With the grim-faced leadership of Sacramento's law enforcement community looking on, federal officials described an elaborate scheme Friday that they say involved police and deputies illegally buying and selling dozens of high-powered pistols to make thousands of dollars in profit.
The case, which dates back to the summer of 2011, has ensnared at least four area law enforcement officers, including two Sacramento County sheriff's deputies charged in federal court Friday.
A Sacramento police officer and a Roseville officer also were implicated, but they resigned their positions and were not charged.
Two other men were charged a federally licensed firearms dealer and a Sacramento resident who allegedly bought one gun illegally.
If convicted, the defendants could face prison time and heavy fines on each felony count.
The wide-ranging investigation included undercover agents, covert purchases of guns and, ultimately, a violent six-hour standoff with a SWAT team by a suspect who allegedly purchased two of the guns and later converted them to assault weapons.
"It's disheartening, it's disappointing and it's frustrating on a number of fronts," Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said of allegations that law enforcement officers used their positions to purchase weapons and then sell them to individuals who had no legal right to possess them.
Deputies Ryan McGowan, 31, and Thomas Lu, 42, both face a federal charge of dealing firearms without a license. McGowan also faces a federal conspiracy charge, as well as charges in Sacramento Superior Court that he sold large-capacity ammunition magazines and was in possession of assault weapons and steroids, an apparent offshoot of his bodybuilding habit.
Both were suspended with pay last fall; Lu resigned three weeks ago, while McGowan is fighting to keep his job.
Investigators said the motive was ancient: money.
The officers were "making tens of thousands of dollars on these transactions between 2008 and 2011," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, said as Jones, Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn and District Attorney Jan Scully looked on.
Officials also said that, despite what they see as a breach of the public trust, they do not believe a wholesale change is needed to departmental policies that allow officers to purchase weapons, especially assault weapons, that some deputies prefer to purchase on their own for use at work.
"At the end of the day, my officers need to have (the ability to buy assault weapons)," Jones said. "It would do more harm than good to take this tool away from them."
The sheriff added that he wanted to avoid a "visceral, emotional" reaction to the case.
McGowan made a brief appearance in federal court Friday and pleaded not guilty through his attorney, William Portanova. He was ordered released on a $50,000 unsecured bond.
Portanova said outside court that the deputy, who worked with Lu at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, was simply a "hobbyist" caught up in a maze of confusing gun laws and that he lost money on the transactions.
"He was a young officer who wanted to make a career of law enforcement, and a gun enthusiast who took his advice from the Internet," Portanova said. "In 2012, if you want to be a gun hobbyist and not step over the line, you almost have to have a lawyer with you at all times."
Court papers unsealed Friday describe an entirely different scenario, with McGowan and Lu using their positions to purchase dozens of weapons the public cannot possess, then selling them, and Lu engaging in extensive firearms sales without a federal license.
A search warrant affidavit alleges that McGowan bought 41 handguns since 2008 and transferred ownership of 25 of them to someone else, including five he got rid of within four weeks of buying them.
The affidavit alleges that McGowan used a social media website devoted to gun enthusiasts to make some sales, using the screen name "SacDep" and listing his employer as the "Sacramento Department of Human Waste." The document alleges he sold three firearms to undercover agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Lu allegedly bought 34 handguns since 2008, 25 of which are available only to law enforcement, and he eventually transferred ownership of 23 to someone else. The affidavit alleges that Lu used the gun enthusiast website and sold nine weapons to undercover ATF agents.
Robert Snellings, 61, a federally licensed firearms dealer, was central to the scheme, prosecutors contend.
The Rancho Murieta man ran Snellings' Firearms and used the business to help the deputies buy and sell weapons, prosecutors allege.
Snellings, who faces five conspiracy counts in federal court, allegedly bought weapons for the deputies, repurchased them and transferred ownership to private citizens.
State law allows law enforcement officials to purchase certain weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines. But the law requires officers making such purchases to sign a form stating that they are to be the ultimate owner of the weapon.
Federal prosecutors say McGowan and Lu were essentially operating a firearms business without a license and that the scheme had the potential for disaster.
In one case, authorities contend, McGowan sold two weapons to an individual who later converted them to assault weapons and held officers at bay in Daly City for six hours when they responded to a "shots fired" call.
Authorities say one of the weapons McGowan sold wound up in the hands of Greg Jones, who was convicted in Yolo County of felony marijuana possession and is being sought on a new state warrant.
Another defendant, 36-year-old Ulysses Simpson Grant Early IV of Sacramento, faces a conspiracy count for allegedly purchasing one of the weapons involved in the scheme. He was the only other defendant to appear in court Friday, and his attorney, Donald Kilmer, entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. Early was ordered released on an unsecured $25,000 bond.
Two other men, Roseville Police Officer Christopher Kjellberg and Sacramento Police Officer Christopher Lenert, are named in the search warrant affidavit as "primary subjects of investigation." The document states that each transferred weapons to "individuals who could not otherwise legally purchase the firearms."
Both men resigned last year, after word of the probe reached their respective departments, but neither was charged.
Wagner, the U.S. attorney, said both broke some of the same laws as the deputies who were charged. But, he added, "They were involved in limited transactions and did not personally profit."