Over a Barrel | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Over a Barrel

It was just another routine crime in Pittsburgh. But the history of a single handgun shows how "straw purchasers" hold neighborhoods hostage.

To this day, nearly four years after the summer night his Yellow Cab was commandeered by a pair of gun-toting 17-year-olds, Samuel Kweku Ayi-Kumi wonders how teen-agers get their hands on deadly firearms.

"Guns should not be made easily accessible," says Ayi-Kumi. "We need to keep them out of the hands of the minors."

An immigrant from Ghana, Awi-Kumi is accustomed to danger: He's been driving a cab on the late-night shift for six years. "I always try to look out for suspicious customers. If you don't feel right, you should drive away," he says.

But there was no escape from the trouble that found Ayi-Kumi on June 29, 2002 -- trouble that took the form of a silver-and-black 9 mm handgun, wielded by Ebon Paul Davon Brown and Jermaine C. Woods. Spooked by an approaching DUI checkpoint on Ohio River Boulevard, the two abandoned their own car and leapt into Ayi-Kumi's cab, demanding that he take them from the North Side to Hazelwood.

Ayi-Kumi never saw the gun, not until police, seeing Woods and Brown abandon their car and sensing something wrong,searched his cab and found it lodged between the rear seat cushions. But even today, he wonders what might have happened had officers waved him on through.

"If they had not been arrested, what would have happened?" he asks. "Anything could've happened."

As it was, the gun, a Ruger P-95, was recovered without a shot. In fact, as far as police know the gun has never been fired in anger. There was hardly any time: The gun had been bought, legally, less than two weeks before.

But the story of how that Ruger, serial number 314-84303, ended up in the backseat of Ayi-Kumi's cab says a lot about gun violence today. Guns bring mayhem to city neighborhoods almost every week ... but they aren't assembled there. And the people who wield them often never set foot inside a gun store -- not even to rob it.

By the time #314-84303 ended up in the back of Ayi-Kumi's cab, it had already traveled thousands of miles -- from a factory in Arizona to a gun shop in West Mifflin and a crime scene on the North Side. And it passed along from a store clerk to a drug-addicted mother of three, to a drug dealer -- and, finally, into the hands of kids barely old enough to drive.

The Ruger P-95 carries 10 rounds of ammunition, and weighs just over a pound and a half. Its suggested retail price is $475.

Like Ruger's other semi-automatic handguns, #314-84303 was assembled in Prescott, Ariz., at the Ruger Investment Castings plant. And it was part of a shipment to Anthony's Arms & Accessories in West Mifflin, in 2002.

Surrounded by car dealerships on Lebanon Church Road, Anthony's could be just another of the nondescript boxy retail stores that make up suburban commercial strips. Except, of course, for the shooting range in the basement, the mounted giraffe head near the door, and a 9-foot-tall stuffed bear standing guard across from the checkout area.

Larry Mason, a salesman at Anthony's, is eager to show visitors the store's collection -- which includes an array of miniature single-shot pistols, with pearl and gold-plated finishes, that were sold so petticoated ladies could fend for themselves during America's lawless yesteryear.

And when a slightly built, 41-year-old blonde walked into Anthony's to purchase #314-84303 on June 19, 2002, it was natural to assume she, too, had self-defense in mind.

By federal law, every gun purchaser is required to fill out a "Firearms Transaction Record." The questionnaire begins with basic name and address information, but soon delves into more pointed yes/no queries:

Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Are you a fugitive from justice? Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant, or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance? Have you ever renounced your United States citizenship?

Purchasers are also subject to a background check, which clerks such as Mason conduct with state police over the phone. Mason says it typically takes between five minutes and half an hour to carry out the check.

But one of the most important questions is almost impossible for a gun-store clerk or a state trooper to verify.

Are you the actual buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?

The background check is designed to snare anyone with a felony offense attached to his or her name. But even the most hardened ex-con can still get a gun fresh from the factory. He just has to find someone without a record to buy it instead.

Law-enforcement authorities call such buyers "straw purchasers," and making a straw purchase is a crime. Just beneath the cash register at Anthony's, in fact, a poster put out by the authorities reads: "Don't lie for the other guy." If you "purchase a gun for someone who can't," the poster warns, the transaction will "buy you 10 years in jail."

But there is only so much a gun shop can do to catch a straw-buyer in the act. "If someone has a valid I.D., gives the right answers [on the form], is on the up and up," Mason says, there's usually little reason not to sell them a gun.

Mason says customers won't get guns if they reek of alcohol or appear to be doped up. "You don't have to sell someone a firearm, you can refuse service," he says. But in general, "you're supposed to take somebody on their face value." If a purchaser who passes the background check is "going to lie, [they're] going to lie."

Ruger #314-84303 was sold that June day along with another 9mm -- a Glock 19 -- because there was no good reason not to. Its buyer's background check showed that she had no prior felony convictions. On the form, she answered that yes, she was the actual buyer of the gun, and no, she was not a drug abuser.

No one at Anthony's saw anything amiss. And they weren't alone. Her shopping excursion was her sixth trip to a gun store in a little over a month.

In the early summer of 2002, police records show, the same woman bought a .38-caliber Talon, a .40-caliber Hi-Point, a .38-caliber Jennings T-380 and a 9 mm Smith & Wesson 6904 from an East Allegheny gun shop, as well as a .45-caliber Sig Sauer P-220 from Braverman's Arms in Wilkinsburg.

If that seems like a lot of self-protection to buy in a short period, there's no law against doing so. Pennsylvania has no limit on the number of guns that a person may buy in any given period. And currently, there is no way a clerk could know about those purchases anyway: While legal gun purchases are logged in law-enforcement databases, that information isn't revealed in background checks.

So the new owner of #314-84303 walked past a store metal detector, and the giraffe. A car was waiting for her in the parking lot. Inside was a driver whose name she didn't know.

She handed over the guns to the driver. In return, she received a bundle of heroin in plastic bags ... and, just a few weeks later, a visit from three Pittsburgh Police detectives.

Sitting on a throw-rug-covered couch in her apartment and nervously playing with a lighter, P.T. still tears up whenever she recalls her brush with the law.

"I knew it was wrong, but I was so dope-sick," says P.T., who spoke with City Paper on condition that her name not be used. "When you're dope-sick, and there is no money, you'd do anything."

P.T. says she shared a heroin addiction with her now-estranged husband. Despite her habit, however, she had no criminal history ... and that made her a perfect straw purchaser when her dealers wanted to buy some added protection.

"I was the middle person; I was the only one who is legit," says P.T. "I asked them: 'What are you using the guns for? This is not going to come back to me?'"

P.T. says her dealers assured her that the guns were for their own protection. And they promised she had nothing to fear. "They said they would grind the serial number," P.T. continues. "They assured me that I would never be caught. They will tell you anything to get you to get the guns."

And P.T. would do just about anything to get the drugs. "I was also naïve," she admits.

Anonymous go-betweens would ferry her to gun stores in the region. "They picked the place. I didn't know where to go. They told me what to get and they gave me the money," says P.T. "I had never handled a gun in my life."

After every straw purchase, P.T. says her husband would pick up a bundle of stamped bags of heroin -- at a total street value of $90 to $100. They would burn through the drugs in two days.

P.T. says she got so scared that she tried to quit after the first few times. But, "My husband kept saying, 'One more time.'" And the dealers had the advantage anyway. "They know how sick you are," she says.

"I don't know which is worse: this or prostitution."

Both crimes, in fact, are frequently tied to drug abuse.

Pittsburgh police detective Joe Bielevicz works in the bureau's firearms-tracking unit, which seeks to trace firearms recovered from criminals, and figure out how the guns got out onto the street. A six-year veteran of the unit, Bielevicz is familiar with stories like P.T.'s.

Speaking at a March public hearing before the state House Judiciary Committee on gun violence, Bielevicz testified that "most of the guns we're recovering on the street are somehow tied to the drug trade. [Addicts are] using guns to obtain narcotics."

While dealers can obtain guns through theft, he says, they prefer straw-purchase guns, because the weapons tend to be brand new.

Between 2004 and 2006, Pittsburgh police recovered 2,535 guns from people not registered to own them. Nearly 2,200 of those had never been reported as stolen. Bielevicz says some of the original purchasers may be legitimate crime victims who never noticed the theft, but in most of those 2,200 cases, the guns were very likely bought by straw purchasers.

Traffic in gun ownership is so widespread that even the straw purchasers are surprised by it.

"I didn't realize they were giving the guns away to the young kids off the streets," P.T. says.

In fact, it's unclear how #314-84303 got into the hands of Brown and Woods, whom P.T. says she's never met. Bielevicz says, "We don't know for sure" how the weapon ended up in the possession of the two teen-agers who commandeered Ayi-Kumi's cab. "The dealer probably distributed the guns to his circle of criminal friends."

In any case, when Brown and Woods got hold of P.T.'s Ruger, they were only a year older than her own twin sons.

Samuel Kweku Ayi-Kumi wasn't looking for a fare on June 29. He already had a passenger, Jacqueline Dreistadt, of Beaver. But as he approached a DUI checkpoint on Route 65 near the Marshall Avenue exit, he could see two teen-agers get out of a blue Mitsubishi. At first, police reports say, the two walked right past Ayi-Kumi, seemingly intent on putting some distance between themselves and the checkpoint. Then they change their minds, and pulled open the rear driver's-side door.

Ayi-Kumi had tried to activate the power lock, but it was too late. The juveniles "jumped into the back of the cab," he says.

Brown and Woods seemed anxious, and for good reason. Between them, they carried a small amount of marijuana, three stamped bags of heroin, bundles of cash -- and the Ruger.

Ayi-Kumi didn't see the silver-and-black pistol, though Dreistadt told police that "she felt as though [Brown and Woods] made sure that she knew that they had a gun." They didn't brandish the Ruger at Ayi-Kumi; they offered him money instead. They promised him $150 if he could get them through the checkpoint and take them back to Hazelwood.

"Just drive, drive, drive around our car and tell the police you know our moms," the pair said, according to Dreistadt's statement to the police.

As it turned out, Ayi-Kumi did know one of their mothers. He'd taken English 101 at the North Side campus of Community College of Allegheny County, and one of his classmates was Brown's mother. But he wouldn't learn that until later. At that moment, he says, "I realized the police [were] coming. I knew there was something wrong."

The police manning the checkpoint had seen Woods and Brown abandon their own car and jump inside the cab. They ordered everybody to get out ... and found the Ruger lodged in the middle of the back seat -- fully loaded and with a round in the chamber. Brown and Woods were arrested for drug and firearm possession.

Since that June night, Ayi-Kumi hasn't had another encounter with firearms -- a fact he ascribes partly to the intuition he's developed after years of driving late at night. Even so, the father of three wouldn't like to dwell on the unthinkable, on what might have happened if the police had waved his cab through the checkpoint.

"One thing I've learned over the years [is] you have to follow your instinct," he says.

And these days, he drives a new cab that locks automatically.

When the Ruger was retrieved, an incident report about the arrest was forwarded to Bielevicz's unit, as are all arrests involving firearms. The Ruger's serial number had been scraped off -- as P.T.'s dealer had promised -- but the crime lab used chemicals to reveal #314-84303's identity.

The detectives traced the gun both through the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state police, which maintains a database of all legal handgun transactions. In the case of #314-84303, both agencies connected the gun to P.T's name and address. Ten days after the traffic stop, and seven months after the gun was purchased, the detectives visited P.T. at her Greenfield home.

She didn't put up much of an argument, which Bielevicz says isn't unusual. Few straw purchasers are in the trade by choice, he says: "The drug users tend to be more remorseful because they're doing something they don't want to do."

P.T. pled guilty to seven counts each of illegal delivery of a firearm, making a false statement to a firearm dealer and falsifying a statement to authorities -- the latter charges stemming from the fraudulent information she entered on her Firearms Transaction Record. She is now serving a sentence of 10 years' probation and won't be allowed to buy guns again.

Brown and Woods were juveniles at the time of the June 2002 incident. And while juvenile records are sealed, Brown, at least, had no trouble getting another gun after P.T. left the business. In 2005, he was convicted -- this time as an adult -- for using another drug addict as a straw purchaser. Today, he's serving a five-year-minimum prison sentence.

Part of the reason straw purchasers are numerous, Bielevicz says, is that "it's hard to get caught." When guns used in crimes are traced back to the straw purchasers, the buyers often insist that the gun must have been stolen -- even though they never reported it missing.

"It's a growing problem," he says.

One answer, Bielevicz says, would be to require gun owners to report to the authorities if they no longer have the firearms under their control. That will make potential straw purchasers think twice about giving up a gun to someone else: "They'll have to care" what could happen if a gun leaves their possession, he says. And if an owner reports a suspicious number of stolen weapons, it will help "bring straw purchases to the surface" -- and to the attention of police.

Another measure being considered by the state Legislature is to limit purchase to one gun a month.

Bielevicz says the city's police bureau favors any measures that would add "new tools that would help us combat straw purchasing." Currently, he says, even if a straw purchaser is convicted of lying but not of the straw purchase, the offense is a misdemeanor -- which isn't a serious enough crime to prevent them from buying more guns in the future.

Such measures are being discussed by lawmakers in Harrisburg now, but their prospects are dim. Gun-rights activists are hostile to almost any additional gun-control legislation; they counsel more zealous policing of laws already on the books instead.

"We see no reasons to increase the number of laws because there is a double standard in the way of applying the law," says Kim Stolfer, chairman of the legislative committee of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League. He faults gun-control advocates for seeking to "increase the restrictions on law-abiding citizens while criminals are not being prosecuted."

Of all those involved in the events of June 29, 2002, Ruger #314-84303 met the harshest fate. Bielevicz says his sergeant took the Ruger -- along with a batch of 500 other guns recovered by police -- to be melted down as scrap.

As for the other weapons P.T. purchased, two have been recovered, but four still remain at large, almost certainly in the hands of people who could never have purchased them legally. And P.T. was just one straw purchaser putting guns on the street, a buyer who happened to get caught early.

Says Bielevicz, "We have no idea how many [illegal] guns are out there."