Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Blocking guns' path to Mexico (10-28-2009)
- Man pleads guilty to buying guns in Vegas bound for Mexico (10-26-2009)
- U.S. guns are crossing border, but how many? (6-25-2009)
Related Document (.pdf)
The Weiss brothers stood with heads bowed before the judge.
William, free on bail, was dressed in street clothes; he is 37 years old, a big man, and he kept his chunky hands nervously clasped behind his back. Jonnatan is 29, smaller and slighter but standing on familiar ground. A repeat offender, he was decked out in blue jail togs and ankle chains.
Both are from Southern California. Both committed their crimes in Las Vegas. And now both were before U.S. District Judge Philip Pro and pleading guilty in a long-running scheme ferrying Las Vegas firearms to California and then to violent drug cartels in Mexico.
There was no other testimony in the downtown courtroom last week — not an angry victim, not an eyeball witness, not a gun store owner. The room on the seventh floor was eerily quiet except for the two brothers pleading guilty in tones so soft that their voices vanished into the dark walls.
But what they were confessing marked a significant victory for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the case — all over but the sentencing in March — provides a window into an illegal gun trafficking operation that crossed borders and led agents from visits to local gun stores to a small home in Tijuana, Mexico, in the thick of that country’s drug wars.
The Weiss case mirrored what happens in many illegal gunrunning investigations that are launched by a tip from a gun store and end with the arrests of several people involved in transferring weapons from this country to Mexico.
“We follow whatever direction the firearms flow,” Thomas L. Chittum III, resident agent in charge of the local ATF office, said in a recent interview. “And out here, we see most of our firearms being trafficked to Mexico.”
It is big business helping to arm the cartels in Mexico, and Mexico continues to complain to U.S. authorities that more and more U.S. firearms are bolstering the drug cartels. Taking those complaints seriously, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden warned: “Fraudulently purchase guns in Nevada and transport them to another state or country for resale and you will be prosecuted.”
Tyler Olson, a special ATF agent in Las Vegas, said in a sworn court filing that he first learned of the Weiss brothers in February when an employee of the Citadel Gun and Safe store off the Strip telephoned the ATF “regarding a suspicious purchaser.”
The employee said William Weiss was at the shop buying three firearms for $6,000 in cash, using $20 bills. Olson and other agents hurried to the store and spotted two men loading the guns into the rear of a blue Volvo hatchback with California license plates. The weapons were a .50-caliber Bushmaster rifle and two .22-caliber pistols.
The agents went to work. They found that William Weiss carried dual driver’s licenses, in Nevada and California. He listed his address as being on Rustic Oak Court in North Las Vegas. When the owner of the Rustic Oak Court property told Olson he had never heard of Weiss, the agent was sure he was on to something.
Agents questioned employees and checked sales receipts at a number of local gun stores and discovered that William Weiss had purchased 19 firearms on 13 occasions since last December — “including four pistols on the day he received his Nevada driver’s license,” Olson said.
The agent next checked a U.S. Customs database and found that William Weiss had crossed into Mexico the day after buying the Bushmaster and pistols — and the Volvo had crossed the border 25 times in the past two months.
By June, Olson and fellow agents were tracking the Weiss brothers. Now William was driving a Jeep Liberty with Mexico plates. He purchased two more firearms — another Bushmaster and a 9 mm pistol from a North Las Vegas pawnshop. He also again falsified the ATF disclosure form by using the phony Rustic Oak Court address.
So they brought him in for questioning. At the local field office, William Weiss admitted he actually lived in California. And, Olson said, he confessed that the firearms were meant for his brother Jonnatan, who lived in California but often stayed with their mother in Tijuana, where the weapons were resold.
But what really made the case, Olson said, was when “William stated that he was being paid $200 per firearm for his brother.” Jonnatan could not buy the weapons, the ATF found out, because he was a felon, convicted in 2000 for drug trafficking.
Both brothers were indicted. They next stand up in court on March 16, when they each face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.