- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

JACKSON, MISS. (AP) - Authorities investigating how machine guns, pistols and marijuana disappeared from a police department in a Mississippi Delta town say they have uncovered a ring of prison inmates and a county worker who planned to sell the stolen weapons in Chicago.

Eight people have been indicted on federal charges, including a county road department employee and several inmates who were part of a community work program and had access to the police station, according to court documents made public in early March. Trial is set for June 15.

Greenwood Police Chief Henry Purnell told The Associated Press on Monday he is working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and they “expect to make some more arrests,” but he would not discuss the ongoing investigation. Most of the weapons have been recovered, he said.

The case became public in February 2006, when officials announced a $5,000 reward for information “about the disappearance of several guns from the Greenwood Police Department inventory.”

It turned out ninety pounds of marijuana had vanished, along with 11 pistols and five machine guns in 2005 and early 2006. Two of the suspects in the handgun thefts were also charged along with several others with stealing the marijuana and the Colt M-16 machine guns, but their indictment offers few details about those cases.

The police-issue pistols were taken by inmates from a locked closet between September 2005 and January 2006, according a 16-page indictment.

It describes in detail the way 11 Smith & Wesson .40-caliber pistols were allegedly stolen. Inmates from the Leflore County Community Work Center noticed the guns in a locked closet when they were escorted to get tools to clean the police station. Two inmates figured out a way to remove a ceiling tile in an adjacent room and get into the closet from above. They took the guns and stashed them in trash bags at Greenwood City Hall, in a town of about 18,000 people.

Leflore County Road Department employee Derek “Dee” Salley and an inmate he supervised on a work detail allegedly picked up the weapons _ smuggled out in a five-gallon bucket _ and passed them along to the inmate’s girlfriend. The inmate “told Salley that he could possibly get his ‘Uncle Blood’ from Chicago to buy the guns,” according to the indictment.

The U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a message Tuesday.

The ATF has long sought to curb the flow of weapons from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and Detroit by way of the Interstate 55 corridor, said Austin Banks, an agency spokesman. He would not discuss the specifics of the case.

“It’s a definite pipeline,” Banks said. “This is an area of deep concern for ATF.”

Generally the weapons are bought in Mississippi gun shops in “straw purchases,” in which someone buys a gun for someone else _ often convicted felons who can’t legally own guns, Banks said. People can double or triple their money by selling the guns on the streets in big cities.

Salley worked out a deal with prosecutors, but the agreement was not accepted by the court during a hearing last week. The deal called for Salley to plead guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of stolen firearms. In exchange for his cooperation, prosecutors would dismiss charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting the theft of the guns. A deal could still be reached later, said Kenneth Coghlan, Salley’s attorney.

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