It was set up to look like an import-export clothing business in Northwest Washington, open by appointment only. But its operators weren't dealing in clothing -- they let it be known they were in the market for guns and drugs.
The employees were undercover D.C. police posing as unscrupulous businessmen, and the clientele they were seeking were gun-toting criminals.
The one-year storefront sting -- dubbed "Operation Import-Export" -- led to 35 arrests in the District and North Carolina and the seizure of 31 firearms and $1.5 million in drugs destined for the D.C. streets, police announced yesterday.
Police officials said they concocted the operation while probing violent gangs in Northwest that were trafficking in guns and drugs.
Those arrested include a major illegal firearms trafficker in North Carolina and a methamphetamine dealer tied to a Mexican drug ring operating in the southwestern United States who was trying to establish an outlet in the District, authorities said.
"I think it pretty much speaks for itself when you see the amount of narcotics taken, the dangerous weapons taken off the streets that would have been used out here to commit more crimes," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said at a news conference at the 4th District station on Georgia Avenue NW, where the seized items were displayed.
The weapons included Tech 9 machine gun pistols, 9mm pistols, shotguns and a Bushmaster assault rifle, the type used in the recent sniper shootings. About 85 percent of the guns came from a gang in Duplin County, N.C., authorities said. Some guns were seized when authorities made the arrests, but most were bought at the storefront.
Several weapons were stolen from homes and businesses, but so far none of the guns has been linked to a crime, authorities said.
The drugs seized included both powder and crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, authorities said.
All but three of those arrested have pleaded guilty to charges, according to authorities, but their names and other details remain under court seal because the investigation is continuing. Four people were arrested in North Carolina and the remainder in the District.
Authorities provided limited information about the operation of the storefront, including its location, saying they hoped to launch a similar sting in the future.
Police set up the store, which had no name, in September 2001, said Inspector Hilton Burton, head of the D.C. police major narcotics branch. Undercover narcotics officers floated the word in the criminal community that an export-import clothing business was interested in buying guns and drugs, he said.
People made appointments to meet with the officers posing as store employees, who negotiated prices, Burton said. Some guns went for $50. The Bushmaster gun fetched the highest price: about $900. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assisted in and helped fund the operation.
The customers eventually led investigators to the alleged gang of suppliers in Duplin. Police said they shut down the fake business in early August, but they waited until most cases were resolved before announcing the arrests.
Looking at the display of guns, D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said he was grateful that police and the ATF "got these weapons off the street before any violent crimes happened."
"If my residents saw the size of these guns on this table and knew that this was in their community, they would be even more fearful than they probably are," he said.