His name on the street was “D-Block” and he came to Maine with a plan. Find some locals to peddle drugs, score some guns and ship them back to his gang associates in New York.
A basic operation for a drug-dealing gang member.
Before the law brought him down, D-Block had a good thing going. He got into an arrangement with the owner of Red Wheel Enterprises, a gun shop in Freeport.
He had a group of “straw purchasers,” men or women who would go into the gun store and legally buy guns. Those weapons were turned over to D-Block and the shipments to New York continued.
Nice and neat and the profits were impressive.
“That’s a pretty standard gun-trafficking case,” said Dale Armstrong, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Portland office.
“He brought drugs up and had local people sell them,” Armstrong said. “He used those people as straw purchasers to buy guns and brought those guns back to New York. We started seeing, all of a sudden, guns being recovered in crimes in the different boroughs of New York that had been bought from one gun dealer in Maine.”
In the end, almost everyone involved went down.
D-Block’s real name is Durrell Williams. He’s a 24-year-old gang member and a convicted felon from Queens, N.Y. In 2008, he started serving a 25-year prison sentence for dealing crack and guns.
Wade Collett, the owner of Red Wheel, was also busted. So were a half-dozen locals who had been selling Williams’ crack or buying guns for him.
Cased closed. But hardly an end to the problem.
The simple fact is this: In Maine, a person can buy a gun fairly easily. Thumb through a swap magazine, contact a seller and fork over the cash. You have a firearm, whether it’s a sawed-off shotgun or a semi-automatic handgun.
In states like Massachusetts and New York, gun laws are much stiffer. Even in private sales, a person buying a gun needs a firearms license that requires a background check. It’s difficult to get a gun in those states but not difficult at all to get drugs. The arrangement is this: People from Maine will provide guns in exchange for drugs in the lower states. Drugs come up here; guns go down there.
“It’s unfortunately a market situation,” Maine U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said. “The availability of guns in Maine is such that for those who want them, they can find them.”
Earlier this month, two Boston felons were arrested in Wells after an undercover police operation revealed they had been buying guns in Maine and shipping them back to Massachusetts.
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, a York County man told federal agents that he had sold about 100 handguns to one of the men since September or early October. Agents had additional information that the suspects had been buying guns in Maine, destroying the serial numbers and reselling them in Massachusetts.
Both men were prohibited from owning guns. One had a criminal history that included armed robbery, armed assault with intent to kill and drug trafficking.
According to federal agents, it was another good illustration of how thriving the gun trade is between Maine and lower New England.
There used to be a giant billboard, 250 feet long and 20 feet high, not far from Fenway Park in Boston. It was posted by an anti-gun group and the message was clear: States like Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire were responsible for much of the gun violence in the Bay State.
The numbers bear it out.
The ATF’s Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information has an impressive variety of charts chronicling the drugs-for-guns trade. In 2008, for example, 97 of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Massachusetts had come from Maine. Another 91 came from New Hampshire.
The numbers give a good indication of where criminals get their weapons, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt, Armstrong cautioned. Not every police department requests a history of guns they recover from the street. They are not required to. And not all crime guns in Maine recovered in Massachusetts were illegally trafficked.
Further, the average span between the initial purchase of a firearm and the time it is used in a crime is more than 10 years, according to the ATF. It’s a statistic that suggests criminals are using older, recycled firearms, not newer firearms bought from licensed retailers.
Setting up shop
The guns-for-drugs trade is not something that always happens in abandoned warehouses or smoke-filled rooms. This is Maine, not Hollywood.
In late 2008, a Lewiston cop on assignment with the Central Maine Violent Crimes Task Force went undercover and bought 10 guns — five handguns, three sawed-off shotguns and two assault rifles — right here on the streets you drive every day.
“We were buying different guns from this guy, out of cars in parking lots,” Armstrong says. “They were sawed-off shotguns and things of that nature. They thought they were selling to bikers out of Massachusetts.”
Around the same time, there was a break-in at the Pine Tree Trading Post on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. Fourteen handguns were stolen and whoever took them had big dreams of trading them for drugs: crack and powdered cocaine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin.
The ATF and the Violent Crimes Task Force went to work. You wouldn’t know them if you saw them. The agents appeared all scrappy and rough, the kinds of people who would buy guns on the street for criminal enterprises.
A short time after the break-in, an 18-year-old Lewiston man was arrested for busting into the pawn shop and stealing the guns. Five others were arrested for helping to peddle them.
“That includes the people who help dispose of the guns afterward, knowing the guns were stolen,” Armstrong says.
Eleven of the 14 stolen guns were recovered. Yet many more are still out there.
In the winter of 2009, a 19-year-old Lewiston man was arrested at his home on Bates Street when police went there for a fight. Police who responded stopped a car that was speeding away from the brawl. Inside, they found a loaded assault rifle.
Following up on that, Lewiston police, the Violent Crimes Task Force and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency investigated the source of the assault rifle. In doing so, they found six more — two assault rifles, two handguns and two rifles — at another Lewiston location. They also found cocaine, marijuana, cash and a bulletproof vest, all signatures of a thriving guns-for-drugs trafficking network. All of the items, police said, had been stolen in a Portland burglary.
Burglaries are one of the main ways thieves get firearms to be peddled. Armstrong can list a dozen cases without even going to his files. Criminals break into homes and cars in search of guns. They smash their way into gun stores in spite of high-tech security systems. The demand is great enough to justify the risk.
But there are easier ways. Through swap publications like Uncle Henry’s, people can pick and choose what type of weapons they are out to buy. No background check is necessary in such a sale in Maine. That’s why the drug dealers from Massachusetts like to do business here.
“When there are disparities in gun laws between cities, there will be people who will exploit those disparities,” Armstrong said.
Last year, a 22-year-old member of a street gang in Boston was sentenced to 17½ years in prison for moving guns and drugs between Boston and Maine. The suspect had recruited nearly two dozen Mainers to buy guns through Uncle Henry’s. He then sold the weapons to other members of his gang, the Franklin Hill Giants. Investigators said before that suspect was brought down, he was doubling and tripling the money he paid for the guns in Maine.
Soon after that case broke, the Boston Herald announced it would stop distributing Uncle Henry’s in the city.
U.S. Attorney Silsby is quick to point out that most people who sell guns through magazine advertisements don’t always mean to peddle their weapons to bad guys. But, she says, that is always the risk. You place your ad and the next thing you know, a gang-banger is knocking on your door.
“They’ll read through them and identify who has the kind of guns they want,” Silsby said. “The potential is there for those private sellers to be victimized. There could be people targeting their gun, buying their gun, when in fact it could be some gang member.”
According to Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Supervisor Gerry Baril, the guns-for-drugs pipeline follows a similar path as the drug trafficking route between Maine and population centers to the south, in cities such as Hartford, Conn., New York and the greater Boston area.
Criminals in Boston and criminals in Maine do a lot of business largely because of the proximity.
“You can be in Maine from Boston in an hour,” Silsby said. But it’s not only Boston. “We’re seeing drugs coming in from Canada; we’re seeing drugs come in from Connecticut; we’re seeing drugs coming in from Worcester.”
Sometimes, Maine criminals bring guns to the lower states. Sometimes, gangsters from those states come up here to do business. It’s about equal.
“There’s a clear nexus between guns and drugs. They go hand in hand,” said Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere. “Our big concern is that these guns are falling into the hands of people who are using them for drug activity or for gang activity.”
Most of those drug dealers and gang members can’t buy guns no matter where they go. They are convicted felons, some with long rap sheets that include robberies, drug trafficking or murder. They need someone else to go into the pawn shops or gun stores to pick up the weapons.
Enter the straw purchasers. They are men and women with no felonies on their records. They may or may not know the guns they purchase will be used in crimes. Many straw purchasers are the girlfriends of gang members or drug dealers. Others are those looking for street credibility or a quick buck.
Turning over a gun to a known criminal is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
But when the numbers are crunched, they show that the bulk of criminals aren’t turning to straw purchasers. They don’t need to. They can cut out that perilous middle step altogether.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 40 percent of criminals obtain their firearms from friends or family. Another 40 percent get firearms from illegal sources on the streets. Less than 8.5 percent of criminals obtain their firearms through straw purchases.
In early March, a Lewiston man was sentenced to three years in federal prison for illegal possession of firearms. Prosecutors said 22-year-old Joshua Culleton had plenty of guns when he was caught, but they were not obtained through straw purchases.
In 2008, authorities seized from Culleton’s home several stolen firearms and a bulletproof vest, as well as 15.3 grams of cocaine, 35.2 grams of marijuana and a digital scale. He also had $4,981 in cash, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland.
Culleton – prohibited from owning guns due to mental health issues – confessed to having received the firearms and vest from the person who stole them in exchange for cash and marijuana.
To police and federal agents, it’s a variation of the same old story, one illegal item being swapped for another by criminals with enterprising minds.
“You’ve got people doing things that are illegal and trading for commodities that are illegal,” said the ATF’s Armstrong. “It’s been going on forever, since we’ve had these items.”
The trading can be violent on both ends, police and prosecutors say. Guns bought in Maine and taken back to Massachusetts or New York are often recovered where homicides or robberies were committed.
In Maine, at the point of sales, where there is competition for drugs, guns or turf, there is frequently violence.
“The good news is that we recognized this long ago,” said Bussiere, Lewiston’s police chief. “We created these task forces to help combat the problem.”
In Lewiston, there are always local police officers who are sworn to agencies such the Central Maine Violent Crimes Task Force, the U.S. Marshal’s Service or other groups assigned specifically to target guns, drugs and related violence.
Bussiere is a board member of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal program created to combat gun and gang violence. Among other things, that group distributes an informational packet to gun sellers with warnings on its jacket: “Protect yourself, protect your guns. Be aware. Don’t sell your guns to a stranger. Your gun could be used in a crime. You could be ordered to testify in court.”
The ATF and the National Shooting Sport Foundation lead a campaign called “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” which aims to prevent illegal gun purchases.
There are no indications that gun laws in Maine, Massachusetts or New York will change any time soon. Nobody interviewed for this story was calling for that. Their focus is on combating crime, not the right to bear arms.
Silsby pointed out that the overwhelming majority of gun sellers try their best to sell only to legitimate customers.
“It’s perfectly lawful,” she said. “The majority of these people want to do the right thing. They don’t want to find themselves in court because a gun they sold showed up at a crime scene somewhere out of state.”
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overwhelming majority of licensed gun dealers — 99 percent — are law-abiding businessmen and women. In 2005, the ATF moved to revoke about 2.5 percent of all licenses.
“We’re not talking about preventing gun ownership,” Bussiere said. “We just want to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals.”