While Los Angeles County supervisors were honoring an animal-welfare organization in September for donating $20,000 to help the county spay and neuter pets, federal agents had their eyes on the same group--for spending as much as five times that amount on guns.
Agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were investigating the Van Nuys-based Mercy Crusade Inc. for stockpiling an estimated $100,000 arsenal, according to authorities close to the investigation.
Among the guns were assault-style weapons that were purchased just before they were restricted under federal gun control legislation. The agents seized a dozen assault-style pistols and are still holding them.
The guns were purchased for the group's 12 humane officers, quasi-police who have powers of investigation and arrest in animal abuse cases. Although they can wear uniforms and badges virtually identical to those of California Highway Patrol officers and carry guns, they are supervised by no government agency and little formal law enforcement training is required of them.
They draw their authority from an obscure state law more than 80 years old, which allows animal welfare groups to appoint such officers with a judge's approval.
Mercy Crusade's humane officers are headed by James McCourt, a Pepperdine University economics professor, and recently included a restaurant security guard, a lawyer, a martial arts instructor and a retired kennel operator.
McCourt said the guns were needed for "law enforcement purposes." No charges have been brought against him or Mercy Crusade.
Although it is legal for any adult without a criminal record to buy the guns, federal agents are still investigating, saying they are concerned that they cannot answer this question: Why would a group whose stated purpose is to deal with mistreatment of animals want to arm badge-wearing volunteers with military-style weapons that would give them far more firepower than a police SWAT squad?
Even the professional Los Angeles city and county animal control officers--who are not connected to state humane officers--do not ordinarily carry so much as a pistol.
"You have an unregulated organization with questionable people arming themselves to the gills and imperiling the public," said one federal source, who called the purchases "outrageous."
"The system has got to be changed," he said, referring to the unsupervised status of humane officers.
"There is obviously something wrong that this organization can legally carry firearms with little or no training. . . . No legitimate police agency carries any of those weapons," except for specially trained SWAT teams, he said.
He echoed concerns by others in law enforcement that many humane officers, especially in the Los Angeles area, operate outside the institutional framework of supervision and professionalism that is standard for other peace officers.
Indeed, part of the problem for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when the investigation began was that, like many others inside and outside law enforcement, the federal agents had never heard of state humane officers and found it difficult to understand that a private, nonprofit organization such as Mercy Crusade is entitled to field a unit of sworn law enforcement officers.
Federal investigators are still holding 12 semiautomatic Heckler & Koch "assault pistols" seized in June from McCourt, who is the chairman of the board of directors of Mercy Crusade Inc., as well as its chief humane officer.
The guns, which are classified as handguns but come with 15- or 30-round magazines and are designed to be fired with two hands, are now on a federal list of weapons that can no longer be manufactured, although it is not illegal to own them.
In addition, McCourt or his aides in the past year bought or ordered 22 other weapons, including five AR-15s, a Bushmaster, a Heckler & Koch .308 and a Fabrique Nationale de Arms .308--which are all modified versions of military assault rifles--plus an unusually powerful Israeli .50-caliber pistol, according to authorities.
McCourt told The Times that he bought the Heckler & Koch weapons shortly before their manufacture was banned by federal law because "we were anticipating . . . that these things would no longer be available and that extra taxes and extra paperwork would be required (after the ban). And that is something I was not prepared to do. I'm old-fashioned."
McCourt offered several other reasons for the purchases, at one point saying he wanted his officers to be familiar with the guns in case they ever encountered them in investigations.
McCourt also said that having such weapons would gain Mercy Crusade's humane officers more respect from other law enforcement officers, and that he hoped to promote a sense of camaraderie by giving his officers identical state-of-the-art weapons.
"It seemed like a good idea--go to the firing range at the same time with the same type of gun," he said.
Another need, McCourt said, is to be armed well enough to protect animal shelters from rioters. During the 1992 riots, armed Mercy Crusade officers were dispatched to protect various animal shelters and clinics, he said, and "we were worried we might have to do that" again.
Because he gave federal agents several different answers to their questions, they "thought he was being evasive" and that his explanations "just didn't add up," said one source.
The federal bureau declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
The weapons were purchased with Mercy Crusade funds, McCourt said. According to records filed with the secretary of state's office that supervises tax-exempt charities such as Mercy Crusade, the group had a $2.3-million treasury at the end of 1993. The group raises money primarily through direct-mail solicitation of animal lovers.
Firearms agents began the investigation that led to McCourt after receiving tips from San Fernando Valley gun shop owners that two men had been purchasing large numbers of assault weapons, the sources said. The gun dealers said the purchasers declared that the guns were for law enforcement use, and one of them wore a police uniform.
But the dealers became suspicious because of the number of guns purchased and because the buyers paid by checks drawn on a private organization's bank account, which is not how police departments make such purchases, the sources said.
In June, notified that the two gun buyers had returned to one of the shops, federal agents followed McCourt and a uniformed fellow humane officer, Judson Swearingen Jr., from the shop to McCourt's home, the sources said. The agents interviewed them at length and seized the 12 Heckler & Koch SP89 pistols, for which McCourt paid more than $2,700 apiece, the sources said.
McCourt said he voluntarily surrendered the guns to the agents, but has now asked Mercy Crusade's attorney to have them returned.
Although bureau spokesman John D'Angelo refused to comment on the case, he noted that agents "don't take guns for safekeeping--we take guns (by seizure) when we believe there is evidence of a crime."
McCourt said the agents questioned him for several hours in June, asking what humane officers are and why Swearingen was in uniform, and "challenging whether we needed" the weapons.
He said that agents asked several times whether he had bought the weapons with the intent of reselling them at a profit after changes in gun-control laws made them harder to find and therefore more valuable. He said he thought the agents suspected he was planning "to turn these things around and sell them to gangs. But we don't."
McCourt said the questions left him "kind of shocked, because I wasn't aware that capitalism had been outlawed in this country."
According to McCourt and sources close to the case, the investigation remains open, but is at a standstill.
Federal prosecutors declined to bring charges against McCourt and Swearingen for listing a post office box instead of McCourt's street address on the federal gun purchase form, a felony. McCourt said he was only trying to hide the location of his home and business, a common practice by law enforcement officers to thwart vengeance-seekers.
Prosecutors also refused the ATF's request to seek a warrant from a federal judge for a search of McCourt's home and Mercy Crusade's office by agents who hoped to determine how many weapons McCourt and the other officers had, and how they paid for them. The sources say that purchase records filed by gun shops indicate the group's members had bought at least 34 guns worth at least $100,000 in the past year.
State humane officers are not required to meet the minimum firearms education requirements imposed on other law enforcement officers in California, who fall under the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, which is part of the state Department of Justice. Lack of POST certification, for example, briefly helped prevent even Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams from carrying a gun when he first arrived from Philadelphia.
To carry firearms, humane officers are required only to take a 24-hour course in firearms safety offered at community colleges--compared to the 364 hours required of virtually all other state law enforcement officers, and the more than 500 hours that is normal in many large departments. POST officials said that as far as they know, humane officers are one of only three classes of peace officers--along with investigators supervised by state banking and real estate regulators--required to take so little firearms training.
Although there are clearly scores of humane officers in Los Angeles County alone, and probably hundreds of them in the state, state officials say there is no central registry of who they are, or which of them are authorized to carry weapons--a decision that is up to the animal welfare groups they belong to.
Apparently the only records are kept by the county clerks and registrars who swear in the officers after a judge's approval. According to Los Angeles Superior Court administrators, such applications are routinely approved after a cursory fingerprint check for criminal convictions.
As for McCourt, he said he could not remember how many weapons Mercy Crusade had purchased. "When you put them (the guns) in a pile, it looks big," he said, "but it really isn't."