By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:32 AM
Hattie Louise James was sitting on her front porch in Charlotte when two police detectives emerged from their car. There had been a shooting, they said. Two officers were dead. The gun had been traced back to her.
"I liked to had another heart attack," said the 72-year-old James, a retired hospital worker.
The .32-caliber revolver used to kill Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton in April 2007 started out as a legally owned weapon. James bought it in 1991 at Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop in Charlotte, but it was stolen a year later from her husband's car. Fifteen years after that, it passed into the hands of 25-year-old Demeatrius Montgomery. This September, Montgomery was convicted of gunning down the officers outside a low-income housing complex in northeast Charlotte.
Clark and Shelton are two of 511 police officers killed by firearms in the United States from the beginning of 2000 through this past Sept. 30. The most recent local death occurred in June, when Maryland State Trooper Wesley Brown was slain while working off-duty at a restaurant in Prince George's County.
Until now, no one has conducted a comprehensive study of how the killers got their guns.
To trace these guns, The Washington Post did a year-long investigation, including building a database of every police officer shot to death in the past decade. (More than 1,900 officers were wounded by firearms during the same period.) Through documents and interviews, The Post was able to track how the suspects obtained their weapons in 341 of the deaths.
This kind of analysis is made more difficult by a law passed by Congress in 2003 that bars federal law enforcement from releasing information that links guns used in crimes back to the original purchasers. To penetrate that secrecy, The Post interviewed more than 350 police officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, gun dealers, gun buyers, suspects and survivors. In 30 cases, the newspaper obtained confidential firearms traces generated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF reports track guns recovered at crime scenes back to dealers and original buyers, listing a gun's model, caliber and serial number.
The Post review shows how guns got into the hands of police officers' killers and - in a nation with more than 250 million guns in circulation - how a moment of panic can have deadly consequences.
Among the findings:
To some extent, the geographic distribution of the killings tracks population size and the violent-crime rate. The two most populous states led the nation in police officer shooting deaths: California with 47 and Texas with 46. Next were Louisiana with 28 and Florida with 27, even though Florida has four times as many residents. Louisiana has the nation's highest rate of police killings per capita and the nation's highest overall rate of death by gunfire, according to a study by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that advocates gun control.
One notable exception to the population trend appears to be New York, which has the third-largest number of residents but is tied for 13th in police killings with 16. New York is known for having some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
In general, states with looser gun laws had higher rates of fatal shootings of police officers, overall handgun killings, and sales of weapons that were used in crimes in other states, according to a 2008 study underwritten by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 300 mayors led by New York's Michael R. Bloomberg. That study looked at police shootings in the aggregate but did not trace the origin of the guns.
The 511 police officers in The Post study are among more than 95,000 Americans killed by people using firearms in the past decade.
"It is extremely easy in this country for anyone who wants to get a weapon to obtain one, particularly a handgun," said Norfolk Police Chief Bruce P. Marquis, whose department has lost five officers to guns since 2001. "There is not a lot we can do about it unless the laws are changed to restrict guns to make it harder to get them or severely punish those who knowingly obtain weapons stolen or used in other crimes."
Federal law prohibits felons, people who have been committed to an institution for mental illness, and drug users from buying a gun. States have wide latitude to set limits on how many handguns may be bought at a time and to require additional background checks, purchase permits and the reporting of lost or stolen guns.
"There's such a disparity between the gun laws in different states," said Lt. Howard Schechter, head of the forensic investigation unit for Albany, N.Y., police. "Down South, their feelings about guns and gun control are completely different. Both Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, they're generally very easy places to get guns."
The number of legally owned firearms among the guns The Post was able to track - 107 out of 341 deaths - surprised Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis.
"That's high," Wintemute said. "That's very unusual."
He said ATF studies found that the percentage of people caught committing gun-related crimes with legally purchased guns is about 15 percent, less than half the rate found by The Post in the police killings. Wintemute said people charged with felonies often plead guilty to misdemeanors. And he noted that although a felony conviction makes it a federal crime to possess a gun, a misdemeanor carries no such restriction.
"We are finding here cases in which felons have been able to acquire guns even though they shouldn't, but we are also finding cases in which people who have criminal [misdemeanor] records but remain eligible to buy guns do buy those guns and then kill cops with them," he said. "Any effort to find a pattern in these tragedies is helpful, because patterns often lead to solutions."
In the case of Hattie James's gun in North Carolina, a stolen weapon went missing for more than a decade before it surfaced in the killing of two officers, Clark and Shelton.
Larry Hyatt is the owner of Hyatt Coin, the Charlotte store that sold the gun to James originally. He said he had heard rumors that a gun from his store had been used to kill the officers, but he was not certain of it until called by a Post reporter.
"That was so horrible what happened," he said. "It just makes me sick to think about it. Do I feel bad? You daggone right I feel bad."
Hyatt, 63, said he runs an honest business, family-owned since 1959. His 81-year-old mother still runs the cash register and occasionally lectures buyers on the need to be legitimate.
"We do everything we can and double- and triple-check to try and do everything right," he said, adding that the store participates in an ATF program to cut down on straw buyers, "to keep a girlfriend from buying a gun for her boyfriend."
Hyatt said it is difficult to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, because once a firearm leaves the store it can be stolen or passed around.
"What it is is hundreds of thousands of random events - thefts, deaths - outside the federally licensed, controlled system, [guns] that are being stolen, sold hand to hand and inherited," he said. "That's why it's so difficult to get a handle on it. It is a problem, but it's not with us."
The guns in the following case studies are representative of those weapons The Post was able to track.Legally obtained (107 cases)
Terry Johnson would turn around the figurines in his china cabinet because he thought they were staring at him. He also told people that the television was talking to him.
"Mr. Johnson was very delusional and very paranoid," said Sheriff Terry Langley of Carroll County, Ga. "He had been for some time."
That didn't stop Johnson, 31, from legally buying three handguns in Carroll County. He had not been legally committed, so there was nothing in the law preventing him from buying a gun.
"He had a driver's license, birth certificate, and he wasn't a convicted felon," said Chief Deputy Brad Robinson. "They ran a background check, and there wasn't anything that stopped them from legally selling him firearms."
On Sept. 3, 2002, Johnson drove to his estranged wife's wood-frame house and set it on fire. No one knows for sure why. He was armed with three pistols - a .45-caliber, a .22-caliber and a 9mm.
A passerby saw Johnson leave the burning house and called 911. A call went over the police radio to look out for Johnson's red Eagle Talon. One of the people who heard it was Sheriff's Lt. Billy Jiles, heading back to the office after supper. The radio call said Johnson was headed down Highway 61. Jiles was near, so he pulled over to see if Johnson would whiz by. He did, and Jiles gave chase. Johnson stopped his car, jumped out, brandishing the .45 and 9mm, and ran into a nearby house in Carrollton, shooting and killing the home's elderly owner.
Outside, Jiles called for backup. Before help arrived, Johnson jumped from behind an overgrown hedge and shot Jiles, crouched on the other side, eight times with the 9mm. The 42-year-old father left behind a wife and two small children.
Then Johnson fired at the arriving officers, who shot him dead.Stolen (77)
Greg Bloss arrived home from work about 3:30 p.m. to discover that a burglar had broken a kitchen window at his Spartanburg, S.C., home and ransacked his bedroom. Gone was his .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun and a Colt .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. He reported the theft to police.
Four hours later, the stolen revolver turned up in the hands of Terry Lee Brooks, a 48-year-old felon with a long rap sheet: murder, burglary, drugs, auto theft and illegal firearms possession.
On the evening of Feb. 27, 2007, Brooks went driving in a gold Saturn with a female friend. She later said he took two hits from a glass crack pipe and drank gin and beer.
A Spartanburg County sheriff's deputy flashed his cruiser's blue lights as they headed toward an exit off Interstate 26. The car had expired tags, Deputy Kevin Carper told Brooks. Standing at the passenger side of Brooks's car, Carper asked for his driver's license. Three weeks earlier, Brooks had been convicted of driving on a suspended license and was given a 60-day sentence.
Brooks fumbled for a driver's license he knew he didn't have. Then he told Carper that he didn't have his wallet. Carper, 39, a 10-year veteran, asked for the pair's names and walked back to his patrol car to run a check.
Brooks pulled out the Colt revolver and hit the gas, telling his friend that if Carper stopped him, "he was going to get him." Brooks drove onto a dead-end street near a trailer park, jumped out and ran into the woods. His passenger got out, laid on the ground and yelled to Carper and another officer who responded.
"I tell them to stop, that he has a gun, but they kept on chasing him into the woods," the woman told authorities in a written statement. "I hear gunshots and hear over the police car's radio 'officer down.' "
The second officer on the scene, Deputy William Hopkins III, later said he saw Carper and Brooks struggling in the leaves.
"God, he's got a gun," Hopkins recalled Carper saying.
Hopkins said he saw "three distinct muzzle flashes" and fired back, hitting Brooks, who fell to the ground. As Hopkins turned to his left, he saw Carper also on the ground, bleeding.
Both Carper and Brooks died.
The next night, when three officers showed up at his house, Bloss learned that his stolen gun was used in the slaying of a police officer.
"I had heard about the shooting . . . on the news," Bloss said in a phone interview from Ohio, where he lives now. "I asked them if it was the gun, and they said they thought it was. They told me I wouldn't get it back, and I told them I didn't want it back."Police gun (51)
Shortly after 3 a.m. Oct. 13, 2007, New Orleans police detective Thelonious Dukes Sr., 47, was working on his motorcycle outside his home on the city's east side. Two armed men appeared on foot, their faces partially covered by bandannas.
Unaware that Dukes was a cop, they ordered him into the house and demanded money. He told them about his safe in the master-bathroom closet. The detective's wife, Lynette, lay awake in bed, silent and still. She heard her husband identify himself as a police officer and offer them money for his family's safety.
The men forced Dukes to kneel in the bathroom. His wife was brought out and ordered to open the safe and then drop to her knees next to her husband. The suspects grabbed the money and an AR-15 assault rifle.
They asked Dukes if he had other weapons. He directed them to his department-issued Glock handgun under the mattress on the right side of the bed.
Dukes had another Glock, an off-duty gun - the police report does not specify whether he had it on his person or somewhere in his house - which he drew and fired twice. Then the gun jammed. The thieves fired back with Dukes's police gun, striking him in his left arm and stomach. A bullet pierced his wife's left foot.
Dukes, an auto-theft detective and a 19-year veteran, died three weeks later. His wife survived. The alleged gunmen, Anthony Skidmore, now 22, and Chris Dillon, 21, are awaiting trial.Borrowed or taken from relatives (46)
Willie Collins didn't know his Colt King Cobra revolver was missing from his suburban Memphis home until a police investigator called him in December 2002.
"They asked . . . if I owned a gun, a .357 magnum," Collins recalled in court testimony. "I told them I did. They asked me did I have it, and I told them, 'Yes, sir.' "
He had bought it 15 years earlier. Collins went to retrieve the weapon from the box where it had been stored since he moved from California to Tennessee in 1993. But it was gone. His teenage son later testified in court that he had sneaked it out of the house in the summer of 2002. The teen gave the gun to a classmate who said he "needed a little money," according to court records.
The classmate, Jonathan Upchurch, sold it the same day to a north Memphis man who he had heard was looking to buy a firearm. The buyer, Reginald Rome, paid $100. Rome was a 45-year-old felon with a history of drug convictions. He had recently been laid off recently from a $12-an-hour welding job. As a felon, Rome was forbidden to buy a gun.
Rome tucked the gun away for five months. On Dec. 4, 2002, he used it to shoot George Selby, a 33-year-old Shelby County, Tenn., sheriff's deputy. Selby, a member of the narcotics unit, had gone with 11 other officers to serve a search warrant for illegal drugs on Rome's home. When they ordered him to open the door, Rome fired at least three shots from the stolen .357. One of the bullets struck Selby just above his bulletproof vest. He died later that evening, leaving a wife and two daughters.
Rome was convicted of murder in 2005 and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 100 years.
Upchurch could have been prosecuted in federal court for selling the gun to Rome, but he faced no charges in the case.
Five years after the Selby killing, Upchurch pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally selling another gun, a .380-caliber pistol, to a known felon, records show. Authorities had learned through a confidential informant that Upchurch was trying to peddle that gun, and they arranged an undercover buy. Upchurch was sentenced to three years' probation.Obtained on the street (41)
Jack Sherman was a 23-year-old high school dropout in Battle Creek, Mich. He owed $100 to his friend Genail Postley Jr., plus some money for marijuana, but couldn't pay him. So he settled up with something he did have: a Mossberg 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and a handful of shells, all stolen from his grandfather.
Postley, an unemployed felon on parole for assault, illegally sawed off the gun's barrel, making it easier to conceal. Less than two weeks later, on May 9, 2005, he used it to kill one Battle Creek police detective, LaVern Steven Brann, and wound another. They had gone to an apartment complex to question Postley, then 21, about the robbery and slaying of a cabdriver a month earlier.
Postley was sentenced to life for murdering Brann, 44, a 20-year veteran who left behind a wife and two daughters. Postley also was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the cabdriver's slaying.
In a rare move in Michigan, federal authorities went after Sherman for knowingly giving a firearm to a felon, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
"I just thought that he was going to protect himself, do whatever he had to do to hustle, make his money," Sherman told a judge about why he gave Postley the shotgun. "I didn't know it was intended to kill the cop."
Sherman pleaded guilty in 2008 and received nine years in prison.Straw purchase (16)
Quisi Bryan, 29, of Cleveland wanted a gun but knew that his convictions for attempted robbery and carrying a concealed weapon - both felonies in Ohio - would prevent him from buying one at a gun store.
So he turned to someone with a clean record: his soon-to-be wife, Elaine Smith, 30. The two had met in the mid-1990s while Bryan was serving time at the Pickaway Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Orient, just outside Columbus. They became pen pals after being introduced by Smith's father.
After Bryan's release from prison in November 1998, the couple moved in together. In July 1999, they drove 15 miles from their home in East Cleveland to suburban Bedford Heights. They walked into Atlantic Gun & Tackle, and Bryan spotted the gun he wanted: an $800 Glock Model 21 .45-caliber handgun. Smith filled out the paperwork and paid for the gun, according to police reports. She later told police that she wasn't aware that Bryan was not supposed to possess a firearm. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
Eleven months later, on the morning of June 25, 2000, Bryan used the gun to kill a Cleveland police officer, Wayne Leon, 32, during a traffic stop outside a Sunoco gas station. The officer had pulled Bryan over because the 1984 white Pontiac Grand Prix he was driving had a suspicious temporary license plate. When Leon turned his head to call in the tag on his portable radio, Bryan pulled the .45 from his waistband and fired one shot at point-blank range, hitting the young father of three in the face.
"I was trying to think of a way to convince him to stop," Bryan testified at his trial. "When he went to his mike, I reached in and I pulled my weapon out. I told him, 'Don't do that.' As he stepped back . . . I fired."
After the bullet entered Leon's face, it traveled down into his spine, according to the Cuyahoga County coroner's report. Leon, a six-year veteran, died that day.
Bryan said he shot Leon because he didn't want the officer to find out that he was in violation of parole.
"He killed in order to avoid arrest," A. Steven Dever, the former assistant county prosecutor who tried the case, said in a phone interview.
Bryan was convicted in November 2000 and sentenced to death. He remains on Ohio's death row.
Smith and Bryan divorced in 2003.
She was not prosecuted for the straw purchase.Illegal purchase from gun show or private seller (3)
Ronald Wedge, a licensed federal firearms dealer, had done business for 17 years as Hole-in-the-Wall Gunworks in Bristol, Ind. From a dealer's table at a South Bend gun show, he sold several firearms one weekend in April 2007 without asking for photo identification or conducting criminal background checks, as required by law, according to federal court records.
One of the guns, a black .22-caliber Astra pistol, was sold to Scott Barnaby, a 45-year-old whose family later said had a history of mental illness.
At the same gun show, Jason Ira Katz, 31, a gun store clerk at Indiana Arms and Ammo in South Bend, sold Barnaby a Phoenix Arms .22-caliber handgun, charging $100 and keeping $60 for himself without recording the transaction, a violation of federal law.
A few days later, Barnaby wandered out of his $40-a-night motel room in South Bend and started firing randomly in a parking lot and at a billboard of Smokey Bear.
Called to the scene, Cpl. Nick Polizzotto and Officer Michael Norby knocked on Barnaby's door. He used the .22 that Wedge had sold him to shoot them. Polizzotto, 34, died of his wounds that day. Norby recovered.
Other officers fatally shot Barnaby.
In a phone interview from his home in Bristol, Wedge, 74, said he not met Barnaby until that Saturday, when the man walked up to his gun show table at the St. Joseph County Fairgrounds and picked out the .22. Wedge said that Barnaby showed him some ID, possibly a voter registration card, and that he told Barnaby to fill out the federal firearms form. But Barnaby just handed him $300 and took off, Wedge said.
"He just picked up the gun and the receipt and took off," Wedge said. "It's not the first time somebody's taken a gun off my table, but it's the first time somebody's taken a gun off my table and killed a police officer with it."
Police were led to Wedge by a bill of sale found in Barnaby's room, records show. Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives charged Wedge with making false statements on the federal firearms form. The agents alleged that Wedge had sold the gun without recording proper ID and had lied about the date of the sale to make it seem as if Barnaby had waited three days - for the background check - to pick up the gun.
Wedge said he was not trying to falsify anything.
He told police that the reason he didn't do any background checks that weekend was that he didn't know how to access the National Instant Criminal Background Check System from the gun show and had decided to do so after the weekend.
Both Wedge and Katz were prosecuted in federal court; Wedge was sentenced to 10 months. Katz was sentenced to nine months; he was killed in a prison fight.