When a computer check on the loaded 9mm Ruger pistol found near the body of 23-year-old Edgar Camacho-Alvarado after he was shot and killed by a deputy U.S. marshal came back showing it was stolen from a car almost a year ago, police were not surprised.
Nor were they shocked when a computer check on the handgun found near the body of 19-year-old Jose Rodriguez, who was shot by Albuquerque police officers in December, showed it was stolen from a car parked in the driveway of the owner’s Northeast Heights home.
There were other key similarities:
Both Camacho-Alvarado and Rodriguez had prior felony convictions, meaning neither man could legally purchase, possess or sell a firearm. Neither could the suspects in the shooting deaths of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner and Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster.
Both Andrew Romero, who is charged with Benner’s murder, and Davon Lymon, who faces federal charges and is the suspect in Webster’s killing, have extensive felony records.
Although some facts of the shootings might be in dispute, one fact is clear:
There are hundreds of handguns in the possession of criminals in New Mexico, and a vast majority of them were stolen at some point from homes and vehicles, then sold, traded or resold on the black market.
Other firearms end up in the hands of criminals after legal “person-to person” sales over the Internet in transactions that don’t require background checks.
Police throughout New Mexico recovered more than 1,500 firearms in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, during criminal investigations ranging from drunken driving arrests to homicides. On average, those firearms came into police possession more than 10 years after they were legally purchased from a licensed firearms dealer.
Only a handful – 38 of the 1,500 guns confiscated that year – were purchased from a firearms dealer within a three-month period before being confiscated by police during a criminal investigation.
“Smash-and-grab” thefts from vehicles are a major source.
“We see a lot of crimes connected to guns that are stolen from people’s vehicles,” APD spokesman Celina Espinoza said.
Trying to determine whether the person arrested or found in possession of the weapon actually stole it usually isn’t a high priority for police. The theft is often months or even years old.
U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez has noted that the easy availability of firearms to felons is one reason for his office’s “Worst of the Worst” program that takes some defendants involved in violent local crimes with firearms and prosecutes them in federal court, where longer prison sentences are common.
Guns, whether they are stolen from a home, car or business, are difficult to track once they are stolen.
Guns, handguns in particular, have value on the street, where drug dealers and other criminals will pay in cash or drugs – or both – for weapons.
On occasion, law enforcement can track the gun back to its legal owner and return it.
But so many weapons trade hands legally in the unregulated secondary market that, barring a hit in the National Crime Information Center computer database, most of the weapons seized gather dust on police evidence room shelves until a judge orders them destroyed.
More auto burglaries
For years, police considered residential burglaries as the main route for criminals to get their hands on firearms.
That appears to be changing.
According to some preliminary statistics, APD reported 423 auto burglaries in which firearms were stolen in a recent 12-month period. In a nine-month period last year, there were 256 residential burglaries in which firearms were stolen.
Police also say, however, that more guns might be taken from a single residential burglary than an auto burglary.
But auto burglaries in Albuquerque have jumped from about 6,000 a year in 2013 to more than 8,000 last year.
Auto burglary takes just a few moments and can happen anywhere. The number of auto burglaries is more than double the number of residential burglaries.
And guns are thieves’ gold.
“Firearms don’t lose their value, compared to other items, like electronics, when stolen,” APD spokesman Tanner Tixier said.
Source of guns
There aren’t many studies on how criminals obtain firearms.
Among the few are surveys by Duke University that asked inmates in the Chicago jail system over a period of years where they obtained firearms.
They pointed to people in their social group – family, friends and fellow gang members – as their source. Few admitted committing crimes to get weapons.
Federal agents told the Journal that family members buying handguns for relatives who have felony convictions or are under the age of 18 is another avenue for easy access to weapons.
Prosecutors told the Journal it typically doesn’t matter whether the weapon was stolen or how someone came into possession of the gun.
For charges of using a firearm in a crime or “felon in possession,” prosecutors simply need to prove the defendant’s prior criminal record and that the defendant had the weapon.
In federal cases of felon in possession, there is the added component that the weapon was at some point transported across state lines after it was manufactured.
Most of the time, police don’t get much useful information from people they arrest about where they got the weapons – unless they stole it themselves.
For instance, two years ago, Jovan Martinez stole an APD bait car.
When APD detectives shut the car down, Martinez ran, leaving behind a loaded .22-caliber revolver and methamphetamine.
He was caught after a short foot chase and told detectives (after he was advised of his rights) that he bought the gun from a “friend” for $80 and some methamphetamine.
Where the weapon came from wasn’t the priority. Getting Martinez locked up was.
Martinez, who had four prior convictions for residential burglary, pleaded guilty in federal court to felon in possession charges.
He had been charged at age 12 with involuntary manslaughter for throwing a rock off an Interstate 40 overpass that caused an accident that killed a truck driver.
Martinez was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for the drug charge and an additional five years in prison for possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
But his story that he got the gun from a “friend” is a familiar refrain.
Jorge Escobedo told agents a similar story.
Escobedo was selling heroin in Albuquerque and felt the need for protection, so he purchased a .380-caliber handgun from a “friend” for $80.
He was carrying the weapon when narcotics agents caught up with him.
He pleaded guilty to possessing 100 grams of heroin and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Prosecutors dropped the gun charge.
There is another trend in the legal sale of guns that concerns police and prosecutors – the safety of people who acquire guns legally, then try to sell them by advertising on the Internet.
There is no requirement that an individual selling a personal firearm check someone’s criminal background before selling a gun.
The danger to the seller is that somebody like Thomas Martinez might respond to the ad and ask to meet the seller in a parking lot.
On at least three occasions last July, Martinez did just that. And with the help of two accomplices, he stole the guns.
Each robbery happened the same way. The seller arrived, took the firearm out of the trunk and showed it to the potential buyer. Then two other men, one with a firearm, would approach and simply take the firearms away.
On one occasion, they tried to steal the victim’s car, which was driven by the victim’s girlfriend, who managed to drive away from the attempted carjacking.
Police identified the ringleader as Thomas Martinez.
When police attempted to arrest him, Martinez fled by taking cars in a series of hijackings until the last car crashed while he fought with the driver. Martinez was arrested and has pleaded guilty to federal carjacking charges.
Martinez pleaded not guilty to the local armed robbery charges, and that case is pending. He is awaiting sentencing on the federal charges.