Even the men convicted of stealing guns from the United Parcel Service distribution center in Landover were surprised by how easy it was to pick them off the conveyor belt and get them out of the building.
They started cautiously, slicing open cardboard boxes addressed to a Prince George's County gun shop, removing one or two handguns and taking them out by hiding them under their clothes.
When nothing happened, the three UPS cargo handlers--one of them a convicted crack dealer--grew bolder, according to affidavits filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. They grabbed entire packages filled with revolvers and semiautomatic pistols, slapped on new address labels and had their employer deliver them home for free.
Before they were arrested by federal agents in March and April, the three UPS workers stole 29 handguns and sold them on the streets for $250 to $350. One of the firearms was used in an armed carjacking less than 36 hours after it was stolen from a UPS shipment. Only eight have been recovered.
Authorities say the UPS case illustrates how--despite increasingly strict controls on gun sales to individuals--package delivery firms, where security is often lax, often are an easy target for criminals intent on obtaining weapons.
"Criminals are going to go to the path of least resistance," said Mike Campbell, a spokesman in the Baltimore office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which investigated the UPS thefts. "They are going to find whatever way they can to get the guns. So if they can find somebody on the inside to help them, they will."
In 1998, 941 firearms were reported stolen from interstate shipments, most of them from commercial carriers such as UPS, according to ATF figures. But federal officials concede that they have no idea how many of the estimated 5 million guns that are shipped each year by commercial carrier are stolen.
Licensed gun dealers and manufacturers are required by federal law to report all firearms thefts to the ATF, but there is no such requirement for package delivery companies. Some carriers report gun thefts voluntarily, but ATF declined to provide a breakdown on losses reported by each company.
"Theft from interstate shipments has always been a problem because there are such large numbers of guns being sent," said Jeffrey R. Roehm, an ATF spokesman in Washington.
Roehm said UPS "has been overwhelmingly cooperative" with investigators and has assisted in numerous undercover operations. But he added that it can be difficult to sniff out gun thieves in the company's sprawling shipping network.
In general, firearms can be shipped only to licensed dealers, manufacturers and wholesalers. To deter thefts, federal law dictates that packages containing guns must be shipped in plain wrappers that bear no indication of their contents.
About 80 percent of the guns shipped in the United States move through UPS. The U.S. Postal Service is legally barred from shipping handguns through the mail, although it can deliver shotguns and rifles for licensed dealers.
UPS spokesman Bob Godlewski said "several hundred" guns are stolen from the Atlanta-based company each year, although he declined to be specific.
Many of the thefts in the UPS system, big and small, have proved to be inside jobs plotted by employees.
* In August, a UPS employee from Charles County was indicted on federal charges of possessing a stolen handgun and crack cocaine after he was shot during an altercation with two ATF agents who were trying to interview him in a firearms trafficking case. Federal authorities say the man, Anthony Gray, 20, of Waldorf, and another UPS worker stole three guns from the company's Waldorf distribution center in July.
* In 1992, a UPS driver from Alexandria was charged with stealing more than 850 handguns from his route and selling them to finance his crack-cocaine business. Many of the firearms were shipped via UPS by Interarms Inc., of Alexandria, one of the world's largest gun dealerships. The driver, Bernard G. Fuller, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison without parole.
In October, after the thefts from its Landover distribution center, UPS changed its rules and now requires all handguns to be sent by next-day-air service, the form of delivery also required by Federal Express Corp. and Airborne Freight Corp.
That method allows packages to be tracked more closely and reduces the time they are sitting around, making them less vulnerable to thieves, according to UPS officials. Rifles and shotguns, however, can still be sent by standard ground delivery, which is cheaper.
But some gun dealers criticized UPS, saying the company has forced them to pay more to have guns delivered overnight but has done little else to improve security.
"They're punishing us for their incompetence," said Sanford Abrams, owner of Valley Guns in Towson and vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association. "We're livid that we have to pay for UPS's inefficiency and lack of security. They should secure their facilities and check the backgrounds of their employees to make sure they aren't hiring criminals."
Godlewski, the UPS spokesman, said the change was made "to minimize the risk, even though it might be more expensive for the consumer.
"In the end, it's this game of trying to keep guns out of the bad guys' hands and limiting the number of people who have access to them."
He said he did not know how many guns have been stolen since the policy went into effect, but he acknowledged that the new system is not foolproof. "If somebody really wants to get in there, they'll get in there," he said.
Indeed, ATF agents and local authorities are still looking for the culprit who stole six handguns in late October from a UPS distribution center in Ventura, Calif. The weapons, which were sent in accordance with UPS's new rules, were addressed to a gun dealership called Shooters Paradise.
George Rice, the owner, said that over the past two years, 70 guns being shipped to his two stores through UPS have not been delivered. He criticized the company's security division as slow and lackadaisical.
"The people they have checking [the problem], I don't think they could catch anybody if they did it right in front of them," he said. "They would never follow through. Every time I contacted them, it was like, 'Oh, it's no big deal.' It's asinine. Everybody knows the guns are all going right to the streets, to the gangs."
U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said the UPS case in Landover was the biggest federal gun-trafficking investigation in Maryland in years.
"It was of major significance to us," she said. "The sole purpose of getting these guns on the street was to put them in the hands of criminals. The fact that you had so many guns out there, it brings up people's greatest fears."
Battaglia said she met with UPS officials last summer to discuss ways to prevent thefts. She praised the company's new shipping policy for guns. "I was amazed at how responsive they were," she said.
UPS says it aggressively investigates all reports of stolen or missing firearms.
But the local gun dealer whose shipments were stolen at Landover said he also had trouble getting UPS to investigate the missing weapons.
According to documents filed in federal court, the thieves at the UPS distribution center at 8325 Ardwick-Ardmore Rd. began discreetly, taking a gun or two at a time, spaced several days apart.
The first gun--a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber revolver--was taken on Feb. 18, when a box addressed to Maryland Small Arms, an Upper Marlboro gun dealer, vanished from the premises.
Eight days later, a UPS driver delivered another package to Maryland Small Arms that had been sent by Springfield, Mass.-based Smith & Wesson. The gun dealer refused the package, because the box had been tampered with. Two 9mm semiautomatic pistols were later determined to be missing, according to court records.
Three UPS package loaders--Darris Marlon Banks, 19, of Temple Hills; Carlos Ramon Jones, 28, of Landover; and Anthony Rondell Barnett, 28, of Lothian--have been convicted in the weapon thefts. All worked the overnight shift at Landover, making $10.75 an hour.
Banks was the first to figure out that packages addressed to Maryland Small Arms contained firearms and that they were easy to steal, according to court records. He tipped off Barnett, who pulled Jones into the scheme.
On March 3, according to affidavits filed by the ATF, Banks grabbed a box off the conveyor belt and carried it into the back of a brown UPS delivery truck on the loading line. All three men jumped inside, where Banks sliced open the package and pulled out four Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistols.
Banks handed the weapons to Barnett, who in turn gave them to Jones, according to court records. Jones took off his jacket and stuffed the guns in the sleeves so he could sneak them out of the building. The workers re-sealed the empty package. Later that morning, it was delivered to Maryland Small Arms.
Carl Roy, a manager at the store, said employees called UPS several times about the gun thefts but couldn't get the company to respond.
"UPS wouldn't do anything," he said. "We complained and complained, but they wouldn't even come out to take a report."
Meantime, the thieves grew more brazen. On March 19, they stuck a new address label on a package containing 10 Smith & Wesson .357-caliber revolvers and had the whole shipment delivered to Banks's home in Temple Hills, according to court records. On March 24, they did the same thing to a box of nine Beretta semiautomatic pistols that had been ordered by Maryland Small Arms.
Authorities say the thieves resold the guns quickly on the street for about $300 on average, a hefty discount from their suggested retail prices of $450 to $650.
One of the 9mm semiautomatic pistols that was stolen on Feb. 26 was used less than 36 hours later in a carjacking in Temple Hills, records show. Police say Dante Devon Hamm, 20, of the 2500 block of St. Claire Drive in Temple Hills, stole a 1994 Lexus ES 300 at gunpoint from Johnny's Sub Shop on Iverson Street. D.C. police spotted the car a few hours later and arrested Hamm at the wheel.
According to authorities, Hamm bought the pistol from Banks, his longtime neighbor and friend. Hamm has pleaded guilty to federal charges of carjacking and use of a handgun in a crime of violence. He is to be sentenced Jan. 10.
Another gun stolen from the UPS distribution center surfaced on May 25, when Prince George's police arrested Kenneth Vincent Francis, 22, of the 2400 block of Iverson Street in Temple Hills, and charged him with possession of cocaine and marijuana, according to authorities.
Police say Francis was carrying a Beretta .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. He later told ATF agents he had bought the gun in early April for $350 from a convicted cocaine dealer who had acquired the firearm from Banks.
The UPS gun theft ring was broken up in late March, when ATF agents obtained a search warrant and found two of the stolen weapons at Banks's home in Temple Hills. Banks later cooperated with investigators under a limited-immunity agreement and provided information that led to the arrests of Jones and Barnett.
Banks pleaded guilty to one count of possessing stolen firearms and is awaiting sentencing in federal court. Jones pleaded guilty to the same charge and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Barnett pleaded guilty to one count of theft of firearms and was sentenced to four months in prison.
Records also show that Jones had a long criminal history before he was hired by UPS in May 1997. He was convicted of manufacturing and distributing cocaine in November 1990, according to Prince George's County Circuit Court records. Four years later, he was charged with first-degree murder in what prosecutors described as a "drug-related homicide." The charge was dropped when two witnesses refused to testify, court records show.
Godlewski, the UPS spokesman, said the company conducts background checks of all job applicants. But he acknowledged that some criminals slip by.
"UPS believes that most people are honest," he said. "Are bad apples going to get through? Absolutely."