Led by federal firearms agents, law enforcement hit the Sacramento area’s black market in guns squarely in the solar plexus Thursday.
Eight men were charged in a 70-count grand jury indictment with making firearms and selling them on the streets and out of car trunks. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives licenses and regulates people who make and sell guns, but these eight defendants didn’t bother with licenses.
Acting on information that “came from the street,” the gun gang’s best customer between February and October turned out to be an undercover ATF agent. At two dozen meetings throughout the greater Sacramento area with gang members, the agent shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for 105 illicit weapons, most of them homemade. The cache included silencers, which are classified as federally regulated firearms.
Under federal law, a person may manufacture a firearm only for personal use and not to be sold or transferred to someone else.
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“Firearms trafficking, such as that alleged in this indictment, is one of the primary sources of guns found in the hands of drug dealers and street-gang members,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner at a Thursday news conference unveiling the charges. “The people who buy these weapons typically cannot legally possess them or don’t want the transactions traceable.”
The undercover agent bought so many guns that the gang had to hurriedly ramp up production to meet the demand. He purchased 67 guns and 38 silencers. Additionally, 71 guns and 62 silencers were seized at the arrests and execution of a number of search warrants last week.
Graham Barlow, ATF special agent in charge of the agency’s Sacramento office, told reporters, “It’s not uncommon for people selling firearms outside the normal channels to jack the price up above the legitimate market.” He said the agent paid about $1,000 a weapon more than if acquired from a licensed dealer.
“Think about where those guns would be now if the buyer had not been an agent,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge Jill Snyder at the news conference she hosted with Wagner and other top law enforcement officials from the Sacramento region. “The streets of Northern California are safer today,” said Snyder, who heads the Dublin-based ATF field division, which includes the Sacramento area.
As he picked up and handled some of the firearms and parts that were among a sobering display spread on a table, Wagner said: “These are some of the most lethal weapons criminals can get their hands on. Manufacturing and selling them for profit, without complying with federal licensing rules, is both a serious crime and a serious threat to public safety.”
Most of the weapons bought by the agent are semi-automatic rifles manufactured by the gang using parts that are legally available from suppliers and unregulated by ATF, Wagner said. Consequently, he said, they have no serial numbers, left no paper trail, and California law requiring waiting time and background checks was ignored.
To make the weapons, Wagner said, those engaged in such crimes use “computer-guided machine tools and follow the directions.” A rudimentary “knowledge of firearms and tools” is sufficient, he said.
Key components were unfinished lower receivers, commonly known as “80 percenters” or “ghost guns,” where “the critical firing mechanism is located,” Wagner said. Those have to be converted to complete lower receivers, which are classified as firearms and are regulated by ATF. People in the business of milling out or machining “blank” lower receivers must be licensed.
Included in the agent’s haul are AR-15-type rifles, some with illegal short barrels, and revolvers and pistols.
Named in the indictment as defendants are Joseph Latu, 29, of Elk Grove; Algernon Tamasoa, 27, of Sacramento; John Ortiz, 43, and Keith White, 40, both of Vallejo; Charles Tucker, 29, of Stockton; Ionel Pascan, 28, of Riverbank; and brothers Daniel Bennett, 39, and David Bennett, 27, both of Stockton.
According to court documents, many of the firearms sold to the agent were made by Tucker, Pascan and the Bennetts. At the time, David Bennett was employed by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office and was training to be a correctional officer for the department.
San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore, who was at the news conference, said Bennett had been employed less than a year and was still a probationary employee when his alleged role in the gun gang was revealed, and he is no longer with the department.
Other officials whose agencies were part of the investigation and who were at the news conference are Woodland Police Chief Dan Bellini, West Sacramento Police Chief Tom McDonald, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christiaan Highsmith, who is the lead prosecutor in the case.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189