For 15 months, Howard did as he was told. To customers with phony IDs or wads of cash he normally would have turned away, he sold pistols, rifles and semiautomatics. He was assured by the ATF that they would follow the guns, and that the surveillance would lead the agents to the violent Mexican drug cartels on the Southwest border.
When Howard heard nothing about any arrests, he questioned the agents. Keep selling, they told him. So hundreds of thousands of dollars more in weapons, including .50-caliber sniper rifles, walked out of the front door of his store in a Glendale, Ariz., strip mall.
He was making a lot of money. But he also feared somebody was going to get hurt.
"Every passing week, I worried about something like that," he said. "I felt horrible and sick."
Late in the night on Dec. 14, in a canyon west of Rio Rico, Ariz., Border Patrol agents came across Mexican bandits preying on illegal immigrants.
According to a Border Patrol "Shooting Incident" report, the agents fired two rounds of bean bags from a shotgun. The Mexicans returned fire. One agent fired from his sidearm, another with his M-4 rifle.
One of the alleged bandits, Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, a 33-year-old Mexican from Sinaloa, was wounded in the abdomen and legs. Agent Brian Terry — 40, single, a former Marine — also went down. "I'm hit!" he cried.
A fellow agent cradled his friend. "I can't feel my legs," Terry said. "I think I'm paralyzed." A bullet had pierced his aorta. Tall and nearly 240 pounds, Terry was too heavy to carry. They radioed for a helicopter. But Terry was bleeding badly, and he died in his colleague's arms.
The bandits left Osorio-Arellanes behind and escaped across the desert, tossing away two AK-47 semiautomatics from Howard's store.
Some 2,000 firearms from the Lone Wolf Trading Company store and others in southern Arizona were illegally sold under an ATF program called Fast and Furious that allowed "straw purchasers" to walk away with the weapons and turn them over to criminal traffickers. But the agency's plan to trace the guns to the cartels never worked. As the case of the two Lone Wolf AK-47s tragically illustrates, the ATF, with a limited force of agents, did not keep track of them.
The Department of Justice in Washington said last week that one other Fast and Furious firearm turned up at a violent crime scene in this country. They have yet to provide any more details. They said another 28 Fast and Furious weapons were recovered at violent crimes in Mexico. They have not identified those cases either. The Mexican government maintains that an undisclosed number of Fast and Furious weapons have been found at some 170 crime scenes in their country.
Howard said he does not own a gun, does not hunt, and does not belong to the National Rifle Assn. His love is helicopters — a former Army pilot, he gives flying lessons. He said he fell into the gun-dealing business 21 years ago only to help support his career as a flight instructor. Howard spoke to a reporter for the first time in depth about why he cooperated with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
He said he supported law enforcement, and never imagined a thousand weapons, or half of the entire Fast and Furious inventory, would "walk" out of his store. And when arrests were not forthcoming, "every passing week I was more stunned," he said.
According to a confidential memo written by assistant federal prosecutor Emory Hurley, "Mr. Howard had expressed concerns about the cooperation he was providing and whether he was endangering himself or implicating himself in a criminal investigation."
Other firearms dealers shared his concerns. At the nearby Scottsdale Gun Club, the proprietor sent an email to Agent David Voth. "I want to help ATF," he said, "but not at the risk of agents' safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ."
Howard recalled that a chubby, bald and "very confident" man named Jaime Avila walked into the store on Jan. 16, 2010, and bought the AK-47s. Under the Fast and Furious protocol, agents were supposed to use the video cameras, surveillance, informants and law enforcement intelligence to follow the weapons and hope they led them to the drug cartels.
But no agents were watching on the hidden cameras or waiting outside to track the firearms when Avila showed up. Howard faxed a copy of the sale paperwork to the ATF "after the firearms were gone," assuming they would catch up later. They never did.