HOUSTON (AP) - The guns were still in boxes, stacked in locked truck trailers and ready for store shelves, when the team of thieves moved in during the night.
Their target: 72 new pistols, rifles and shotguns in an Academy Sports & Outdoors warehouse parking lot, ripe to be hauled away by criminals who appeared to have inside information.
The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2j54rYv ) reports it was one of the largest firearm heists in years in Texas, which leads the nation in thefts from licensed gun dealers such as Academy, according to federal officials.
Today, however, nearly two years later, most of the weapons are still missing - likely pumped into the Houston region’s thriving black market. Only seven of the stolen guns have been recovered, records show.
“That is a lot of handguns to be floating around,” said Matt Abowd, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Houston. “We are trying to get these guns off the street.”
Two men connected to the theft were convicted of aggravated assault and kidnapping of the security guard who watched over the Academy warehouse lot, and a third person pleaded guilty on a weapons charge. No one else has been publicly identified in connection with the case.
“There were others involved,” Abowd said. “I spoke with many witnesses, suspects. They all have nice stories, but putting them at the scene is different.”
Academy did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment, and the criminal investigation is closed pending any new leads on other people involved.
But the search to recover the weapons is still underway, and authorities say new charges are likely as the guns show up, perhaps one by one.
The case illustrates how quickly stolen guns can change hands and how difficult it can be to recover weapons, even when arrests are made.
Dillon Richardson was accustomed to being asked for directions by drivers as he sat in the guard box at the Academy warehouse parking lot on Mason Road, so he wasn’t surprised when a man approached him that day on March 26, 2015.
Instead of asking for help, however, the man pulled a gun, struck the security guard in the head and then stuffed him in the back seat of a car, where two other men were waiting. He could feel the steel of a gun on the back of his bleeding head.
The men took his keys, wallet and phone, along with his pants, shirt, shoes and socks.
None of the men wore masks, and he assumed they were going to kill him. The 22-year-old thought of his mother, his father, his sister and their last conversations; he thought of his body being found, and of his family getting the news that he’d been killed.
He invented a story, told the men he had a daughter who needed him and that he’d do whatever they asked.
The car slowed. He was told to keep his eyes closed, step out, and get face down on the ground.
Richardson clenched his eyes tightly as he waited for the end.
But instead of a gunshot, he heard silence. The car had pulled away without him even hearing it.
He opened his eyes to find himself along an access road near the Katy Freeway and the Grand Parkway.
Covered in blood, he ran barefoot along the roadway as he screamed and waved at passing motorists. Finally, realizing that no one would stop to pick him up, he dropped to his knees near a red light so a driver could see him from a distance.
“Call the police,” he said.
While Richardson was being driven away from the warehouse parking lot, thieves moved in for the guns.
The guns were stolen from containers in three truck trailers that were among dozens of trailers laden with merchandise to be delivered to Academy stores.
Authorities say the crew apparently knew which trucks to hit, moving in through a hole cut in the yard’s fence.
There was no surveillance video of them grabbing the weapons, but the two men convicted in the case were captured by video surveillance prior to the crime at a nearby convenience store.
William Eason, who authorities contend was the ringleader, was arrested four days after the heist and charged with aggravated robbery and kidnapping of Richardson. Curtis Duncan, who met Eason when they both were in the state’s juvenile justice system, was arrested about a week later and also charged with aggravated robbery and kidnapping.
Eason, 26, of Missouri City, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Duncan, 27, of Pasadena, quickly confessed, then recanted before pleading guilty to the charges. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Other people caught later with stolen guns or accused of helping sell them were charged with lesser offenses.
The joint investigation was led by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the ATF, in conjunction with the Pasadena Police Department and other local agencies.
“This case was damn good detectives just being humans and talking to people,” said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Handley, who prosecutes organized crime cases. “At the end of the day, there is nothing better than getting cooperation from people.”
The stolen guns trickled in for the first few months, as investigators worked their way through jails, homes, pawn shops, convenience stores, Facebook pages and an array of databases.
A 9mm handgun turned up in La Porte two days after the robbery, in the hands of an ex-convict with 16 prior arrests for such charges as drug possession, fraud and theft. He told police he bought it for cash and drugs at a laundromat.
A few months later, a state trooper in Wise County near Fort Worth found another weapon in a traffic stop. The man he pulled over said he worked at a department store and bought it from his boss. The next month, a gun still in the original box was sold to a southwest Houston pawn shop.
Then, in August 2015, two of the stolen pistols were found in a Deer Park pawn shop, sold by a man who said he bought them through a neighbor’s former employee.
The last two guns recovered were in January 2015. One was taken from a man found sleeping in a pickup who said he bought it on Craigslist from a man in Acres Homes. Another was in the hands of a man who said he made a deal on Snapchat and bought it in the parking lot of a Pasadena grocery store.
There are endless scenarios for where the missing guns from Academy could be today, said Robert Elder, a former ATF chief in Houston who retired earlier this year.
“If you have burglary (or robbery) and don’t have a good lead, you have to wait for the guns to start popping up,” he said. “It is a low percentage unless law enforcement can get some tips and act on it fast.”
Stolen guns can be sold quickly and usually don’t end up in the hands of law-abiding citizens, he said.
“They are usually stolen by a criminal element to go to a criminal element,” he said. “They can move these things fast and are going to make a profit.”
And although it’s been nearly a year since the last stolen weapons were recovered, officials expect all the firearms will eventually be found.
“It will take time,” Abowd said, “but they will show up.”
Richardson is still trying to put the ordeal behind him, finding solace in listening to music and working with animals.
When he started his shift that night in March, life was going well for him. He was a good fit for the job - he grew up nearby, was the son of a state trooper and hungry to work. He was in line for a promotion to supervisor that would have moved him from the guard house to inside a building.
After the attack, however, he gave up working security and instead took a warehouse job, resigning from Academy about a year later.
He’s played that night through in his mind countless times.
“I realize no matter what you do, something is going to happen. That is the way the world is,” he said. “It is just how you deal with it. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. That passion, that drive to do something, is not there like it used to be.”
In the meantime, another sizable cache of weapons has been stolen in the Houston area.
Last March, a crew of about a dozen people used a pickup and chain to yank the front doors off a Carter’s Country Guns & Ammo store that was closed for the evening.
Display cases at the southwest Houston store were smashed. The incident was recorded on surveillance footage that has drawn thousands of views on YouTube.
Arrests were quickly made with the use of a confidential informant, and 32 of the 84 stolen guns were recovered within 48 hours, according to a court document filed by the ATF. At least two men have been charged federally in that case, Anthony Cannon and Tony Watkins, who are awaiting trial.
And just like the guns ripped from the Academy trucks, it is unclear how many of those weapons still remain on the streets.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com
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