The man who purchased two semi-automatic assault rifles found at the scene of the fatal December 2010 shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent just north of the Arizona-Mexico border pleaded guilty Thursday to two felony charges in the federal government’s botched Fast and Furious gun-smuggling investigation.
Jaime Avila Jr. was among 20 people targeted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as “straw buyers,” accused of purchasing hundreds of weapons at Phoenix-area gun shops and were then smuggled or “walked” to drug cartels in Mexico.
The 25-year-old Avila faces up to 10 years in prison during sentencing, which is scheduled for June 25. He pleaded guilty to dealing guns without a federal license, conspiracy to deal guns without a license, making false statements in a gun purchase and smuggling goods out of the U.S.
Prosecutor Timothy Coughlin told the judge that Avila purchased as many as 52 weapons as a straw buyer, including two .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles.
Following the shooting death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry on Dec. 15, 2010, the ATF confirmed that two WASR-10/63 assault rifles - a Romanian AK-47 variant - found at the site of the killing had been traced to Avila, one of the Fast and Furious targets. He had bought the weapons at the Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz.
By the time of the Terry shooting, Avila had been under surveillance for more than two months. It took ATF less than 24 hours to confirm that he had purchased the weapons found at the site of the Terry killing.
The operation was then shut down, and Avila was arrested, along with the 19 others named in a federal grand-jury indictment.
Another straw buyer, Joshua David Moore, 23, also pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiracy and dealing guns without a license. Prosecutors say Moore bought 141 guns. Four others have pleaded guilty. Trial for the others is set for Sept. 25.
Those identified as the straw buyers in Fast and Furious were nothing if not ambitious. They bought hundreds of high-powered weapons and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although many of the purchased weapons were not top of the line, they weren’t cheap.
According to government records, the straw buyers spent an average of $648 for each AK-47-type assault rifle they bought. Some Barrett sniper rifles went for more than $6,000 each, and FN 5.7mm pistols cost an average of $1,130 each.
Uriel Patino, a food-stamps recipient, proved to be the most prolific straw buyer, the indictment says, buying 316 weapons, although congressional investigators said the number might be twice as high. Included were 246 AK-47 assault rifles purchased during 24 visits to two Phoenix-area gun shops over nine-months. He and Avila, the indictment says, shopped together at the Lone Wolf Trading Co.
There was no mention during Avila’s hearing of Terry’s death or the guns found at the scene. ATF and the Justice Department have come under heavy criticism for allowing more than 2,000 weapons - including hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles - to be walked across the border.
ATF allowed the transfers so as to track the weapons to drug-cartel leaders, but the agency lost track of most of them, 1,400 of which are still unaccounted for.
Terry, 40, was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits in a canyon about a dozen miles north of the border town of Nogales. Suspect Manuel Osorio-Arellanes of Mexico was shot during the gunfight and has been charged with second-degree murder.