Former police chiefs in North Dakota and North Carolina are facing charges in Maryland in connection with a conspiracy to illegally acquire machine guns and other firearms — and court records indicate the case could reach into other states as well.
The charges are similar to those faced by Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R), who sought during a hearing in U.S. District Court on Thursday to have the case against him dismissed.
“A top priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office remains holding accountable those who illegally possess or traffic firearms,” a spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Erek Barron said in an emailed statement.
At issue in both cases are the use of “law letters” sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to obtain firearms that are generally prohibited from sale in the U.S., such as fully automatic machine guns and short-barreled rifles.
An exception to federal firearms restrictions allows licensed gun dealers, in some cases, to buy machine guns as a sample for demonstration to potential law enforcement or military purchasers if the agency sends a law letter, which is also known as a “demo letter.”
The indictment unsealed Thursday charges five defendants — including the police chiefs in Coats, North Carolina and Ray, North Dakota — of improperly using the letters.
Federal prosecutors allege that the defendants conspired to get machine guns by falsely representing that the guns would be used for demonstration to law enforcement agencies, though there was no expectation the guns would ever be demonstrated to the respective law enforcement agencies. The Coats and Ray police departments, for example, operated out of small towns and didn’t have heavily armed units like SWAT teams.
James Sawyer, 50, who was charged, was the only member of the North Dakota department, according to prosecutors. According to the indictment, he signed and submitted 32 law letters that requested the demonstration of more than 70 firearms.
Matthew Jeremy Hall, 53, was the Coats Police Department chief, in a town of about 2,000 residents, when he submitted 53 letters, which requested demonstration of 92 firearms, according to prosecutors.
The indictment also includes details about two law enforcement officers from New Mexico, who are not charged in the case.
According to prosecutors, “M.G.,” the former sheriff for Bernalillo County, sent 127 letters to ATF requesting 598 guns and “R.M.,” the former police chief of Pueblo Laguna, sent 17 letters requesting 414 guns.
Prosecutors said the letters were coordinated with three federal firearms licensees, all of whom are charged: Sean Reidpath Sullivan, 38, of Gambrills, who was also an intelligence analyst with the Department of Homeland Security; Larry Allen Vickers, owner of VT Guns in North Carolina and a YouTube personality; and James Christopher Tafoya, who owned two federally licensed firearms businesses in Albuquerque and also ran another gun business, Woody’s Weapons, that was owned by his half-brother.
Other people not indicted but mentioned by partial identifiers in the indictment are C.F., a Phoenix resident who collected “high-end” firearms and conducted several transactions with Sullivan; and J.B., a federal firearms licensee from Texas.
The sealed indictment was handed up by a federal grand jury on July 27 and unsealed Thursday.
Vickers pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy and admitted that he received and kept some of the weapons and sold others. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for conspiracy and 20 years for conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
Sullivan, Tafoya, Hall, and Sawyer face a maximum of five years in federal prison if convicted of conspiracy.
Sullivan and Tafoya each face five years in prison for each count of unlawful importation of a firearm and for each count of making a false statement in records maintained by a federal firearm licensee. Sullivan also faces 10 years for unlawful possession of unregistered machine guns and 10 years for using criminal proceeds to conduct financial transactions.
Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of more than 330 guns or gun parts from Sullivan.
Sullivan and Tafoya have already had an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and were released pending trial.
Hall and Sawyer are expected to appear later.
In addition to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations Division and Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security worked on the investigation.
In the case against Jenkins, Barron’s office has alleged that the sheriff signed five law letters, which were drafted by Justin Krop, the owner of The Machine Gun Nest, an indoor shooting range just outside the Frederick city limits, to import otherwise restricted firearms.
Both Krop and Jenkins have pleaded not guilty to the April indictment. They are being tried separately.
Jenkins has sought to have the charges against him dismissed and is seeking records from the grand jury, arguing that prosecutors may have made misleading statements before he was indicted.
A judge is expected to rule on the motion to release grand jury records and the motion to dismiss certain counts against Jenkins soon, according to coverage of this week’s hearing by The Frederick News-Post.