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The 90 connection: How an Ohio-to-Buffalo gun trafficking ring was busted

On March 23, in an open field near Inter Park and Fillmore avenues, Buffalo police officers investigating a report about a man holding a woman at gunpoint recovered a pistol. They submitted the gun – a Glock, Model 33, .357 caliber handgun – for analysis.

According to federal court records, the gun had been purchased in November at a pawn shop in Ashtabula, Ohio, a lakeside city of about 18,000 that’s just over a two-hour drive west of Buffalo on the Thruway.

It also turned out be one of 29 guns an Ashtabula man is accused of buying at nine locations throughout that city over four months, according to federal prosecutors.

The discovery marked the beginning of an investigation that led Buffalo police and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to uncover what they allege is a gun-trafficking ring involving the illegal purchases of more than 100 firearms in and around Ashtabula, many of which are believed to have ended up in Buffalo.

Sixty-two of those guns were bought for one Buffalo man, Robert L. Williams Jr., according to court records. He has been charged with federal counts of weapons possession as a convicted felon and illegally transporting firearms into New York. Nine Ashtabula residents were charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms, six of whom are accused of buying the guns for Williams as straw purchasers.

It’s an increasingly common way that local and federal authorities say guns end up on the streets of Buffalo, where gun violence has claimed the lives of 32 people this year.

Firearms as currency

In an effort to curb gun violence, Buffalo police have seized more than 300 “crime guns” so far this year. “Crime guns” are those used in the course of a crime or found during an investigation of a crime.

Each one is turned over to ATF agents to investigate where they came from.

“The gun tells a story,” said Toby C. Taylor, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the ATF New York Field Division.

Investigators can quickly determine: where it was purchased; if it was ever reported stolen; and whether it’s been used in a previous crime.

“If that gun could talk, what could it tell us?” posed Taylor, who made a recent visit to the Buffalo field office.

Those answers can help solve crimes and lead to federal charges, he said.

Most of the firearms recovered by law enforcement agencies in New York State that the ATF traces originate from out of state. Many are stolen and then sold on the street.

Increasingly, gun traffickers are buying guns in other states with less restrictive gun laws and bringing them here to sell, often at a profit, said James P. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York.

“They’re buying a gun in one of those states for $500 and can sell it up here for $800 to $1,000," Kennedy said. "Turning that kind of profit on 10 guns – that can become very lucrative.”

Traffickers are also bringing guns to New York to trade for heroin and other drugs which they bring back to their home states to sell, doubling and even tripling profits.

“Firearms can be used as currency,” Taylor said.

The Ashtabula connection

When buying a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer, the buyer must pass a background check and also sign the ATF Form 4473. One of the questions on the forms asks: “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?”

It then offers this warning: “You are not the actual transferee/buyer if you are acquiring the firearms on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual transferee/buyer, the licensee cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.”

And that is what straw purchasers do – buy guns claiming the guns are for them but knowing they’re going to sell the firearms to someone else illegally. Also known as lie-to-buys, it’s a federal crime.

Guns in the Buffalo ATF's storage locker in 2017. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

In the Ashtabula-to-Buffalo case, authorities say nine Ashtabula residents were involved in buying guns at pawn shops, gun shows and gun stores in Ohio, where gun laws are less restrictive than New York. In Ohio, gun buyers don’t need a permit to buy either a handgun or long gun and also don’t need to register firearms, according to the website GunsToCarry.com, which tracks gun laws. In New York, buyers need a permit to buy handguns and must register them as well.

The Ashtabula gun trafficking suspects each were charged in July in federal court with conspiracy to traffic in firearms, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

One of the suspects, Victoria Orlando, is accused of buying 16 firearms in April. The next month, court records show, she admitted to an ATF agent that she didn’t buy the weapons for herself and that they were actually for a Buffalo man she only knew as “Rob.” Authorities say Rob is Williams Jr.

Orlando told the ATF agent that she met Rob through her drug dealer, who is among the nine charged with gun trafficking, according to court documents. She said the drug dealer asked her to give Rob a ride. She admitted that during a two-week period in April, she drove Rob and others to gun shows and various federally licensed gun dealers in Ohio and that she bought the guns and delivered them to an address on Reed Street in Buffalo.

Court documents show how authorities were able to document Orlando traveling back and forth from Ohio to Buffalo. License plate readers logged her vehicle at the New York/Pennsylvania border on 10 occasions between April 2 and 23.

Another suspect, Koree Runyan, told ATF agents that she got involved when a tattoo artist she knew asked if she would be interested in making some money, according to court records. Shortly after, Runyan said she got a call from a 716 area code and that the man on the phone told her the two of them were going to go meet a “gun auctioneer.”

The man, who court records say was Williams Jr., asked Runyan how much she would like to make and she said $2,000. The two then went to a house in Perry, Ohio, where she bought and signed for nine firearms.

Another suspect in the ring, Vicky Hoffstetter, told authorities that she was approached by a man who identified himself as “Mark” who had New York license plates and he asked her if she knew where he could get guns. ATF agents said she was shown a photo of Williams but said that wasn’t Mark. She said she bought 10 guns at gun shows for Mark. She said Mark gave her about $50 worth of heroin before each transaction and that he paid her between $500 and $800 for each firearm she bought.

On May 18, Buffalo police and ATF agents conducted two raids in the city. One was on Williams Jr.’s apartment on Reed Street where they said they recovered multiple weapons, including a 12-gauge shotgun.

Williams admitted in an interview to traveling to Ohio on multiple occasions to buy guns and bring them back to Buffalo, according to court documents. "Williams Jr. stated that he purchased the firearms for money, and because he thought since he wasn't personally purchasing the firearms, they could not be traced back to him," the criminal complaint against him said.

The other raid was on an upper and a lower apartment at an address on Parkridge Avenue, where authorities seized 14 firearms. Two of those guns were traced back to the Ashtabula ring, court records show. Titus Thompson, who had two previous felony convictions including one for first-degree attempted assault, was charged with weapons possession.

At the time of the arrests, Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood said: “To get one gun off the street is a good day, but to get 14 guns off the street, that’s a great day.”

'Time-to-crime'

There are telltale signs that a gun has been trafficked.

One of them is the “time-to-crime” – the period between the last documented sale and time it’s recovered by law enforcement.

Argentis Albino Herrera, the Ashtabula man federal authorities say bought the Glock found in the field in March, is alleged to have bought two more guns that were recovered during an investigation at an address on Krettner Street.

Court records show one of those weapons had a 128-day “time-to-crime.” The other had a 184-day “time-to-crime.”

“Most individuals who purchase firearms retain them for extended periods, up to years in length,” ATF Special Agent Paul Brostko wrote in a criminal complaint laying out the charges against the nine Ashtabula suspects. “Therefore, whenever a firearm is recovered in a different state than it was purchased in and involved in a criminal offense shortly after it was purchased, it is highly likely that the firearm was diverted to the criminal possession in some sort of firearm trafficking scheme,” the complaint read.

Albino Herrera's attorney in Buffalo, Joseph Terranova, said he couldn't comment on his client's case because he has not yet received the U.S. Attorney's files beyond the criminal complaint.

ATF agents look for other patterns, too, like when and where the guns are bought and then found.

“…. When multiple firearms purchased by the same person are recovered from different individuals on different dates, at different locations, these firearms are often the product of a firearm trafficking scheme,” Brostko wrote in the criminal complaint.

Last year, law enforcement agencies in New York State asked the ATF to run traces on more than 9,000 firearms. The ATF was able to determine the source state – where the gun was legally purchased – in 5,565 of those firearms. Just over 4,200 of those originated from out of state. The ATF said 271 came from Ohio. Ohio consistently ranked around eighth in states from where firearms recovered in New York and analyzed by the ATF originated, including New York itself, according to annual ATF reports between 2013 and 2017.

U.S. Attorney Kennedy said his office has been working with the Buffalo Police Department on gun cases to determine whether federal charges should be brought.

“The object for all of us is to bring prosecution where we can have the most success,” Kennedy said.

For Buffalo police, getting guns off the streets is a priority, said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards. "Without giving away investigative tactics, our department – and specifically the Intelligence Unit – gives particular attention to illegal gun cases, in partnership with the federal office of the ATF."

Buffalo is one of 20 cities in the U.S. that the Justice Department has identified for assistance in violence reduction, by offering help with training and having experts pay visits.

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