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Frederick County Sheriff Charles “Chuck” Jenkins pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal criminal charges related to what prosecutors said was a scheme to illegally acquire machine guns using official police documents. As a condition of his pretrial release, Jenkins was ordered to surrender his service weapon.
He still remains leader of the agency, though a spokesperson could not be reached for comment about his service status.
Jenkins, 66, appeared at the U.S. District Court hearing in Baltimore alongside his attorneys, Andrew White and Andrea Smith, in a dark suit, answering questions from Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner during a 16-minute hearing.
Outside the courtroom, Jenkins declined to comment as he walked with U.S. marshals to an office for processing. He remained inside the courthouse for more than two hours after the proceeding.
White declined to comment as he left the courthouse, as did Leo Wise, who is prosecuting the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Todd Wivell, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, declined to comment leaving the federal courthouse just before 5 p.m.
In a press release, the agency announced that Jenkins would take a leave of absence while charges were pending. Officials did not specify whether the leave would be paid or unpaid.
“Out of respect for the men and women of this agency and not to interfere with the effective operations, I am going to take a leave of absence, effective end of business, Friday, April 14, through the end of this judicial process,” Jenkins said in a written statement. “I have full confidence in the system, and I know that my innocence will prevail at the end of all of this and that I will be found not guilty.”
Jenkins did not answer questions from reporters when he left the courthouse around 5:20 p.m., when Wivell picked him up in a black law enforcement SUV.
Col. David Benjamin, a 37-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, will take over agency leadership.
Jenkins, a Republican who has served as sheriff since 2006, faces five counts of conspiracy and making false statements, along with Robert Justin Krop, a 36-year-old Frederick man who is the owner and co-founder of The Machine Gun Nest, an indoor shooting range just outside the Frederick city limits.
The men were indicted by a federal grand jury last week for what prosecutors said was a scheme to provide false documentation to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to acquire machine guns that were later rented out to patrons of the gun range.
Krop was arraigned Thursday during his initial court appearance in Baltimore. He pleaded not guilty and was ordered to be released under the supervision of U.S. Pretrial Services, a Justice Department spokeswoman told WTOP in a statement.
Federal law generally prohibits possession, transport or import of machine guns, except by government agencies.
An exception to the law allows licensed dealers, in some cases, to buy machine guns as a sample for demonstration to potential law enforcement or military purchasers if the agency requesting a demonstration sends a “law letter” to the ATF.
According to the indictment, Krop and Jenkins created five “law letters” on Frederick County Sheriff’s Office letterhead requesting machine guns for evaluation and demonstration to the department, though they knew that there would not be a demonstration and that the guns were intended for rental to Krop’s customers.
“It was the purpose of the conspiracy to acquire machineguns by means of fraud and materially false statements and representations and to rent those machine guns to private citizens in exchange for money,” the indictment states.
The Machine Gun Nest made more than $100,000 in profits from rental of machine guns in 2018 and 2019 alone, according to the indictment.
The indictment goes on to say that the law letters submitted to the ATF “falsely stated” that machine guns were suitable for use as a law enforcement weapon, “when in fact at least one of the machineguns was not” — specifically a FN M249 SAW, which is a belt-fed machine gun, “suitable only for combat,” the indictment said.
The letters were drafted by Krop and signed by Jenkins between Aug. 25, 2015 and March 29, 2022, according to prosecutors. The March 29 letter requested that six Sig Sauer machine guns in the possession of the Havre de Grace Police Department be transferred to the business.
White argued against a pre-trial condition that Jenkins surrender his service weapon, noting that the sheriff has a 30-plus year career in law enforcement and has been cooperating with federal investigators for more than a year. White also said that Jenkins has been the subject of recent death threats.
Jenkins is not the first law enforcement officer in Maryland ordered by the court to surrender a service weapon while charges were pending.
Wise noted that William Tyler, the former Taneytown police chief was ordered to surrender weapons after he was charged with illegal transfer and possession of a machine gun, for which he was later convicted. And Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa was ordered to surrender weapons when he was charged with failure to file tax returns, for which he was also later convicted. Wise prosecuted both cases.
Prosecutors estimated that a trial in the case would last five days. White reserved the right to a jury trial.
If convicted, Jenkins and Krop face a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy, for false statements in records maintained by a federal firearms licensee and for false statements to federal law enforcement.
Krop is also charged with illegal possession of seven machine guns. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison for that charge.
The indictment alleges that Krop’s business, which has hosted several Republican meetings and fundraisers in the county, offered political support to Jenkins in recognition of his support for the business.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Robert Krop’s plea on Thursday, April 13.
This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.