Federal gun trafficking case shows law enforcement capabilities—and limitations

By Jeffrey Anderson. Image by Matt Entwistle

The long arm of the law was on display this week, as federal prosecutors unveiled a gun trafficking case that extends from Atlanta to D.C.

Lawyers for Stephon Jeter, 27, and his cousin Quran, 19, appeared in U.S. District Court on Tuesday and pleaded for pretrial release of their clients, who are indicted in an alleged interstate conspiracy to deal firearms without a license.

A third man, Jeremy Carr, is charged as the purchaser of those weapons, in Georgia, and he and the elder Jeter face multiple counts of interstate travel in furtherance of the scheme. (Quran Jeter also is charged with illegal gun possession, a District of Columbia offense.)

The U.S. Attorney’s Office laid out a multi-state conspiracy case that offers a rare window into gun trafficking along what is known as the Iron Pipeline—the I-95 route(s) used to ferry guns from states with lenient gun laws, such as Florida, Georgia and Virginia, up the Eastern Seaboard.

The case points to challenges for the Metropolitan Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in uncovering gun trafficking conspiracies and retrieving illegal guns that end up on the streets in the hands of hardened criminals.

Illegal firearms only get recovered if they are found on a possessor or if they can be connected to a possessor who has led to a police chase, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Rosenberg told U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather. “Though the conduct of [trafficking] may have stopped, there’s no way of knowing if the process of selling the guns in D.C. has stopped.”      

The investigation lasted more than a year, and involved employees of Adventure Outdoors, the licensed gun seller in Smyrna, Georgia, that sold weapons to Carr. Rosenberg’s memorandum to the court seeking pretrial detention of the Jeters says they traveled to Atlanta to purchase the firearms, then returned to D.C. to resell them. Witness statements are supported by cell tower records, bus tickets and Lyft travel records, according to the memorandum. 

The government says the cousins traveled to Atlanta on a regular basis beginning in June 2016, when they began asking Carr to make “straw purchases” of weapons such as a Taurus PT 111, Taurus PT 709, Zastava PAP M85, Century Arms PAP M92, and Smith and Wesson SD9VE. (A straw purchaser acquires a firearm at a licensed  dealer, affirms they are the intended owner, then transfers or sells to a third party that is unable to purchase their own gun.)

Over the next eight months, prosecutors allege, Stephon Jeter made 12 trips from D.C. to Atlanta and back, and resold the firearms in D.C. for three times their original purchase price in Georgia.

In all, Carr purchased more than 55 firearms on behalf of the Jeters, according to prosecutors, some of which hold up to 100 rounds with extended devices.

Law enforcers have recovered 22 of those weapons, which have turned up in drug trafficking cases, violent felonies and two homicides, one in Maryland, Rosenberg said on Tuesday.

The other 33 firearms remain at-large. “These are firearms that have either been sold already by the [Jeters] or firearms [they] still have access to for resale,” Rosenberg’s memo states. “These firearms have been used in multiple murders, several unsolved shootings, and several drug trafficking offenses.”

On June 24, 2016, for instance, Stephon Jeter traveled by Megabus to Atlanta, according to Rosenberg’s memo. On June 25, Carr bought a Glock .40 at Adventure Outdoors. Jeter returned to D.C. on June 26, and the same gun was used in a shooting in Northeast that same day, the memo states. The gun allegedly was fired in three separate incidents until police recovered it a year later.

Jeter went back to Atlanta the following month, and Carr bought a Smith and Wesson 99m handgun. Jeter returned to D.C. with that weapon on August 2, according to the government. That same gun allegedly was used in a homicide in the District on December 11, 2016.

In late 2016, FBI agents monitored Stephon Jeter as he sold a firearm in D.C. that Carr had purchased in Georgia. (Quran Jeter was arrested in D.C. on November 21, 2016, in possession of a loaded Smith and Wesson SD9VE, a firearm that Carr purchased in Georgia on October  14, 2016.)

Police arrested two other D.C. men who ended up with guns connected Carr’s straw purchases. David Stewart was arrested on October 31, 2016, near the 2300 block of 11th NW with a Taurus PT111 G2 9mm handgun. He was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, which Carr allegedly purchased at Adventure Outdoors in January 2016. Stewart was arrested again on July 10, 2017, in the 1400 block of Park Road NW, with a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber firearm with a high-capacity magazine—a weapon Carr also purchased, in January 2016.

Tyrone Hopkins was arrested on October 16, 2017, near the 1900 block of West Virginia Avenue NE, and charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. Prosecutors say he held that firearm in the course of a  crack cocaine distribution operation. Carr purchased the weapon, a Taurus PT111G2 9mm semi-automatic pistol, in September 2016.

On the surface, tracing recovered guns seems elementary. How could you determine the guns were purchased by Carr? Judge Meriweather asked Rosenberg. “[Federal firearms forms] are required to show your name, serial number of the gun, make and model,” the prosecutor replied. Such procedures allow investigators to identify the point of sale and the purchaser. That is the province of the ATF.

MPD’s Gun Recovery Unit excels at recovering illegal firearms involved with violent crimes, but it does not have a track record of identifying or disrupting gun traffickers and street level distributors.

There are many factors to consider: Local police rely on ATF for interstate enforcement, yet there is no federal anti-trafficking law; an attachment to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill prohibits ATF from releasing specific firearm trace data to city and state law enforcement agencies.

Add to that the gun laws and loopholes of neighboring states, the challenges of coordinating with those states, and the need to connect recovered guns to violent crimes, and gun trafficking investigations look costly, time-consuming and sporadic.

The investigation about to be unfurled in federal court promises to demonstrate the costs of bringing a viable gun trafficking case, and the societal value of proactive gun prosecutions. “It’s definitely an example of the kinds of cases we are looking for,” says William Miller, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Jesse Liu, a Trump appointee. “ATF came up with a good case, and we ran with it. We’re looking to take more of these cases to federal court.”

Gun policy experts and public safety advocates tell District Dig they’d like to see a more concerted effort by local and federal law enforcers to bring in such cases. The mantra of the GRU is that every gun recovered, every bullet retrieved, is a potential human life saved. So consider the potential cost of not apprehending gun traffickers and bringing them to justice: The Jeter-Carr case led to identification of 55 weapons bought in Georgia and sold to purchasers in D.C., but law enforcers thus far have recovered less than half of them. What is happening with the other 33 guns?

MPD Chief Peter Newsham says that, generally, unless his officers have information leading to the specific location of those guns, they would have to recover them in the normal course of business. One former MPD detective says that with 33 guns identified as products of illegal straw purchases, law enforcers should be putting pressure on defendants to point them in the right direction. “You’ve got 33 hot leads,” the former detective says. “This is what they should be doing.”

On Tuesday, as their lawyers argued over pretrial detention, the Jeters remained impassive throughout the hearing in their orange jumpsuits, as family and friends looked on with concern.

Alex Young K. Oh, lawyer for Stephon Jeter, argued that “despite all the scary pictures” proffered by the prosecution, her client’s role was that of a courier—one who engages in interstate travel in order to acquire firearms from the straw purchaser, then transport them to another jurisdiction for resale.

She insisted that the government has known about Jeter’s courier role for close to a year, that he has had no involvement in any felonies committed with the guns, and that there is no evidence that he brought them into the District or engaged in any controlled purchases.

“Whatever caused the government to charge him at this time, it does not have anything to do with new information,” she told the court, adding that Jeter works as an electrician, coaches his son’s football team, and is a devoted family man. “He’s not a flight risk. He’s not your typical criminal who goes in and out of prison and commits crimes.”

Gregory Smith, attorney for Quran Jeter, said his client’s role was “far less clear, and thin.” Though  Quran is charged with conspiracy, Smith argued, he is not charged with any substantive federal offenses. Rather, he is charged with possession of an unregistered pistol (originally purchased by Carr) on November 21, 2016. Thus, he urged Judge Meriweather to impose the least restrictive conditions on Quran, who lives at home and works part-time for his father’s landscaping business.

“He’s been out on bail for a year, including five months of unsupervised release with no proof of any gun sales or signs of being a danger to the community,” Smith said. “The bottom line is he’s been staying home, a kid who is scared to death, a kid with no criminal record and a lot of support.” (The Dig spoke with relatives of both Stephon and Quran Jeter while at the courthouse, and again with Quran’s mother by phone. They declined to comment on the case.)

After hearing arguments from lawyers for both sides, the judge took a recess to review the nature and circumstances of the alleged crimes, the weight of evidence against the defendants, their personal histories, and the degree of danger to the community.

Judge Meriweather ruled that there was a lack of clear and convincing evidence that Quran should be detained, but that there were insufficient conditions to ensure that Stephon would not engage in any firearms transactions. Thus, the elder cousin returned to jail, and the younger one was released into the High Intensity Supervision Program.

Meantime, 33 illegal firearms from Smyrna, Georgia, are out there somewhere in the D.C. area. And unless ATF is trying to find them, or specific leads find their way to the MPD, it’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll turn up, and how much damage they do along the way.

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