ATF gunrunning probe strategy scrutinized after death of Border Patrol agent

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 11:03 PM

Two AK-47 assault rifles purchased by a man later arrested in a federal gunrunning investigation turned up at the scene of a fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in December, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Whistleblowers who have contacted a U.S. senator allege that federal agents allowed guns, including the AK-47s, to be sold to suspected straw buyers who transported the weapons throughout the region and into Mexico.

Law enforcement investigators have not concluded whether either of the guns was used to kill Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, said a law enforcement source who requested anonymity because the case is ongoing.

Terry, 40, was killed in a gun battle Dec. 14 along the border southwest of Tucson. He was part of an elite Border Patrol team that had been patrolling a canyon frequented by bandits who ambush and rob illegal immigrants. Four men were arrested, but no one has been charged in the killing. A fifth man eluded police.

The AK-47s have become part of a multi-agency federal investigation code-named Fast and Furious, part of a southwest border crackdown on firearms known as Project Gunrunner. The agent's death led one member of Congress to criticize Project Gunrunner and has also roiled officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who are fighting to save funding for the program.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote to ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson on Friday that he had "serious concerns that the ATF may have become careless, if not negligent, in implementing the Gunrunner strategy."

Grassley declined to comment on the letter, and an ATF spokesman declined to comment because the investigation is open.

ATF and other federal officials had previously said the Fast and Furious case represents a major success in going after large gun-smuggling networks.

Last week, U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke announced that 34 people had been indicted in five cases, breaking up a network linked to the Sinoloa drug-trafficking cartel in Mexico. "The massive size of this operation sadly exemplifies the magnitude of the problem," Burke said.

In the past month, whistleblowers contacted Grassley and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to allege that the "ATF sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers, who then allegedly transported these weapons throughout the southwestern border area and into Mexico," Grassley wrote in his letter to Melson.

According to the letter, one of the individuals bought three rifles with cash Jan. 16, 2010, in Glendale, Ariz. Two of those rifles were allegedly used in the firefight with Terry and other Border Patrol agents. "These extremely serious allegations were accompanied by detailed documentation which appears to lend credibility to the claims and partially corroborates them," Grassley said.

The letter matched details in one of the indictments unsealed last week, which alleges that Jamie Avila Jr. bought three AK-47-type firearms on that date from Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale. Officials at a news conference said Avila took part in a gunrunning scheme to take 700 weapons across the border between September 2009 and December 2010.

Court records do not indicate that the agents deliberately allowed weapons to cross the border into Mexico. On at least two occasions, agents stopped and seized arms shipments headed for the border.

Lone Wolf issued a statement in defense of the ATF, stating that the agents operated "in a very professional and proper manner."

The Fast and Furious case was one of the biggest gun trafficking cases since Project Gunrunner began in 2006. It was seen by the ATF as a response to criticism from the Justice Department's inspector general that the firearms bureau was bringing too many minor cases against straw purchasers, individuals who buy guns for others or traffickers.

On Monday, Grassley wrote Melson again after an ATF official confronted an agent in the Phoenix field office, accusing him of misconduct for contacting the Senate committee. Grassley called the response retaliation and said, "This is exactly the wrong sort of reaction for the ATF."

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