a milk delivery driver by trade, and police now say that about a half-dozen of the weapons that he once owned are linked to crimes in the area.

"We had a gun recovered in an armed robbery, a gun recovered in Cherry Hill," Bealefeld said. "There are some extraordinary circumstances surrounding these guns." He declined to elaborate.

City police first raided Alif's house in August 2001 after they learned that he bought ammunition in a Towson gun store despite having a handgun conviction in Washington.

Officers seized five Sig Sauer handguns, a Remington rifle, a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun and an Egyptian AK-47. They also found ammunition for other weapons and boxes for other guns, "Muslim fire arms training documents" and a "Mujaahideen Muslim Police Force security uniform," according to a police report from the raid filed in Circuit Court.

Prosecutors dropped the charges against Alif - the Washington violation was a misdemeanor and doesn't prevent him from owning guns in the state - so he asked for his guns back.

Police stalled.

"It took 19 months for me to get the guns back," Alif said in an interview with The Sun. "I talked to a friend of mine who is an ATF agent. He told me what to do. I called and I called and I called. It was almost like a daily thing. I had to stay on it."

Bealefeld said that the detective who led the raid, Anthony N. Fata, felt that the guns should not be returned.

"It was a big hassle because Fata did not want to return those guns," Bealefeld said. "Most cops that risk their lives and work to take guns from bad guys are not anxious to return them to private citizens. That is part of their DNA."

But in the summer of 2002, a commander in the Internal Affairs division, George Mitchell, ordered the detective to return the weapons. Mitchell has since retired. The department had little choice, because Alif was not convicted of any crime.

That is when problems began.

In the ensuing 4 1/2 years, two of the guns that police returned to Alif apparently wound up in the hands of Brandon Grimes, the East Baltimore man who would later be charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Detective Chesley.

It is not clear how Grimes got Alif's guns. The first gun turned up in March 2006 in East Baltimore. Anthony Robinson, a security officer with police powers who was looking for a stickup suspect who had been terrorizing a neighborhood, spotted a man putting a silver weapon on the tire of a car parked along the block, according to charging documents.

The officer arrested Grimes, who was 20 at the time, with a loaded Sig Sauer handgun.

What police didn't do is trace the weapon's serial number. Had they done that, they would have discovered what they learned only much later, after Chesley had been killed: The gun matched a weapon they had seized from Alif in 2001. At the very least, it would have put Alif back under scrutiny.

"That is why this [new] gun unit is so critical," Bealefeld said, referring to the plan Dixon unveiled last week. "Even with a 10-man unit, we can't possibly follow up on every gun seized in this city. It would be disingenuous to infer that we would."

Police kept that gun, and Grimes was released on bail.

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