By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; C01
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.
"I felt my car shake," she said.
Collins was alone in her cruiser, armed with a 9mm handgun. It wasn't a fair fight. Later, she said, police counted47 shots fired at her -- including slugs that lodged in her gas tank and in a seat eight inches away.
"I had a BB gun compared to them," she said.
The bank robbery gang was always looking to increase its arsenal, according to testimony during the trial of six of the members last year. During that trial, at the federal courthouse in Washington, a firearms expert testified that the rifles were made in Saudi Arabia and Romania.
The gang's acquisition of the weapons was detailed in testimony by two other gang members who pleaded guilty and became prosecution witnesses: Omar Holmes and Noureddine Chtaini.
In the spring of 2004, Holmes told the jury, he heard through the neighborhood grapevine that some heavy-duty weapons were available for the right price. A meeting was set up in an industrial park behind a car wash near Kenilworth Avenue in Prince George's. Several gang members, including Holmes and Chtaini, showed up in a stolen BMW, Holmes testified.
They waited. They smoked marijuana. They waited some more.
Finally, a white Crown Victoria pulled up in the deserted industrial park. Holmes recognized the driver as an old school friend.
"I didn't know he was the guy, but when I found out it was him I talked to him for a little while," Holmes testified. "He told me he was in the Army and he went to Iraq and all that type stuff."
They walked around to the back of the car and pulled an Army backpack out of the trunk. Inside were five assault weapons: four AK-47s and a World War II-style submachine gun with a banana clip, Holmes testified. One of the AK-47s was chrome-plated; another came with a bayonet. Others had wooden handles, he said.
Chtaini testified that the gang test-fired three of the weapons in the parking lot that night. Police said they later found dozens of shell casings at the site.
"We didn't test-fire the chrome one because the other three were fully automatic and that's what -- you know, that's what we were looking for," Holmes testified.
Holmes was sentenced to 51 months in prison for various crimes tied to the gang, and Chtaini is serving a 14-year term.
Soldiers historically have brought back souvenirs of faraway battles. Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps judge who teaches military law, said that as a company commander in Vietnam, he knew of a fellow officer who mailed a gun home to the U.S. piece by piece.
"What is disturbing is not just the onesies and twosies, but the guys who do it for commercial purposes or do it on a scale that is dangerous," Solis said.