Crime - Sacto 911

Former deputy, alleged accomplices go on trial for weapons charges Monday

It sounded pretty good in the rumor stage.

Whispered information from “sources” about the investigation led to publicity: Cops from four major police agencies in the Sacramento region were under federal investigation, suspected of engaging in illegal arms dealing.

But when area law enforcement chiefs gathered at the U.S. attorney’s office on June 1, 2012, to unveil an indictment before a crowd of reporters and camera operators, it was like someone stuck a pin in the balloon.

The case had been boiled down to one agency, two Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies, a firearms dealer and a man who allegedly purchased a single weapon. Officers in Sacramento and Roseville were allowed to resign and walk away.

As time passed, the absence of one of the indicted deputies, Thomas Lu, began to stick out. He made no court appearances, and defense attorneys and prosecutors clammed up when reporters asked about him.

On Aug. 28, 2012, it was revealed that Lu had been cooperating with the prosecution when he showed up in court and pleaded guilty to dealing in firearms without a license for more than 31/2 years during his career as a deputy. He had cut a deal in return for leniency, hoping to avoid or minimize his time in prison.

However, Lu’s cooperation with law enforcement has not yet prompted the three remaining defendants to change their not guilty pleas.

Former Deputy Ryan McGowan, onetime licensed firearms dealer Robert Snellings Jr., and Ulysses Simpson Grant Early IV are scheduled to go on trial Monday in Sacramento federal court.

Lu is listed as a witness for the prosecution, though the 44-year-old former deputy was not called to testify earlier this year when McGowan was tried and found guilty on weapons charges in state court. He drew a 90-day jail sentence for providing a large-capacity ammunition clip to an undercover agent and possessing an illegal shotgun.

According to the government brief, Lu “was a friend and co-worker of McGowan who will testify (at the federal trial) regarding McGowan’s firearms business, as well as regarding interactions with Snellings.”

McGowan is charged with dealing in arms without a license. Along with Early and Snellings, he also is charged with conspiring at one time or another to make false statements in firearms sales records at Snellings’ shop.

McGowan, 33, of Elk Grove, is accused of purchasing handguns that cannot be bought directly from a dealer by members of the general public and selling them to civilians at a healthy markup.

He and his co-defendants are accused of conspiring to make false statements on federal regulatory forms in order to circumvent the restrictions on purchasing those handguns.

A trial brief in McGowan’s defense says he was not running a gun business for profit. It says the law defining “firearms dealer” excludes a person “who makes occasional sales, exchanges or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection.” That, the brief states, describes what McGowan was doing and exempted him from a license requirement.

It also says he did not lie on the federal paperwork. In those instances, it says, McGowan was not a “buyer” but a legitimate “transferee.”

Early contends in court papers that the laws governing firearms transactions and, specifically, who is and is not a “buyer/transferee,” are so muddled that he could have had no way of knowing what he was doing was a crime.

Early, 37, of Sacramento, is accused of buying a Strum, Ruger & Co. model LCP, .380-caliber handgun – a weapon he could not buy directly from a licensed dealer – from Roseville police Officer Tait Christopher Kjellberg in May 2010.

Snellings, 63, of Rancho Murieta, is accused of facilitating that transaction.

In an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the charges against Snellings, his lawyer maintained there was no law preventing the sale of a so-called “off roster” firearm from a sworn officer to a non-sworn private party, so long as both parties go through a licensed dealer. That applies, the motion states, even to deals at issue in which Snellings was the second purchaser.

According to court papers, Kjellberg, 43, transferred at least five such weapons “to individuals who could not otherwise legally purchase” them. He resigned from the Roseville department but was not charged.

The government trial brief says Kjellberg will testify that “he entered into a conspiracy with Snellings and Early to make a straw purchase for Early.”

Another witness for the government, according to its brief, will be former Sacramento police Officer Christopher Lenert. Court papers show that Lenert engaged in two transactions similar to the one involving Kjellberg and Early while he was an officer. He also was allowed to resign and was not charged.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said at the time the indictment was made public that Kjellberg and Lenert 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.”