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ATF Knew Gunman Stockpiled Ammo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms learned more than a year ago that a convicted felon had illegally purchased thousands of rounds of ammunition, a disclosure that raises questions about the investigative procedures that resulted in a shootout at the man’s home that left a sheriff’s deputy dead and terrorized a neighborhood.

ATF agents also were told by neighbors of James Allen Beck in the weeks before the Aug. 31 firefight that he was stockpiling guns in his Santa Clarita Valley home, including at least two assault rifles, according to search warrant affidavits unsealed Friday in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

An ATF agent investigating Beck in July 2000 for illegally possessing firearms reviewed credit card receipts and gun shop invoices, determining Beck had purchased $1,513.34 worth of ammunition and gun paraphernalia during seven visits to Turner’s Outdoorsman gun shop in Pasadena, the affidavits said. Among his purchases was a magazine for an AR-15 assault rifle.

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It is illegal for a felon in California to possess, buy, sell or transfer a firearm, gun parts or ammunition, the ATF said Friday. Beck was on parole at the time, following three convictions for burglary, receiving stolen property and possession of an assault weapon, records show.

After learning of the illegal purchases last year, federal agents did not attempt to serve a search warrant until eight days ago.

The attempted search sparked a protracted exchange of gunfire between Beck and law enforcement officials in the Stevenson Ranch neighborhood. During the gun battle, Beck apparently killed Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian, who was shot moments after responding to calls for help.

Authorities say Beck, 35, died in the ensuing fire, which was broadcast on national television.

Bernard J. Zapor, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Southern California division, said Friday he could not discuss why the bureau waited 14 months--until after suspicious neighbors called authorities--before conducting a search for illegal weapons.

ATF authorities knew in July 2000, for example, that Beck had bought 77 boxes of ammunition for at least five different caliber firearms, as well as rifle magazines.

Tom Reilly, the manager at Turner’s Outdoorsman, said federally licensed gun shops are not required to conduct background checks on people who buy ammunition, only ID checks to make sure they’re 21 or older.

Zapor said his agency cannot comment on the case until release of an internal review of the shootout. The Sheriff’s Department is conducting a separate homicide investigation of Kuredjian’s death.

Some of Beck’s neighbors, and police tactics experts, have criticized the ATF, saying its agents did not adequately prepare for their confrontation with Beck, based on the type of weapons witnesses reported seeing and his possession of a bulletproof vest.

The ATF has said there was no reason to believe Beck would open fire on the agents.

Beck is believed to have fired hundreds of rounds from assault weapons and high-powered rifles. Authorities searched his burned-out house and found at least three illegal assault weapons--one of them under Beck’s corpse--along with a bolt-action scoped rifle, several shotguns and “numerous” handguns, according to a law enforcement source.

The ATF visit to Beck’s two-story tract home was triggered by complaints from neighbors who told agents that Beck had been stockpiling automatic weapons and falsely claiming to be a U.S. deputy marshal, according to the affidavits and interviews.

One witness listed in the affidavits told ATF agents last month they saw four “assault type rifles” propped against a couch in Beck’s living room. Beck allegedly said he seized them from “a crook” while working as a U.S. marshal. Beck was never a federal law enforcement agent. He was an officer of the Arcadia Police Department from June 1987 until August 1988, but he did not complete his probation.

Another witness told ATF agents that Beck showed off a law enforcement badge, boasted he always carried a .44-caliber handgun and said he kept “over 200 guns in a safe in his garage,” according to the affidavits.

A third witness told ATF agents Aug. 30 he had recently seen Beck bring two boxes of firearms into his house, including an AR-15 assault rifle, an AK-47 assault rifle, two semiautomatic pistols and at least two other rifles, the affidavit said.

Federal agents obtained a warrant to search Beck’s house the same day. A team of at least eight ATF agents, along with two deputy U.S. marshals and two sheriff’s deputies, arrived the next morning. Beck began shooting at them as they tried to serve the warrant.

The ATF began investigating Beck 15 months ago on suspicion of impersonating a federal agent and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

ATF Special Agent Larry D. Webster obtained a search warrant for Beck’s mother’s house in West Los Angeles, where Beck was living at the time. They found no weapons or evidence that Beck was impersonating an agent during the search on June 21, 2000.

But the next month, Webster got a telephone tip leading him to review Beck’s credit card statements. He found Beck had visited the Pasadena gun store seven times between April 2, 1999, and Feb. 5, 2000.

The affidavit does not mention any further investigation of Beck until May 4, when Webster spoke with another agent about the case. Webster that month also spoke with a credit card company employee, who said Beck had never reported as stolen the credit card used to buy the ammunition, the affidavit said.


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