ATF Supervisor’s Questionable Gun Purchases Appear to Be Business As Usual
Two guns of interest were found in late November of last year near the scene of a gun battle in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The battle, waged between the Mexican military and alleged drug traffickers, left five people dead, including a Mexican solider and a beauty queen named Maria Susana Flores Gamez.
One of those guns can be traced back to a Phoenix gun store that sold multiple weapons to local, state and federal law enforcers who allegedly provided inaccurate information on firearms-transaction reports filed as part of those purchases, Narco News has learned. The ultimate fate of those guns is not known but the potential fallout for multiple law enforcers in the Phoenix area could be serious, possibly even criminal, should the matter be investigated thoroughly — though it is that potential alone that may assure no law enforcer or prosecutor is going to take on the task.
The victims in the Sinaloa shootout last November were five of the estimated 120,000 Mexicans killed since late 2006 in that country’s bloody drug war. The two guns that made headlines in the wake of that shootout were among the 2,000 or so weapons that US law enforcers, specifically the ATF, allowed smugglers to purchase in Arizona and transport into Mexico, unimpeded, as part of the now-infamous Operation Fast and Furious.
The supposed goal of Fast and Furious was to let the guns flow across the border, resulting in countless homicides in Mexico, so that ATF brass and US prosecutors could identify and indict the big fish in the arms smuggling rings — thereby grabbing big headlines and advancing their careers.
The lead prosecutor for Operation Fast and Furious was an Assistant U.S. Attorney out of Phoenix named Emory Hurley. The ATF supervisor who served as the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Fast and Furious from October 2009 until April 2010 was George Gillett Jr. Both individuals are still employed by the Department of Justice — though both have since been transferred new assignments.
One of the prime targets of the Fast and Furious investigation was an individual named Uriel Patino, a prolific arms smuggler who liked to deal in AK-47-style assault rifles and semi-automatic FN Hertsal 5.7 caliber pistols —known as cop killers in Mexico because of their knack for firing rounds that can penetrate bullet-proof vests.
Given these facts, it was more than a little disconcerting to a U.S. senator who has been investigating Fast and Furious when he discovered that one of the guns found near the scene of the recent Sinaloa gun battle was previously owned by ATF supervisor Gillett — while yet another gun found at the same crime scene, an AK-47, traced back to the arms smuggler Patino. What are the odds of that?
And it also appears that Gillett purchased the gun found at the Sinaloa crime scene — a FN Hertsal 5.7 — from a Phoenix retailer called Legendary Guns, according to media reports and other sources. In fact, records released by the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, show Gillett not only purchased the FN Hertsal but also four other handguns between Dec. 15, 2009, and Jan. 7, 2010 — all while he was still helping to oversee Operation Fast and Furious, which was targeting Patino, among others.
To make matters worse, according to Grassley, as he outlines in a letter sent last month to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, ATF supervisor Gillett allegedly was less than truthful in filling out the required firearms-transactions forms for the purchase of those five weapons — including the FN Hertsal later found in Mexico at a crime scene.
The federal form, known as a 4473, called for Gillett to use his residential address. Instead, he wrote in the address of the Phoenix ATF field office, 201 E. Washington (adding Apt. 940) for two of the arms transactions — which involved the purchase of three handguns, including the FN Hertsal. For the third transaction, involving two more handguns, Gillett used the address of a Phoenix strip shopping center, 7000 N. 16th St.
In his letter to the DOJ Inspector General, Grassley wrote:
Specifically, documentation appears to indicate that during Operation Fast and Furious, Mr. Gillett made multiple firearm purchases at a Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL) in Phoenix. According to the forms, Mr. Gillett appears to have purchased weapons on December 15, 2009, January 5, 2010, and January 7, 2010. Documents show the residence listed on the Firearms Transaction Record (Form 4473) for two of the gun purchases was the local Phoenix ATF office. For the third purchase, Gillett listed a commercial shopping center in Phoenix as his residence. Clearly, the addresses on the forms do not accurately and truthfully reflect Gillett’s actual residence in Phoenix.
Lying on a Form 4473 is a felony and can be punished by up to five years in prison, in addition to fines. Many individuals who were arrested in Fast and Furious were charged for lying on the Form 4473. Jaime Avila, Jr. recently plead guilty to a variety of charges, including making false statements in connection with the acquisition of a firearm, and his initial arrest just after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder [in December 2010] was for giving a false address on Form 4473.
One of the most troubling aspects of this new information is that one of the weapons listed as having been purchased by Gillett was recently recovered in Sinaloa, Mexico, the same weekend and in the same area as a shootout between the Mexican military and drug cartel members in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Narco News contacted Gillett’s attorney, Peter Noone, but he declined to discuss his client’s case or the gun purchase. “We can’t comment on it at this time,” he said.
Gillett did speak previously with another media outlet about the gun found in Mexico and linked back to him. Gillette claimed he sold the FN Hertsal over the Internet sometime in 2011 in what he described as a legal transaction in which he went to great lengths to verify the integrity of the buyer, CBS News reported.
But missing so far from this whole sordid tale is the viewpoint of the gun store where Gillett reportedly purchased the “cop-killer” FN Hertsal pistol. Dave LaRue, co-owner of Legendary Guns in Phoenix, was willing to talk with Narco News at length to address that perspective, and his revelations set up yet another twist in this story.
LaRue says he does not recall the specific transaction with Gillett involving the FN Hertsal later found in Mexico, but he concedes he has sold a number of guns to Gillett in the past.
“George [Gillett] liked the old stuff [weapons] from the 1950s and 1960s,” LaRue said. “I would recognize him if he walked in the door.”
LaRue also said he has known Hurley —the lead prosecutor for Fast and Furious — for years and considers him a friend and an historical expert on vintage guns. He said Hurley was into air guns and classic knives, adding, however, that he does not recall ever selling a firearm to him.
LaRue says he can’t explain why Gillett would have used two different addresses, neither of which is his home address as required, on the firearms transaction reports released by Grassley’s office.
However, LaRue added, surprisingly, that it was not unusual for law enforcers who purchased guns at his store to use their agency’s address, as opposed to a residential address, on the transaction document [the Form 4473] — just as Gillette had done in two of his firearms transactions, an act Sen. Grassley is now describing as potentially criminal.
“In the past, if they were a known party, most often it was a narcotics agent, they would use their agency’s office as the address,” LaRue said. “But that address was on their identification, which we have to check. … It was not unusual to sell one or two [guns] a month to law enforcement officers”
LaRue stressed that most of the law enforcers purchasing weapons from his store over the years were generally “higher-ups,” supervisors like Gillett, and he assumed they used their agency address on the forms because they were either involved in undercover activities or didn’t want to use their real home address for security reasons — though he also said it wouldn’t’ surprise him if some of the weapons were purchased for personal use or even resold at times, as happened in Gillette’s case.
Most of the law enforcers purchasing guns at Legendary, LaRue added, were local and state officers, with federal agents like Gillett being the exception.
LaRue said since he became aware of the controversy over the Gillette case, he and his staff are being extra careful in dealing with transactions involving law enforcers and doing their best to assure that the address used on the firearms transaction paperwork is a residential address.
LaRue added that, to date, he has not been contacted by any law enforcement agency concerning Gillett’s gun transactions.
Law enforcers who spoke with Narco News about the Gillett case raised some serious concerns based on the known facts to date. In particular, they found dubious any justification for Gillett or other law enforcers using ATF’s or any other agency’s address on a firearms transaction report; any contention that Gillett or other officers doing so may have been acquiring the guns for undercover work; and Gillett’s own claim that he sold the suspect FN Hertsal over the Internet to an unnamed buyer prior to the gun surfacing at a crime scene in Mexico.
One law enforcer, who has extensive experience on the local and state level, put it this way:
…There is no way any LEO [law enforcement officer] with an ounce of sense would knowingly sell a weapon over the Internet [because of the danger of it winding up in the wrong hands].
… [In addition] for any undercover to use an agency address, they would first be morons … as you are not even supposed to get personal non-duty-related mail at an agency address.
If these guys actually did this, it would show the address in any other transfer of the firearm, telling John Q Public that they were undercover.
In fact, an advisory issued by ATF itself in 2010 states that before any dealer sells a firearm to a law enforcer for “official duty” purposes, that law enforcer must first present “a certification letter on official agency letterhead signed by a person in authority within the agency (other than the person purchasing the firearm) stating that the officer will use the firearm in official duties and that a records check reveals that the purchasing officer has not been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence….
“[If these conditions are met] there are no restrictions as to the purchasing officer’s State of residence or agency location. You are not required to prepare a Form 4473 for the transaction or to conduct a NICS Check [National Instant Criminal Background Check System].…”
Given that Gillett did complete a Form 4473, according to Grassley, it would seem reasonable to assume he did not have a “certification letter” from his agency authorizing him to purchase the weapons for “official duty.”
Another ATF memo issued to “all federal firearms licensees” in August 2011, makes clear that the identification used by any would-be gun purchaser “must be of a type commonly accepted for the purpose of identification, meaning that the document must include a photograph of the individual, date of birth, and residence address.” [Emphasis added.]
That memo states further:
FFLs [such as gun stores] are encouraged to take the following steps:
1. Ask the purchaser if the address indicated on the identification document is the actual residence address, receive an affirmative response, and have no reason to believe the address on the identification document is not the actual, legal residence address of the purchaser. … [Emphasis added.]
LaRue, in talking with Narco News, stressed that his store does have a policy of asking for legitimate identification documents, such as a driver’s license, prior to selling a gun to anyone, adding that law enforcers often have their agency address on their driver’s licenses.
Given the Byzantine rules governing gun purchases in the U.S., it’s difficult to determine definitively, based on the known facts so far, where the fault rests in the Gillett case, or in those cases where Legendary — or possibly many other gun stores — sold weapons to law enforcers who failed to use a proper residential address on the firearms-transaction documentation.
However, Mike Levine, a veteran law enforcer who worked for years as a DEA deep undercover agent and earlier as an ATF agent, is quite blunt in his assessment of where the buck should stop in cases in which law enforcers purchase weapons without following the letter of the law.
Levine’s take, provided to Narco News via email:
Because you are a federal agent, cop, MI-5, whatever, you MUST follow the same law that all US citizens follow. You don't get to circumvent ANYTHING ... not a syllable of the [law].
They [law enforcers inappropriately using an agency address on a firearms transaction form] should have a big problem! I spent a quarter of a century designing undercover sting operations, supervising them, reviewing them. I'm still reviewing them and teaching this stuff. … I tried to envisage a situation that would justify buying a gun under a false Identification, and cannot even imagine one.
… If an unregistered gun, for example, is needed for a reason I cannot imagine, ATF and DEA and any other agency making arrests have warehouses full of seized guns that haven't been destroyed yet at any given moment. But like I said, I cannot even dream up a reason to justify what these agents were doing. If I had this investigation while I was OPR [internal affairs], they'd be on the other side of my desk, disarmed and Mirandized....
Levine added that in Gillett’s case, and in the cases of any other law enforcers who allegedly purchased weapons from Legendary Guns, or any other weapons dealer, using inaccurate residential addresses, the only way to assure no greater harm is done than has already played out in Fast and Furious is for Sen. “Grassley, or someone else with investigative power, to trace each gun to where it went after the fraudulent purchase.”
“But, as we know, if what they are doing can make some political hack look incompetent,” Levine added, “then they [the suspect law enforcers] are going to walk, even for complicity to homicide.”