Probe: Robbers Used Weapons Smuggled From Iraq by Soldier

In the aftermath of a 2004 bank robbery in Northwest, an unidentified member of the gang carries an AK-47.
In the aftermath of a 2004 bank robbery in Northwest, an unidentified member of the gang carries an AK-47. (Wttg Fox 5 News)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

The gang that carried out a series of commando-style bank robberies in the Washington area two years ago used fully automatic assault rifles that were smuggled from the battlefields of Iraq by a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve, according to investigators.

An investigation by the FBI and local police is centering on several AK-47s the notorious robbers used in some of their heists. In Iraq, such weapons are plentiful and cheap. For the robbery gang, they were key to their strategy: using overwhelming firepower and body armor to frighten and intimidate bank employees and customers -- and ward off police.

New details about the guns have emerged from interviews with law enforcement officials and court records. The arrests and convictions of eight people in the robberies, including two who became government witnesses, led to the spin-off criminal investigation into how the rifles made their way from Iraq to Washington. No one has been arrested in the weapons case.

Authorities said the weapons were part of a small cache purchased for $5,000 from a gang member's friend, who had recently come back from serving in Iraq. The soldier was a member of a military police battalion based at Fort Meade, authorities said.

Law enforcement officials expressed concern that more high-powered battle weapons could end up being used in crimes against U.S. citizens and police. They cited the number, availability and low cost of weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the profits to be made here at home.

In March 2004, two soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., smuggled back 18 machine guns from Iraq and tried to sell them on the street for $1,000 each. They hid the weapons by sawing off the bottoms of oxygen tanks and putting the guns inside, prosecutors said. They then welded back the bottoms and put the tanks in a shipping case that was headed to the United States. They were caught when the "buyer" turned out to be an undercover federal agent. The soldiers later pleaded guilty to federal charges and were sentenced to prison terms.

But a law enforcement official familiar with the bank robbers' case said that winning prosecutions is not easy. Units send their equipment back to the U.S. with little screening, the law enforcement official said. Even if weapons are discovered, tying them to a specific individual is difficult, the official added. Like others, he spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe could lead to charges.

"How do you prove it? You can prove the guys were over there, you can prove the guns are not local," the official said. But tracing exactly who did what and when is a challenge, the official said -- and that is what authorities are trying to do in the bank robbers' case.

For the bank robbers, who wore body armor with ceramic plates that would repel rifle fire, getting the machine guns gave them firepower rarely associated with holdups. Assault-type weapons can be purchased legally in the United States, but only in a semiautomatic version, meaning one squeeze of the trigger fires one round. A fully automatic assault rifle, which can fire continuously when the trigger is held down, is considered a machine gun and is restricted under federal law.

The Washington Post is not identifying the alleged seller because no charges have been filed against him. Military records show he was attached as a clerk with an Army Reserve military police unit based at Fort Meade. His unit, the 400th Military Police Battalion, was in Iraq from February 2003 to February 2004, according to the Army Reserve.

Over the course of several months in 2004, the robbers struck six banks in the District and Maryland, working in swift precision in crimes that netted about $361,000. They opened fire inside three banks and fired at a Prince George's County police officer who tried to stop their getaway. No one was seriously hurt, but while the robbers were on the run, authorities repeatedly warned the public of the potential for deadly violence.

Kate Collins, a police officer from Prince George's, can attest to that. On May 10, 2004, she pursued the getaway van shortly after the gang robbed a Chevy Chase Bank branch on St. Barnabus Road in Temple Hills. The robbers began firing their machine guns as they sped away, shattering the van's rear window with a staccato burst in the officer's direction.

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