The story of two guns that killed police officers

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:57 AM

The compact stainless-steel .45-caliber pistol was forged in a factory in Brazil in the summer of 2006 - 4,700 miles and two years away from a fateful encounter on a narrow North Philadelphia street near Temple University.

The gun, a 10-shot Taurus Model PT 145 Millennium Pro, was shipped from Porto Alegre to Miami, and then to a wholesale firearms distributor in South Carolina before arriving at a pawnshop about 80 miles away in rural Lancaster. From there, the $250 firearm began a 680-day odyssey through at least four states, four owners and two crime scenes before ending up in the hands of a 27-year-old parolee who used it to kill police officer Patrick McDonald.

As part of an investigation of the deaths of 511 police officers killed by firearms since 2000, The Washington Post took an in-depth look at the circuitous paths taken by two guns. One is the Taurus. The other is a .380-caliber FEG semiautomatic pistol used in the slaying of an Indiana state trooper.

Both are handguns - the weapon most often used to kill police officers in the past decade. And both deaths occurred after traffic stops, the situation in which officers most often lose their lives.

The two guns were initially sold by federally licensed firearms dealers, the Taurus at the South Carolina pawnshop, the .380 at a high-volume gun store outside Chicago. At least three guns sold at the Chicago area store, Chuck's Gun Shop, turned up in fatal shootings of police, the most of any store in The Post's review.

The .380's sale involved a "straw purchaser," a person who buys a gun on behalf of someone else and falsely claims to be the intended owner. The Taurus's sale looked like a straw purchase, with the man who first bought the gun quickly selling it to a felon for a $150 profit.

Even when guns wind up being used to shoot police officers - crimes that receive intense attention from investigators and prosecutors - straw purchasers escape punishment more often than not. The Post review looked at 16 straw purchasers who bought guns later used to kill police officers. Seven were prosecuted.

"Straw purchasers are the biggest problem in any state," said Lt. Vince Testa of the Philadelphia Police Department's firearms- identification unit. "That just puts more guns on the street and, unfortunately, kills police officers."

The two cases show the unpredictable paths taken by guns, moving from hand to hand into the grasp of criminals, falling off the radar and reappearing with sudden, fatal violence.

In one case, a 19-year-old felon acquires a handgun casually, as payment for a bet on a game of basketball, tucks it into his pants and later uses it to kill an Indiana trooper. In the other, a fugitive from a Philadelphia halfway house tries to escape from a pursuing officer and pulls the gun as they fight on the street. Both stories illustrate how firearms dramatically increase the danger in already tense situations, creating irrevocable outcomes from panicky decisions.

"I even talked to him about chasing bad guys down an alley when he knew they were armed, but he was absolutely fearless," Larry McDonald, father of the slain Philadelphia officer, said in an interview with The Post on March 31, a week before he died of a heart attack. "He said, 'Dad, I can't worry about that.' "

Philadelphia, 2008: Patrick McDonald

The .45-caliber Taurus semiautomatic pistol arrived at the Lancaster Pawn Shop in South Carolina on Nov. 9, 2006. Four days later, Jason Mack, 27, a self-described country boy fascinated by firearms, bought it for $250. At the same time, he purchased a smaller gun, a Kel-Tec P-3 .380-caliber pistol that Mack called a "pocket rocket."

Mack lied on the required federal paperwork, answering no to a question about whether he used illegal drugs. In fact, Mack, who worked as a laborer for a masonry business, later testified that he had smoked marijuana every day since he was 13. But he had no criminal record, and the required background check did not prevent him from buying a gun.

After the required three-day waiting period for the background check, Mack took the pistols home. Within days, he met up with a friend who introduced him to Stephen Lashley, 30, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Lashley had a drug-trafficking conviction in New York and a theft conviction in Bucks County, Pa.

After hearing about Mack's guns, Lashley asked to see them and offered to buy the Taurus. He paid Mack $400 and threw in two vials of marijuana, according to court records.

Lashley returned to Philadelphia, where he lived in the basement of his mother's rowhouse. He soon gave the gun to a man known to him only as "Max," according to an investigative report by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Max earlier had mentioned to Lashley that he wanted a .45-caliber handgun. At this point, ownership of the weapon becomes murky, although it turned up repeatedly in the swirl of Philadelphia street violence.

On Sept. 9, 2007, the Taurus figured in a nonfatal shootout at a Sunoco gas station between two men in southwest Philadelphia. Both were injured and went to a hospital. Police responding to reports of gunfire found spent cartridges from .45-caliber and .22-caliber pistols, but no guns. The .45-caliber cartridges were later linked to the Taurus.

A year later, on Sept. 22, 2008, more spent cartridges from the Taurus were recovered in Old City Philadelphia, just east of downtown. Once again, police could not find the gun.

The next day, the gun figured in a third shooting in Philadelphia. This time, more than spent cartridges would be left behind at the scene.

Pursuit and showdown

Officer McDonald, 30, was pulling the 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. shift instead of his usual night stint.

A former co-captain of the football team at Archbishop Ryan High School, he played running back on the Philadelphia Blue Flame, the police and fire departments' team in the National Public Safety Football League. He wore 34, the same number as the late Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears.

McDonald was the youngest of three children, and his Irish Catholic parents named him Patrick because he was born on St. Patrick's Day. He grew up in a modest three-bedroom rowhouse in northeast Philadelphia, a home he later bought from his parents and turned into a bachelor pad complete with a wet bar in the dining room and an expensively equipped gym in the basement. But his pride and joy was his job.

"Nothing made him prouder than putting on that . . . uniform and walking out that door," his father said. "He was born to be a police officer."

About 1:30 p.m. Sept. 23, McDonald spotted a 1997 burgundy Buick with a broken taillight. He ordered the driver, Shermell Howard, 27, to pull over, according to a police report. In the car with her was Daniel Giddings, also 27, a 240-pound felon whose physique one official would describe as "prison buff." The Taurus was tucked into his waistband.

Giddings had been released from prison 36 days earlier after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence for aggravated assault. A judge had ordered him to report to a halfway house, but Giddings soon absconded in violation of his parole. When several police officers, acting on a tip that Giddings was at a house in the area, tried to arrest him, he fought with them and escaped. Now, he was wanted for aggravated assault on the officers as well as the parole violation.

As McDonald walked up to the vehicle, Giddings jumped out and ran. McDonald chased him three blocks through the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Strawberry Mansion, a place of boarded-up buildings and painted brick rowhouses with metal bars on the doors and windows.

"White T-shirt, brown jacket," McDonald breathlessly told a police dispatcher as he called in the incident on his police radio at 1:46 p.m. and gave his location. "Twenty-four hundred Colorado. Just got on a red bike."

McDonald didn't say - maybe he didn't have time - that Giddings had knocked a child off the bicycle.

McDonald caught up to Giddings, losing his hat along the way. The officer grabbed Giddings and drew his ASP police baton. The two fought. The felon threw the officer to the ground. Both drew guns, Giddings's Taurus against McDonald's Glock 9mm service weapon.

Shots were traded, and McDonald was hit several times, including a round that went through his shoulder and pierced his heart.

Giddings then stood over the officer and pumped more bullets into him. He hopped back on the bicycle, but before he could get away, two officers arrived in response to McDonald's call for assistance. At least one exchanged gunfire with Giddings, killing him with shots to the head and chest, according to the police report. One of the officers was shot in the hip. The other was not injured.

The consequences

McDonald's father, Larry, was working at a new job for a trucking company when he got the call. Larry McDonald was a retired Philadelphia fire captain, and a friend from the fire department who also had a son on the police force gave him the news that two officers had been shot. One was Pat, the friend said. The friend wasn't sure how badly Larry and Patsy's youngest boy was injured, but he tried to assure Larry that Patrick would be all right.

Larry McDonald frantically called his wife, who works as a receptionist at a school-uniform company. When Larry arrived at his wife's business, officers were already there. They drove the couple to Temple Hospital, a 20-minute ride.

Scores of officers were gathered outside the hospital, so many that the couple could barely squeeze through the entrance. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was there. So was Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, the former chief in the District of Columbia.

Someone shuttled the McDonalds into a tiny, windowless room. Ken Linneman, a police lieutenant and childhood friend of Larry McDonald's, broke the news.

"He's gone," Linneman said.

For his role in getting the Taurus onto the streets, Mack was convicted in federal court of making a false statement in connection with the purchase of a firearm and illegal possession of a firearm by an unlawful user of a controlled substance. He received three years in federal prison. Lashley was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and illegal transportation of firearms. He was sentenced to 10 years.

Indiana, 2003:Scott Patrick

The gun that killed Indiana State Trooper Scott Patrick, a .380-caliber FEG semiautomatic handgun, No. AK00885, was manufactured in Hungary. It was shipped to the United States, ending up at Chuck's Gun Shop in Riverdale, on the southern fringes of Chicago.

Chuck's occupies a red-brick building on a busy thoroughfare dotted with storefronts. Between 1996 and 2000, Chuck's led the nation in the number of guns recovered in crimes - 2,370 firearms traced by police were originally sold there, according to a report by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation. One of the weapons was used to fatally shoot a Chicago police officer in 1998; another was used to kill a Chicago officer 10 years later.

On Feb. 25, 1997, John Clinton, 44, and his buddy, Dave Johnson, 45, walked into Chuck's. The men eyed the inventory for several minutes before Clinton pointed out the gun that he wanted. Clinton liked the .380 because it was small and easy to conceal, he would say later. He wanted it for protection but could not buy it legally because he was a felon. So Johnson bought it for him.

"He did me a favor and bought the gun for me," Clinton, now 58, said in a recent interview with The Post. "Bad move."

Johnson filled out the paperwork, claiming that he was the purchaser, and gave the clerk $460 in cash for the pistol and ammunition. As soon as they left the store, Johnson turned the gun over to Clinton.

Neither Johnson nor Clinton would be prosecuted for their roles in the straw purchase.

The transaction does not surprise John Riggio, the store's owner.

"Everything has happened here," said Riggio, 54, whose father started the shop in 1967. "Whose fault is that? I can't control what happens when someone leaves the shop."

The .380 remained with Clinton for more than six years, until November 2003. Clinton later told authorities that it was stolen from the trunk of his Buick Century on the city's South Side. That proved to be a lie. Clinton actually gave the gun to an acquaintance, Randy "Bushwick" Vaughn, 43, to sell on the street.

"We were using [heroin] at the time, and I needed the money for drugs," Clinton said.

Vaughn later told authorities that he sold it for $200 to a stockily built 26-year-old gang member at 69th Street and South Indiana Avenue in Chicago.

A month later, on Dec. 22, 2003 - nearly 2,500 days after Johnson first purchased it - the .380 pistol resurfaced in the hands of 19-year-old Darryl Jeter.

Jeter had been reared by his grandmother in the rough-and-tumble Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex on Chicago's South Side. Like many of his childhood friends, Jeter got into trouble with the law at an early age. He was convicted in November 2002 of possession of a controlled substance, a felony, and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was sent to the Shawnee Correctional Center in southern Illinois and was paroled after six months, according to an Illinois Department of Corrections official.

'Who doesn't have a gun?'

Jeter later said in an interview with The Post that he got the .380 from a friend, whom he refused to identify. The man owed him $350 from a bet over a game of pickup basketball. Jeter had bumped into him at Hook Fish & Chicken, a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, about nine blocks from where Vaughn said he sold the pistol.

"They're bartered and traded and sold as booty on the street," said Indiana State Police 1st Sgt. Brian Olehy. "They're another form of legal tender."

Jeter, who was unemployed, said he intended to sell the .380 to buy Christmas toys for his daughter. She had begged him for Dora the Explorer dolls.

"I know it's not legal to have guns in Chicago," Jeter said. "But who doesn't have a gun? That's Chicago."

He tucked the gun into the front pocket of his jeans and tossed his fast-food bag into a white 1993 Chevrolet Caprice that had been stolen six days earlier from a Sears parking lot in southwest Chicago. The thief passed the car on to Jeter, who used a screwdriver to start it.

Soon after getting the .380, Jeter took off to meet a 16-year-old girl in Gary, Ind. As he neared the Gary exit just before dawn, he realized that one of the tires was so flat that he was driving on the metal rim. He pulled off the interstate onto a grassy area. Jeter called the girl and told her that he would gather his CDs, find another car and meet up with her soon.

A trucker who had seen sparks shooting from the car's rim called 911. Patrick, a state trooper who worked the midnight shift, responded.

Patrick, 27, was a small-town boy who grew up in Wheatfield, Ind., and loved to fish with his dad and brothers. Six feet tall, athletic and competitive, he played football and wrestled in high school, receiving the "Iron Man" award one year for never missing wrestling practice.

Outside the exit to Gary, Patrick pulled over to see whether Jeter, now on foot, needed help. Jeter said he and Patrick exchanged words. It got heated.

The trooper told him to put his hands on the police car.

"It just got aggressive," Jeter later recalled in a prison interview with The Post. "In my world . . . when you get aggressive, you're no longer an officer. You're just a man like me."

Karl Dickel, a trucker who happened by, saw the two men fighting and turned his lights on them to aid the trooper, according to court records. Dickel said that the men broke apart and Jeter went to the opposite side of the police car from Patrick. He pulled the .380 and fired twice over the car's hood at Patrick. The trooper returned fire, hitting Jeter, Dickel said.

One shot hit Patrick in the shoulder and pierced his heart. Jeter ran, dropping the gun and his CDs along the way and leaving Patrick to die on the pavement.

"Things went bad," Jeter said. "What happened shouldn't have happened."

Another trooper arrived and tried to help Patrick. Dickel spotted Jeter nearby and told the trooper, "That's the guy that shot him."

Jeter again tried to flee, this time by climbing into the cab of a truck, but the other trooper arrested him.

The shooting left Melissa Patrick without a husband, and the baby she was carrying without a father. She was six weeks pregnant at the time.

"The action he took changed so many lives," said Patrick, who met Scott at a party when they were freshmen at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. "My husband never even knew he was having a little boy."

Jeter was convicted of murder and auto theft in 2006. He is serving a life sentence without parole at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. In his prison interview last April, Jeter, shackled and wearing a tan prison outfit and new white sneakers, reflected on the shooting.

"I ask myself every day, 'Why?' " said Jeter, now 26. "What was I thinking? . . . He didn't deserve to lose his life.

"I was presented with a weapon I shouldn't have had. I should have went home."

Clinton, who is an unemployed sheet-metal worker, said he was shocked to learn that the pistol was used to kill a police officer.

"I don't want to think about it," he said. "It still feels like my gun, but I don't want to have anything to do with it."

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