The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He put 224 guns on the streets. His family would pay a price.

Ebony Perkins, 43, lost two sons — years apart — during shootings in her former neighborhood in Northeast D.C. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

They called him “The Plug,” slang for drug slinger, and authorities said he kept a gun tucked at his side, boasting he was “always ready to shoot.”

Bobby Perkins Jr. was also always ready to sell. He would drive from Virginia to a D.C. parking lot with a rental car full of guns, locals told authorities, unloading them from the trunk to whoever would buy. His customers included rivals in a feud between crews in the Northeast Washington neighborhoods where he had grown up.

Perkins, 29, is now in prison for trafficking guns and drugs. The case is an extreme example of how guns regularly flow into the District from Virginia, fueling rising homicides and other crimes; police said most of the firearms that flood the District are bought and resold one by one.

“The District functionally has no gun dealers and a serious gun problem,” said Thomas L. Chittum III, chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s Washington field office. “Those guns aren’t falling from the sky, they’re being trafficked.”

Of the 224 guns prosecutors know Perkins sold in just five months of 2015, 94 have been recovered at crime scenes from Virginia to New York, officials said. Five were linked to homicides — two in the District, one in Prince George’s County.

One was used to kill Perkins’s teenage cousin.

'I don't like to deal in violence'

Bryan Perkins was on the way to the store with his mother’s credit card when he passed a group throwing dice outside his family’s apartment in Edgewood, in Northeast. It was just after 9 p.m. on a July night in 2015.

Police said at least one gunman opened fire on the group, hitting three players and Bryan, 18. The bullet pierced his chest.

Bobby, who grew up nearby, had cheered on his younger cousin at high school basketball games. And while relatives didn’t see Bobby at his cousin’s large funeral, he was at the reception. Bryan had looked up to Bobby, who had served in the Marine Corps, worked as an electrician and had a wife and two small children.

Federal law enforcement officials said Bobby Perkins heard on the street that a gun he sold was used in the killing and wanted to retaliate. To the victim’s mother, who didn’t know about the gun connection until told by a Washington Post reporter, the news was “crazy.”

Said Ebony Perkins, “I just broke down.”

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham called the case “a complete tragedy.” With homicides in the nation’s capital spiking to 160 last year, the chief has frequently blamed the deadly violence on what he says is easy access to illegal guns.

While in prison, he said, Bobby Perkins “can think about his family who suffered. It’s got to be tough for him. Maybe he hadn’t given a lot of thought to what he was doing. This is the real-world version of what can happen with these guns.”

Bobby Perkins’s immediate family declined to be interviewed, but court filings sketch his biography.

Growing up in the Washington area, he was expelled from high school in the 10th grade but got back on track and earned his GED at age 16. He printed out fliers and went door-to-door seeking odd jobs, his mother told a judge in a letter, saving up money to buy a car. He learned the electrician’s trade and was qualified as an airport firefighter by the Defense Department. He joined the Marine Corps and became an aircraft rescue and firefighting specialist when he was 18.

Homicides spike in District as shootings become more lethal, police say

But at some point, ATF officials said, Perkins began convincing fellow Marines to buy firearms, report them stolen and sell them to him. He would then sell the weapons in the D.C. area for a profit, the officials said.

A Marine Corps spokeswoman said Perkins was given an early discharge because “the character of his service was incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards.” The Corps declined to provide additional details.

Perkins first came on local law enforcement’s radar in 2014, when a man was arrested with one of his guns after taking a wrong turn on a pizza run and ending up at the CIA. The investigation intensified when a Navy veteran in Richmond named Leonard Laraway was picked up by ATF and admitted selling at least 200 guns to a man he knew as “Bob.”

Determining the legality of gun sales between individuals in Virginia can be difficult. Records are not required, and the seller does not have to ask if the buyer is a state resident or prohibited from possessing a firearm.

“Unlicensed dealing is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Chittum said. “A lot of times we don’t identify these firearm trafficking schemes until guns are recovered, often in violent crimes, and then working back.”

That’s how ATF found Laraway, who pleaded guilty to unlicensed firearms dealing and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Laraway could not be reached, and his attorney declined to comment.

Laraway cooperated with agents, giving them records. Weapons he sold to Perkins were repeatedly linked to crimes, but still the case stalled.

“Despite an exhaustive search, law enforcement officers were unable to locate a single witness willing to admit that he purchased a firearm from Perkins that Perkins had originally acquired from Laraway,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina Cuellar said in a statement.

But Perkins, who had moved to Stafford, Va., had also come to the attention of local law enforcement as part of an investigation into violent drug dealers. Federal prosecutors realized there was another way into the case.

Locals began linking Perkins to both drugs and firearms. He was seldom seen without a gun, even in his apartment, according to court documents. One person told agents Perkins kept a gun on the kitchen table, one on top of the refrigerator near the stove where powder cocaine was cooked into crack and one on the couch when he watched TV.

Witnesses told ATF that Perkins had provided a gun to a man who used it to kill someone and described seeing his distinctive navy blue BMW at shooting scenes.

In January 2016, Perkins was arrested after a drive-by shooting in his neighborhood. No one was wounded, but more than two dozen shell casings were scattered outside an apartment building. That case is pending in Stafford County court; a co-conspirator was convicted of crimes related to firing a weapon.

Cuellar said many witnesses initially were reluctant to come forward, but “after the secrecy of the federal grand jury was explained to them, many of these witnesses had a change of heart.”

Perkins ultimately pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria, Va., to illegally dealing guns in the District and beyond and selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines. He told the judge that while he had an affinity for guns, “I’m not a violent person. I don’t — I don’t like to deal in violence.”

His attorney, C. Dean Latsios, disputed the stated observances of some of the government witnesses and noted the line “always ready to shoot” came from a dubious source — an uncorroborated statement from an informant and felon paid $200.

A federal prosecutor urged a tough sentence, writing in a court document that the killing of Perkins’s cousin underscores the “unpredictability and cruelty of gun violence.”

In August 2018, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III gave Perkins 12 years in prison, sweeping aside Perkins’s arguments, telling him, “You clearly were surrounded by instruments of violence.”

'I'm not going to tell him it's his fault'

Bobby Perkins’s family lived in Fort Totten; Bryan’s about a mile south in Edgewood. Bobby Perkins frequently saw his cousins, Bryan and his older brother, Dezmoine, at family cookouts, basketball and football games.

Dezmoine was shot in May 2010 outside the family’s apartment. Ebony Perkins remembers the frantic call from neighbors and rushing to cradle her son as he died.

He was 16.

Bryan was 10 at the time, and his mother said he struggled. “He would say things like they should be together,” Ebony Perkins said.

Bryan tried to distract himself by focusing on basketball, his mother said. He later expressed interest in designing his own clothing line. Eventually he entered an alternative school for students with social and emotional needs.

On a Friday night, July 17, 2015, his mother gave him a credit card, and he headed to the store. He was shot as he passed or paused at the dice game. Ebony does not believe her son was the target.

No arrest has been made. But authorities said a gun found by police in the District one year later was linked to the shooting. Seized guns are test-fired and signature markings made as bullets travel through the barrel are entered into a nationwide database and compared to those on bullets used in crimes.

For Ebony, knowing the gun that killed her son originated in her own family only adds to her anguish. Every so often, she said a homicide detective invites her to the station to talk.

“I just don’t go anymore,” she said. “I ask them, ‘Is there something new you have to tell me before I waste my time?’ ” Scared of the violence, she moved out of the city to a smaller apartment in Maryland with her surviving son and 8-year-old daughter.

“My heart does not beat the same since I lost Dezmoine,” she said. “And just as I started to recover from Dezmoine, it turned around and happened to Bryan.”

Ebony said she hasn’t heard from Bobby Perkins.

“He probably don’t know what to say to me,” Ebony said. “I’m not going to tell him it’s his fault, because it’s not. He didn’t know it was going to happen.”

Read more:

He used to sell drugs on D.C. streets. Now he’s paid to make them safer.

He was a small-time heroin dealer in Virginia. Four women he dated have fatally overdosed.

A law enforcement trailblazer rose from the segregated South to the elbow of presidents