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Authorities: Carolinas men smuggled guns to NYC on buses

By Gavin Off
goff@charlotteobserver.com

Police in New York City announced Monday the arrest of 19 people – 15 of whom were from the Carolinas – during a 10-month investigation into a gun smuggling ring that netted hundreds of illegal weapons.

New York City officials blamed the weak gun laws in the Carolinas for the smuggling, which led to the seizure of 254 weapons.

“New York is the safest big city in the nation, but year after year, illegal guns flow into our city from states that don’t have common-sense laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a release.

The guns, more than half of which came from North Carolina, were funneled up north using low-cost buses, police said.

Arrested smugglers included seven residents from North Carolina and eight from Rock Hill, according to a New York City Police Department release.

Earl Campbell, 23, was one of the Rock Hill residents arrested.

According to a release, Campbell illegally sold 90 guns for a total of nearly $75,000 from October 2012 to July.

Among the guns sold were four rifles, two assault weapons and two shotguns.

Walter Walker, 29, of Lee County, sold 116 guns – including five assault weapons and a machine gun – for roughly $82,000, according to a press release.

The sales took place from September 2012 to July.

New York hosts a lucrative black market for guns due to its strict gun-control laws, said longtime Charlotte gun dealer Larry Hyatt of Hyatt Gun Shop. Years ago, many of those weapons came from South Carolina because of lax regulation there, he said.

“They’re going to go where the money is,” Hyatt said.

Laws have stiffened in both Carolinas, Hyatt said. N.C. handgun buyers now have to get permits from local sheriffs and undergo background checks. Gun dealers have to report customers who buy more than one handgun in five days to local authorities.

Serial numbers make guns traceable to the dealers who sold them, making it easier for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to spot large sales to the same customers.

“One or two may slip through, but if it’s a lot, somebody’s going to know,” Hyatt said.

This summer, the N.C. General Assembly passed a sweeping gun bill that expanded the places where concealed carry permit holders can legally carry guns.

The law increased the penalties for certain gun crimes but also allows those who pass background checks to buy an unlimited number of gun purchase permits from their local sheriff. Previously, some sheriffs had capped the number.

Meanwhile, New York recently toughened limits on assault weapons, put restrictions on ammunition magazines and required stolen guns be reported within 24 hours.

Undercover arrests

An undercover New York City police officer posing as a gun broker for criminal customers bought the weapons from Campbell and Walker in dozens of transactions since last year – the largest gun seizures in the city in recent memory.

One of the guns was an assault rifle that was disassembled and transported in a girlfriend’s zebra-striped bag, authorities said.

Campbell and Walker were arrested earlier this month by local police in their home states, authorities said. The names of their defense attorneys were not immediately available.

New York Police Department officials and prosecutors announced details of the case on Monday, citing it as another example of a persistent black market in which firearms from the South can sell for three times their original price in the city.

“There is no doubt that the seizure of these guns has saved lives,” Bloomberg said at a news conference.

Wiretap evidence showed that sellers in the Carolinas knew the weapons were destined for New York, said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan.

“Perhaps the two most disturbing aspects of the gun-trafficking operation were the simplicity of the business model, and the complete indifference of the gun suppliers to the mayhem their actions would cause here in New York City,” Brennan said. “The marketing strategy was buy low, sell high and keep a low profile.”

The gun case was a spinoff of a drug investigation in Brooklyn that turned up Instagram photos of handguns and wads of cash posted by a Brooklyn rapper, who was also arrested. Wiretap and other evidence led investigators to Walker and Campbell, who were smuggling guns separately but using the same middleman in New York City, authorities said.

The two tapped a loose network of suppliers in their hometowns, authorities said. Some guns were obtained on the black market, while others were bought from gun dealers using straw buyers to get around one-gun-a-month restrictions.

“The problem is that the gun laws passed now, so it’s like now I can only buy a gun from a gun store every 30 days,” Campbell complained in one conversation, according to an indictment. “So I had to, like, pay different people to keep buying different guns.”

Before heading to New York, Campbell would get photos of the guns his suppliers were offering and send the images to the undercover officer, authorities said.

Both defendants would travel to the city carrying a dozen or more handguns, rifles and shotguns in bags that were stowed in luggage compartments of Chinatown-based carriers also favored by drug couriers, investigators said.

One of the discount bus companies charges $60 one-way from Raleigh to New York. The fare is about half that charged by Greyhound, which, unlike the Chinatown buses, requires identification for boarding.

A Charlotte Observer investigation earlier this year found that low-cost bus lines operating from Charlotte to Chinatown often have safety records that are among the worst in the nation, putting passengers at risk.

Many share the addresses, owners and drivers of other bus companies that have been shut down by federal authorities for safety violations in the past.

In 2011, a Charlotte-based Sky Express bus bound for New York crashed in Virginia, killing four passengers. The driver admitted he fell asleep behind the wheel, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Walker met two times last year with the middleman and the undercover officer at the rapper’s Brooklyn recording studio to sell the undercover firearms, the indictment said. He also allegedly sold weapons to the undercover in April in Manhattan.

In January, the undercover officer met with Campbell and his girlfriend, who was carrying assault rifle parts in the zebra-striped suitcase, authorities said.

The girlfriend struggled to assemble the weapon in the backseat of a car by using a YouTube instructional video she called up on her smartphone, investigators said. When she failed, the undercover agent bought the pieces anyway for $1,100, they said.

Staff writers Bruce Henderson and Ely Portillo and the Associated Press contributed.

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