Delaware Valley law enforcement agencies announced arrests in a major gun trafficking ring that involved an alleged criminal enterprise involving nearly 100 firearms.
At a press conference on Wednesday, District Attorneys Kevin Steele (D-Montgomery County) and Matthew Weintraub (R-Bucks) were joined by acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry, Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy and members of state police and ATF.
Steele said Larry Williams, 40, of Philadelphia led a crime ring of straw purchasers who bought at least 94 firearms and tried to buy 23 more but were stopped by alert gun dealers. Twenty-nine guns were recovered by police.
Montgomery County detectives began the investigation in June 2022.
“They were obtaining significant amounts of guns in short periods of time and then reselling them to juveniles,” said Steele. “Or felons who were unable to obtain guns and then used them in other crimes.” He said those prohibited from owning guns would include people with a record of domestic violence or mental illness. “Or to provide guns to drug traffickers.”
County detectives have investigated 750 straw purchase cases since last fall.
The Williams group was the largest snared by law enforcement in an investigation that began with Abington’s police department and led to an investigation by county detectives. Steele said investigators used the Electronic Record of Sales (EROS), cell phones, records, and social media to track the straw purchasers.
It ultimately led them to Larry Williams.
“Williams couldn’t buy a firearm because of his past indiscretions,” said Steele. “He recruited other defendants who lived in Philadelphia to buy firearms.”
Steele said Robert Cooper III, 23, purchased 41 guns and tried to buy eight others in less than two months. Zair Stenson, 26, bought 36 firearms and tried to buy seven others; Malik Rowell-Jernigan, 24, purchased eight firearms and tried to buy three additional guns; Kevin Lester-Logan, 24, bought three guns; Daynell Jones, 40, bought three firearms; Zakayla Deshields, 22, bought three firearms and Shadiid Smaley, 23, attempted to purchase five firearms.
Many of these purchases happened at gun shows in Oaks, Allentown, and York, Steele said. Williams would point out the guns he wanted to his associates. Then, using cell phones and payment apps, they would quickly resell the weapons.
Guns trafficked by the organization have been used in a robbery in Connecticut, as well as shootings in Philadelphia and other crimes.
“It takes collaboration,” Henry said of the various agencies involved in the gun cases. “If this case doesn’t say it, I don’t know what case does. Guns have no borders.”
“Guns far too often end up in the hands of dangerous individuals,” she said. “There could have been even more weapons if not for the flag raised by firearm dealers…they did the right thing. This case really shows there are still many ways to flood the streets with firearms.”
“We are working tirelessly around the clock to be sure (people) are safe,” she said. “The numbers are upside down. The numbers don’t work…But for the grace of some gun dealers that are tracking these sales and reporting them. That’s like locking the barn door after the horse left the barn.”
“We recovered almost 30 guns. That leaves another 65 guns that are out there. And sadly, you never fully exhale. I’m always waiting to get that call that this illegally purchased gun was used to do some terrible damage to our citizens,” Weintraub said.
Asked by the Delaware Valley Journal what percentage of illegal possession of gun charges get dismissed through plea bargains, Steele said he did not have those numbers. But many of the straw purchase cases have gone to trial.
“And those are significant sentences,” he said. “These charges aren’t going away on people…Brad Fox was a police officer here that was killed by a man using a straw purchaser, and [the shooter] told that straw purchaser that he would kill a cop if he got stopped, and he did.”
The Brad Fox law, signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 and named for a murdered Plymouth Township police officer, requires a mandatory five-year sentence for straw purchasers.
DVJournal asked why the U.S. Attorney’s Office is stepping in and handling so many gun cases, mainly in Philadelphia, Steele said, “I think we’re handling a lot. We’ve had 750 investigations along those lines. Welcome to Montgomery County.”
“We have legislation to do these investigations,” he said. “We’re all working together. And especially the collar counties of Philadelphia. We’ve been really, really active as a team, and we’ll continue to do that. You’re going to hear more about that teamwork going forward. Matt’s got Bucks. I’ve got Montgomery. And that’s our focus.”