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Montco DA Announces Arrest of Alleged Arsonist

(from a press release)

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, Upper Moreland Township Police Chief Andrew J. Block and Lower Moreland Police Chief David J. Scirrotto announce the arrest of Sean Gahagan, 56, on multiple felony arson charges as well as risking catastrophe and other charges.

The criminal charges are related to fires that occurred on Dec. 29, 2023, at a commercial business in Upper Moreland Township and on a residential property in the Huntingdon Valley section of Lower Moreland Township.

At approximately 8:45 p.m. on Dec. 29, 2023, firefighters and Upper Moreland Police were dispatched to a fire at JG Transmissions, an auto mechanic shop at 616 Davisville Road. Upon arrival, they found the commercial building engulfed in flames, with the worst of the fire centered around the front office area of the building.

Just 15 minutes before, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Lower Moreland Police were called to a residence on Huntingdon Pike for a shed fire on the back of the property. The fire was put out by police using with a fire extinguisher prior to the arrival of firefighters.

An investigation into the cause of the fire, which completely destroyed JG Transmissions and caused limited damage to the shed, found that both fires were intentionally set. Inside the shed, fire investigators found a can of fire-starting fluid and a can of “Gum Cutter,” which is a highly flammable product used to clean various parts of automotive engines. The fire investigators also found that “Gum Cutter” is a product used by JG Transmissions.

A joint investigation by Upper Moreland and Lower Moreland Police found that Gahagan, a former employee of JG Transmissions, had visited the business at 10 a.m. on the day of the fire asking for work, but was told none was available.

At the time of his unannounced visit, Gahagan was wearing a hooded camouflage jacket and driving a red Chevrolet Cobalt. Detectives secured surveillance video from the 600 block of Davisville Road captured a Cobalt type vehicle parking at a business near JG Transmissions, then showed a male running from the car toward JG Transmissions and running back to car about six minutes before the fire was reported to 911.

Surveillance video from near the residential fire also captured Gahagan’s vehicle just before the fire was discovered. Additionally, license plate readers nearby captured the vehicle’s license plate, which was matched to Gahagan’s vehicle.

Sean Gahagan

On Jan. 1, 2024, Lebanon City Police arrested Gahagan for trespassing inside a church. At the time of his arrest, Gahagan was wearing a camouflage jacket that matched the subject’s jacket seen in surveillance video running from the fire at JG Transmissions.

Gahagan, of Lebanon, is charged with first-degree felony arson, as well as six other felony counts of arson, risking catastrophe, burglary, theft by unlawful taking, criminal mischief and possessing an instrument of crime.

He was arraigned on Jan. 19, 2024, by Magisterial District Judge Denise Ashe, who set bail at $500,000 cash, and Gahagan was remanded to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. A bail review hearing is scheduled in the Court of Common Pleas for Jan. 26, 2024.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., Jan. 29, 2024, before Magisterial District Judge Thomas P. Murt. The case will be prosecuted by Assistant Chief of Trials Tanner Beck.


Montco Cracks Down on Straw Gun Purchases as Philly Crooks Come to Suburbs

While the debate over adding new gun laws continues, a local prosecutor says Pennsylvania’s current laws can have a major impact on gun crimes, and he believes his record proves it.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and his department have been cracking down on straw purchases of guns, charging some two dozen people with so-called straw purchasing and related offenses.

All of the defendants are from Philadelphia.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defines a straw purchase as buying a gun for someone prohibited by law from possessing one or for someone who does not want their name associated with the transaction.

In June, the district attorney’s office announced the arrests of Antwoin Lofton, 25, and Aja Morris, 27, who were part of an organization involved in straw purchasing of firearms. Kenneth Lyles, 30, has been named in the case. Morris and Lofton turned themselves in. Lyles remains at large.

“Gun trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms put guns in the hands of criminals, arming people who are not legally allowed to possess a firearm,” Steele said in a statement. “This is dangerous and a threat to public safety. We are committed to continue going after and tracking down anyone buying and selling firearms illegally in Montgomery County.”

According to his spokesperson, Montgomery County law enforcement has investigated illegal gun purchases involving more than 750 firearms since 2019.

Unlike other prosecutors in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who routinely promote more gun control, Steele prefers the law on the books.

“I think we could use more tools,” Steel said, adding he believes Pennsylvania’s current gun laws are particularly effective when local authorities team up with federal agencies. “Lost and stolen mandatory reporting could be helpful in some cases. My point is [the current statutes do] not hinder investigations in these cases…using those existing laws, strategies, and new technologies successfully.”

Tough sentences for those convicted of gun crimes are important, too, Steel added. He pointed to efforts to break up gun trafficking groups and the five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for multiple straw purchases as proof that a strong message is being sent to criminals.

“If you look at the cases, not just the arrests, we’re getting significant sentencing in these cases,” he added. “In Montgomery County, we have not found a system that makes it difficult to punish these cases. Our courts take these cases very seriously, and you see that reflected in the sentencing.”

Since the beginning of the year, 22 people have been arrested and charged with straw purchasing. That includes a case in February when eight people were arrested in connection with a gun trafficking organization that purchased 94 firearms and tried to purchase 23 more, all to be illegally resold. All the defendants were from Philadelphia and faced dozens of felony charges related to straw purchases of firearms, illegally transferring firearms, operating a corrupt organization, and other charges.

Steele recently wrapped up his tenure as president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and remains a member of the executive committee. PDAA says its mission is to make sure the public and its members understand criminal justice matters.

The PDAA has long complained that straw purchases are to blame for the gun violence in Pennsylvania. It is also one of the few issues that tend to unite gun advocates and gun control groups.

“Generally, Pennsylvania gun laws are quite lax,” said CeaseFirePA’s executive director, Adam Garber. “The main protection we have is a strong background check system. But beyond that, you can walk in and buy a gun in a very short period with minimal safeguards and no training needed.”

CeaseFirePA’s deputy director of government affairs, Brandon Flood, elaborated, saying that Brady (Brady gave Pennsylvania a B-minus in its ratings of gun laws across the United States. That is far from a failing grade, and Flood added the commonwealth can do much more.

“There is definitely room for improvement,” he said. “Just to illustrate, recently, the state legislature took up the issue of liquor privatization, a proposal that was defeated. We need to apply that same level of energy to tighten our gun laws. One thing Pennsylvania gets right is the need for a background check. Anyone who goes into a federally licensed firearm store or even looks to purchase a firearm or a rifle at a gun show is subjected to an extensive criminal background check.”

Steele said having such additional laws would be useful, but not having them need not hinder gun trafficking investigations.

One commonsense strategy used by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau is to routinely review multiple gun purchases by individuals.

“Typically, an investigation begins when a person who is not legally allowed to own a gun is arrested/found to be in possession of a firearm, said Kate Delano, a Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “That firearm is traced to the purchaser, and the investigation begins.”

According to Delano, tracking those cases is very time-consuming as many gun shops still use a paper/carbon-copy system to record firearms purchases, which are mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to the Pennsylvania State Police, who then hand-key the information into a database. Given the volume of purchases, it takes a while to record serial numbers related to gun purchases.

“The Attorney General’s Office has been making a concerted effort for the last several years to get more gun stores onto the Electronic Record of Sale (EROS) system, which instantly sends the record of the firearms purchase to the state police database, which is traceable by police officers who recover a gun at a scene,” Delano said. “There is continued outreach, and progress has been made, but there is a long way to go.

For example, a routine review of gun purchases by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau led to the investigation and arrest of Daniel Lucas in 2020. Lucas, also from Philadelphia, allegedly straw-purchased 36 firearms in 77 days in eight counties. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Montgomery County Judge Wendy Rothstein to ten to twenty years in prison.

Another technological tool for law enforcement is the NIBN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) machine that tracks firearms by the signatures left on the fired cartridge cases like a fingerprint. All four suburban Philadelphia counties share the technology. When a bullet is fired, each gun leaves its own signature on the casings. The NIBN system compares these individual casings against its six million FCC database and creates a list of high-probability matches.

Steele said a growing number of gun trafficking organizations have been dismantled, and the mandatory minimum sentencing required by the Brad Fox Law for straw purchasing sends a strong message to the defendants and others who might be thinking of straw purchasing that it’s not worth it.

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Montco DA Steele Commends 20, Presents Medal of Valor

From a press release

In a ceremony Thursday at the Montgomery County Fire Academy, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele honored five civilians and 15 law enforcement officers with commendations for their extraordinary efforts and exemplary work in protecting and serving the residents of Montgomery County. Four police officers were awarded the “Medal of Valor,” the District Attorney’s highest honor presented to select members of law enforcement who bravely placed their lives at risk to protect the citizens of Montgomery County. This is the first time the Medal of Valor was awarded since 2012.

“Montgomery County has some of the finest law enforcement officers anywhere, and I’m honored to be able to showcase their exceptional work, incredible bravery and dedication to protecting and serving Montgomery County, as well as recognize the actions of our amazing residents, who are always willing to step up to help law enforcement do their job,” said DA Steele. “Montgomery County would not be the safe and wonderful place it is without this teamwork. I am proud to recognize each of these civilians, police officers and detectives for their actions in these instances.”

The Medal of Valor was awarded to:

Cpl. Matthew Stadulis of the Whitemarsh Township Police Department, for bravery and exemplary performance during what appeared to be a routine call when a suspect fired a stolen gun at the officer at point-blank range, which thankfully did not fire, then the officer was able to disarm the suspect, protect his own firearm and radio for back-up.

To  Officer John Burdsall, Upper Providence Township Police Department, Officer Michael Sheehan, Upper Providence Township Police Department and Sgt. Stephen Winneberger, Limerick Township Police Department for bravery and exemplary performance during a standoff at a condominium complex.   Tdhe suspect immediately began shooting at arriving officers, narrowly missing officers as they managed to obtain cover, and continued to shoot at officers before he was subdued by a non-fatal shot to his shoulder and was taken into custody.

(From left) Upper Providence Police chief Mark Freeman, Medal of Valor honorees Officer John Burdsall, Officer Michael Sheehan and DA Kevin Steele

The Law Enforcement Commendation for Heroism was given to:  Ofdicer Eric Curcio, Lower Merion Township Police Department for exceptional performance negotiating during a standoff with an intoxicated man waving a gun, de-escalating the situation, which allowed the man to be safely taken into custody and obtain needed mental health care.

DA Steele awarded Citizen Commendations for Exceptional Service to:  Beth Weber of Chesterbrook and  Amna Zaim  of Phoenixville for helping a 5-year-old boy who was attempting to escape his abuser at a gas station. They subsequently provided eyewitness accounts that helped lead to the defendant pleading guilty to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Commendations were also given to Belmont Hills residents  Dorothy Coleman and Jody Kelley for astutely observing a defendant rummaging through a vehicle in their neighborhood. They then assisted Lower Merion Township Police in locating the vehicle and the defendants, who had committed an armed carjacking earlier in the evening.

And to  Souderton resident Christian Hernandez for assisting Upper Dublin Township Police in communicating with a victim’s family in Mexico regarding medical and end-of-life decisions for their loved one who was hit by a SEPTA train.

Law Enforcement Commendations for Exceptional Performance were awarded to: Det. Ivan R. Martinez, Berks County District Attorney Detectives for  assisting Montgomery County Homicide Detectives in the negotiation with and apprehension of a defendant who fatally shot his former girlfriend while her children were in the apartment.

And also to East Norriton Township Police Department Det. Jared Weiner and Upper Merion Township Police Det. Michael Laverty for the excellent investigation of a drug trafficker who was selling drug-laced cereal bars, brownies and other items using Instagram to juveniles as young as 11.

Det. Joseph Gary, Lansdale Police Department also received a commendation for his excellence, dedication and commitment to the extensive homicide investigation of Ebony Pack.

Steele commended Lower Merion Township Police Department Lt. Edward Sarama and Det. Gregory Pitchford for the multi-jurisdictional investigation and key testimony during prosecution of a dangerous serial predator who attempted to rob and kidnap women at gunpoint, seriously injuring two of them.

Det. Gregory Pitchford, Lower Merion Township Police Department received a commendation for the excellent investigation of multiple robberies of 7-Eleven stores in Lower Merion and Philadelphia.

And Steele commended Upper Merion Township Police Det. Brandan Dougherty and  Det. Andrew Rathfon for the extensive, meticulous and lengthy investigation into a series of burglaries of numerous historical firearms and other artifacts from museums all along the Eastern Seaboard and the successful recovery and repatriation of these priceless pieces of American history.

OUpper Moreland Township Police Department Officer Craig Bald and Det. Todd Smith were commended for the heads-up traffic stop, investigation and recovery of DNA evidence that led to charging of the vehicle’s occupants with a Philadelphia murder and other crimes.

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DAs, ATF and HIDTA Announce Game-Changer to Fight Gun Violence

From a press release

The district attorneys for Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties announced Wednesday that a new device obtained by Montgomery County will be used to dramatically cut down on gun violence by more rapidly tracing ammunition used in crimes more.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, Chester County District Attorney Deborah Ryan, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, ATF Philadelphia Field Division Special Agent in Charge Eric DeGree and Liberty MidAtlantic High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Deputy Director Brian Michael announced Wednesday the acquisition of an ATF NIBIN machine.

The machine acquired by Montgomery County with federal funds will be used by all four suburban Philadelphia counties to dramatically upgrade law enforcement’s investigations, prosecutions and deterrence of gun crimes. NIBIN, which stands for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, is a network database of fired cartridge casings (FCCs) from crime guns across the United States. Because each firearm leaves its own signature on bullet casings when a gun is fired—a unique set of scratches, grooves and/or dents—the NIBIN system can quickly compare these individual bullet casing “fingerprints” against its six million FCC database and create a list of high-probability matches.

From there, those hits are confirmed by a firearms examiner and then become investigative leads for detectives to use. Detectives will systemically look at the NIBIN leads and evidence of each case to determine the connections and suspects. Two types of FCC evidence are inputted into NIBIN: FCCs recovered at the scene of violent crimes and FCCs obtained from seized firearms that are test fired.

Those FCCs from Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties will be transported to the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Forensic Lab within 48 hours and then inputted into NIBIN. The results will then be sent back to the originating county for detective review and follow up. The quicker any resulting hits are obtained, the more useful the investigative lead is in terms of solving the crime at hand as well as interrupting the shooting cycle and disrupting the organizations operating in gun trafficking and gun violence.

“This is a game-changer in combatting gun crimes and gun violence. With this NIBIN portal, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties are in position to be able to quickly respond to gun crimes that are linked together in a timely manner and disrupt the shooting cycle by these trigger pullers,” said Steele. “We in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties have not been immune to regional gun crimes and gun violence spilling over into our counties and all of us, along with our federal partners, are committed to responding vigorously and stopping this gun violence that threatens the safety of our communities.”

The funding for the NIBIN machine came from the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), a federal program that fosters initiatives and inter-agency cooperation to curtail drug trafficking in the Delaware Valley. Crime data shows that gun traffickers are frequently involved in drug trafficking and drug traffickers are often heavily armed with illegally obtained firearms.

“The Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA is proud to make investments in technologies for our region’s local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that enhance their capabilities to thwart the illegal firearms trade, drug trafficking and the violence that so often comes with both,” said HIDTA’s Brian Michael. “We are confident that the acquisition of the NIBIN system for this multi-county collaboration will succeed in accelerating investigative successes when gunfire breaks out and will lead to safer communities in Philadelphia and its suburbs.”

The ATF launched the national NIBIN program in 1997, and the number of NIBIN sites has grown steadily since, now numbering 293 systems around the country. There are seven in Pennsylvania, including two in the region housed in the Philadelphia Police Department and in Berks County.

“NIBIN sites help to combat violent crime, promote public and officer safety, and identify/target shooters before they can re-offend. Since ATF launched this national program in 1997, the NIBIN system has identified more than 722,000 NIBIN leads in the ongoing efforts to find serial shooters and stop the shooting cycle,” said SAC Eric DeGree. “Thanks to the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA, investigators in four counties will be able to utilize a new NIBIN site housed in Montgomery County.”

Montgomery County has also created a new Gun Violence Reduction Task Force made up of more than 100 detectives and police officers from Montgomery County police departments. Task Force members, who were being sworn in and trained Wednesday, will work alongside the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Violent Crimes Unit in investigating gun trafficking organizations and gun crimes throughout the county, including running down NIBIN-generated leads.

“We are working at being at the forefront of investigating and prosecuting gun trafficking in the region, and we’ve obtained some significant sentences in our county for these crimes that are an extreme threat to the safety of our communities,” said Steele. “Now we have at our disposal cutting-edge technology in NIBIN and more law enforcement boots on the ground to take it to the next level in fighting gun crimes. This is just the next big step—but not the last—in our overall goal to make communities in Montgomery County and surrounding counties safer.”

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Fentanyl Crisis Hits the Delaware Valley Hard

Jorge Valdez-Rosas didn’t realize law enforcement was hot on his trail when he checked into the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia last month.

Like many drug-trafficking organizations smuggling drugs into the U.S., the one linked to the suspected drug mule from Arizona was allegedly tied to Mexico, according to a probable-cause affidavit.

Investigators intercepted and monitored Valdez-Rosas’ communications and learned he was setting up a deal to sell a large quantity of fentanyl to a third party on behalf of unnamed co-conspirators.

On Jan. 31, members of a federal task force and detectives from Montgomery County and Upper Merion Township staked out Rosas-Valdez at the hotel.

He showed up with a large duffel bag–later seized and revealed to contain five kilograms of fentanyl.

The 166,000 confiscated doses were worth an estimated $1.6 million, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said, praising authorities for a recovery that saved “countless lives.”

These drug busts are common in Pennsylvania, where fentanyl–which reemerged in the state’s drug supply in 2013–is now the “dominant opioid” among users who once preferred heroin, according to a state attorney general’s report released last year.

“I had a healthy habit,” says Richard Phillip, who got sober with the help of The Last Stop founder Ed “Eddie Z” Zampitella.

Phillip remembers stealing fentanyl patches from his mother following her diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He used fentanyl for more than a decade before the drug was widely available.

“It hits you really hard, punches you in the face,” Phillip, originally from the Camden area, recalled of the drug’s effects. “You get that rushed feeling. It gives you that boost. You are a rocket. Life’s good, but it doesn’t last.”

Last year, the DEA seized more than 15,000 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill every American. Over the first three months of 2022, Pennsylvania authorities seized more fentanyl than they had in all of 2021. The commonwealth was among five states that submitted the most samples containing fentanyl to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Forensic Laboratory Information System.

According to federal officials, Mexican cartels and criminal organizations smuggle most of the drugs across the southern border. Traffickers prefer selling fentanyl because it’s cheaper to produce and more potent, with effects 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Fentanyl is often laced into counterfeit pills, making it easier for traffickers to conceal than when in powder form, a disturbing trend that Pennsylvania officials say has contributed to a spike in fatal overdoses. The grip of the crisis led former Gov. Tom Wolf to sign a law that decriminalized fentanyl strips, once considered drug paraphernalia.

“It’s running rampant. There’s more fentanyl than there’s dope. I don’t think they make dope no more,” Zampitella, who runs a sober clubhouse in the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, told DVJournal during a phone interview while visiting Chicago. “This is like a vacation. It’s nothing like Philly. We told people, ‘You should come to Kensington.’”

Last year, Philadelphia’s DEA division reported that 20 percent of analyzed fentanyl seizures were in the form of pills and tablets. The agency seized a record 9.5 million counterfeit drugs the year before.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of more than 80,000 opioid deaths were attributable to fentanyl, federal statistics show. With the nation’s third-highest number of fatal overdoses, Pennsylvania saw overdose deaths jumped nearly 17 percent in 2020. They crested above 5,400 in 2021, meaning an average of 15 Pennsylvanians died each day, with about 78 percent of cases involving fentanyl, according to the state statistics. The stark impact was on display in Philadelphia, where fentanyl was detected in 27 percent of submissions analyzed by the police department’s forensics unit in 2021, compared with less than 1 percent six years before.

While the death toll has been staggering, prosecutors have had their hands full with cases like that of Rosas-Valdez, one of the thousands of alleged drug dealers and traffickers arrested since 2017.

Through March 2022, the Attorney General’s Office said more than 8,100 people were nabbed on drug charges, and a combined 8.7 million doses of heroin and fentanyl were taken off Pennsylvania’s streets.

Former attorney general and current Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, also went after big pharmaceutical companies for allegedly contributing to the opioid crisis by aggressively marketing addictive prescription painkillers. In one of the nation’s largest settlements, Pennsylvania received $26 billion from Johnson & Johnson and three other drug companies from Johnson & Johnson and three other drug companies.

On the national stage, a heated debate has unfolded between Democrats and Republicans about who is fueling the flow of fentanyl into the country. Some Republicans linked fentanyl-related deaths with the record number of migrants entering the U.S. along the Mexican border, NBC reported. Rep Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Penn.), shot down the claims as a “pernicious … attempt to conflate the issues of migrants seeking asylum through our legal processes with the very real scourge of fentanyl trafficking.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it was “unequivocally false” that asylum-seekers were smuggling fentanyl into the country.

However, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) laid the blame squarely on the Biden administration for the fentanyl deaths of men, women, and children. 

“One hundred thousand people died last year of drug overdoses,” said Cruz. “My sister died of a drug overdose a decade ago. This is a crisis, but it is a manmade crisis. This administration made a conscious decision to open the borders.”

According to government data cited by NBC, most fentanyl seizures along the southern border were made at ports of entry, where American citizens, foreign travelers, and commercial trucks are screened. The Office of Field Operations accounted for 84 percent of the 14,104 pounds of fentanyl seized along the Mexican border in the fiscal year 2022, while Border Patrol seized only 2,200 pounds of fentanyl over the same period,

For people struggling with addiction, the political conversations taking place in the nation’s capital are less important than the battles being waged back home.

Phillip said he’s lucky to have broken free from the stranglehold of drugs.

“Once you’ve eaten from the fruit, you can’t unknow that feeling. Sometimes you think life is good, but you know what would make it better,” Phillip, who is now pursuing a master’s of divinity from the Catholic Theological Union, told DVJournal.

He still remembers the nights he would roam the streets of Camden, begging strangers to pray for God’s intercession.

“I know we don’t bargain with God … but I remember saying, ‘You put me on a path to save my soul, and I’ll give you my life because it ain’t worth nothing to me anymore,'” Phillip said. “Something came into me that I stopped feeling empty.”

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DelVal Cops Tout Arrests in Local Gun Trafficking Ring

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.”


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Thirteen Arrested for Gang-Related Thefts of 93 Guns

From a press release

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, Special Agent-in-Charge EricDeGree of ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division; and Springfield Township Police Chief Michael Pitkow announce the arrests two adults and 11 juveniles on charges related to three burglaries and one attempted burglary of federal firearms licensed dealers, i.e. gun  stores, in Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

In total, 93 firearms were stolen. Just 33 firearms have been recovered by law enforcement, leaving 60 firearms on the streets and unaccounted for.

In adult court, two adults and two direct-filed juveniles, all from Philadelphia, were charged: Angel Mason, 40, of Poplar Street, Elijah Terrell, 16, also of Poplar Street, Donte Purnell, 22, of Olympus Place, and Liv Hall, 18, of Parish Street. Nine juveniles from West Philadelphia, who ranged in age from 14 to 17 years old, were charged in Juvenile Court and their names were not released.

The three burglaries and an attempted burglary of gun stores occurred between Sept. 24, 2022, and Nov. 20, 2022. All were overnight burglaries that occurred between 2 and 4:30 a.m. In each successful burglary, a group of the defendants gained access to each gun store, smashed glass display cases and grabbed numerous firearms before fleeing. The details of each burglary are:

· Sept. 24, 2022 (4:22 a.m.): Founding Fathers Outfitters, Lafayette Hill section of Springfield Township, Montgomery County: 26 firearms stolen, 6 recovered to date by law enforcement, including one used in a shooting incident in Philadelphia and one found on a suspect involved in a Sept. 29, 2022 homicide in Philadelphia. Also of note regarding this burglary, the burglars drove a 2020 Kia Forte that had been stolen in Philadelphia just prior to the burglary.

· Nov. 12, 2022 (4:20 a.m.): Target Word Gun Shop, in Chalfont, New Britain Township in Bucks County: 32 pistols, 8 rifles and one suppressor stolen, 10 firearms recovered to date by law enforcement through search warrants.

· Nov. 20, 2022 (2:15 a.m.): Attempted Burglary of Continental Armory in Hatboro in Montgomery County; burglary was interrupted when an individual heard breaking glass and called 911.

· Nov. 20, 2022 (2:41 a.m.): Tanners Sports Center in Warwick Township in Bucks County; 27 firearms stolen, 16 recovered by law enforcement, including one used in an armed robbery in Pennsauken, N.J. on Dec. 14, 2022. The getaway vehicle fled at speeds over 100 mph.

The joint investigation into these gun store burglaries was led by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau, Bucks County Detective Bureau, the ATF—Philadelphia Field Division and Springfield Township Police, with critical participation by Philadelphia Police, Hatboro Police, New Britain Township Police, Warwick Township Police. The investigators also  received assistance from the FBI, the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General and the Delaware State Police.

Through the use of numerous investigative techniques including interviews, physical surveillance, video surveillance, social media analysis and cellphone data and records, the investigation found that several members of a known, neighborhood-based juvenile street gang in Philadelphia—called “54th Street”—were responsible for the three completed gun store burglaries and one attempted gun store burglary in Montgomery and Bucks counties. The evidence found that the group also planned and had not yet executed two additional gun store burglaries. Criminal activity commonly associated with “54th Street” includes, but is not limited to, car-jackings, robberies, burglaries and gun violence, especially directed at rival groups.

The completed gun store burglaries resulted in 93 stolen guns. Detectives found that those stolen firearms were rapidly distributed and illegally transferred between members of the corrupt organization and to others, which led to the use of these stolen guns to commit crimes.

Of the 33 recovered stolen firearms, several have been recovered by law enforcement during the commission of crimes.

· Sept. 26, 2022: a Glock 17 firearm stolen two days earlier was recovered by Philadelphia Police in the possession of Ellijah Terrell on scene of an armed robbery at 5500 Poplar Street in Philadelphia;

· Oct. 5, 2022: an H&K 9mm firearm stolen during the Sept. 24, 2022 burglary was recovered by Philadelphia Police when they executed a search warrant related to a Sept. 29, 2022 shooting at 54th Street and Willows Avenue where a 16-year-old died of a gunshot wound to the head and a 14-year-old was also shot but survived,

· Dec. 14, 2022: a firearm stolen from the Tanner Sports Center burglary was recovered by Pensauken, N.J. Police after it was used by juvenile in an armed robbery.

“These defendants brazenly broke into gun stores and stole nearly 100 firearms, then sold and transferred them widely throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. With 60 firearms unaccounted for, we still don’t know the extent of the damage by this corrupt organization’s criminal activities, including shootings and murders,” said Steele.

“These arrests have made our communities safer and came about because of the excellent joint investigation with our numerous local, state and federal law enforcement partners.”

“DA Steele took the word that I would use to describe this organized criminal rampage right out of my mouth: ‘Brazen,” said Weintraub. “Together, we fight hard every day against lawless criminals that steal and use crime guns to terrorize our communities, regardless of whose borders they cross. And we will not rest. More to come.”

One of the key partners in this joint investigation was the ATF. “Burglaries of federal firearms licensees are a top priority for ATF, and we are eager to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions,” said ATF SAIC DeGree. “The theft of firearms from FFLs and their diversion into the illegal firearms marketplace is a very serious crime that affects all the citizens of the Commonwealth. We will continue to work alongside our local, county, state and federal partners to seek justice for anyone who violates the federal firearms laws.”

Charges vary by defendant, but all include felony charges related to operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, criminal use of a communications facility and firearms trafficking charges. Other charges against defendants include burglary,  criminal trespass, robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer and possessing an instrument of crime.

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Philly Crime Hasn’t Crossed Into Suburbs; These DAs Think They Know Why

As Philadelphia’s crime crisis makes headlines every day, fears grow that the violence will spill into the suburbs. However, two years since that crime surge first started, those fears remain unfounded. For example, homicides in Montgomery County actually declined in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.

And despite a rise in homicides in Delaware County in 2020, crime is falling in its most-violent municipality, Chester.

With the streets of Philadelphia engaged in what sometimes appears to border on open warfare, why has the violent crime problem crossed over into the Delaware Valley suburbs? Local district attorneys say it is because preventative efforts have slowly gained favor in law enforcement.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele is a career prosecutor who has been in law enforcement for more than 30 years.  During that time, he watched law enforcement evolve from reacting to crime after it happens to proactively trying to prevent it.

“The role of a prosecutor has expanded from kind of looking back at that law-and-order type of thing,” Steele said. “I think where we’ve moved to is looking at prevention.”

Jack Stollsteimer, district attorney for Delaware County, cites the city of Chester’s fall in crime as a perfect example. He credits an initiative between the district attorney’s office and Chester’s mayor and police. The program looks to identify those who are committing crimes and then intervenes by giving them a choice.

“You go to them and you give them the opportunity to say, ‘We will help you if we can, but we will stop you if we must,’” Stollsteimer said. “You remove those people by getting them to stop killing, or you put them in jail.”

But the program does more than that. It establishes relationships within the community and involves every aspect of it as part of the effort to reduce crime. That includes the local basketball association, which helps create programming to keep kids out of trouble, Stollsteimer said.

It is all about a holistic approach to combating crime. “Everybody has a role to play in this story,” Stollsteimer explained. “It’s not even just getting law enforcement and (the) community to work together. It’s to get other government agencies, businesses.”

Steele points to Pottstown as another success. When he came into office in 2016, he said the town had a lot of unresolved shootings. The office used many different tools to eventually discover the suspects causing the violence and prosecuted them successfully. However, the story did not end there.

“We embedded a group of prosecutors in Pottstown to work with the police, with community leaders, with schools, with elected officials,” Steele said. These ‘community justice’ units stayed after the crime was solved to work to rebuild. “Now, if you look at a community like Pottstown, you hear about economic development, about the rising prices for housing in the area. It’s an area to go after.”

Despite the good news, Steele said Montgomery County still has problems. Those most important to him involve the preservation of life: Overdoses, violent crime, domestic violence, and child abuse.

On overdoses, Steele supports initiatives like drug take-back days to get pills out of medicine cabinets, where they might be readily available to addicts. There’s also a year-round effort like take-back boxes in every police department. And having Narcan in every police car to treat overdoses immediately can also prevent deaths.

With overdose deaths in Montgomery County falling last year even as ODs rose nationally, Steele sees evidence these efforts are paying off.

Guns remain the biggest issue in violent crime and straw purchasers–those who purchase firearms for others who legally cannot–are one of Steele’s greatest concerns. It is why Montgomery County is working collaboratively with neighboring counties to go after these purchasers, trying to get those guns back before they can be used in other crimes.

Montgomery County has a close relationship with local victim agencies, like the Laurel House, a domestic violence shelter, and Mission Kids, a child advocacy center. They work with experts collaboratively to prevent abuse while also accommodating crime victims.

“The saves are hard to quantify,” he said. “But if you look at what’s going on around us, and the direction that other places are going that aren’t doing the things that we’re doing, I think that that’s a very important thing to look at.”

In Delaware County, Stollsteimer said challenges depend on the specific community. There is an increase in car thefts in more affluent Swarthmore, but violent crime appears to be rising in Upper Darby.

Some of it may be due to a spillover from Philadelphia, Stollsteimer said, with many Delaware County municipalities bordering the city. However, years of neglect and rises in poverty in some areas may also play a role.

“There are people who have been predicting now for a generation if you don’t invest in the housing stock and businesses (in the first generation suburbs),” he said. “You’re going to see the same problems you’re seeing in urban neighborhoods.”

But initiatives like that of Chester may be the guide to successfully turning back the tide.

“The roadmap is there,” Stollsteimer said. “We just have to follow the plan.”

Delaware County also has not been shy about criminal justice reforms similar to those blamed on the increase in Philly crime since progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner took office.

Stollsteimer supported the de-privatization of the county prison and recently started a central arraignment process involving his office, the courts, and public defenders, where bails are actively reviewed.  And defendants are given access to lawyers early in the process.

His office last year also created a program with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro known as the Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative, where individuals can contact law enforcement to seek treatment for addictions without any fear of prosecution or arrest.

Stollsteimer called that a more long-term investment than policy changes, but says he hopes it will allow the office to help communities more.

“If we have only the maximum number of people incarcerated for as long as required for the conditions of justice, then we can use some of those savings to reinvest in people,” he said, about not solely relying on incarceration.

But the most important key to success, said Steele, is the level of trust his office has built between residents and law enforcement.

“That’s earned. You can’t just say, ‘trust me,’” Steele said. “You have to earn it, every day. And you earn it by making a difference in people’s lives.”

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