Smoking guns close Compton store
When felons walked into Boulevard Sales and Service, a fortress-like gun store in Compton, they weren’t turned away. Instead, law enforcement officials said they were coached.
Can’t pass the background check? No problem, as long as they had a friend who could.
On Thursday, federal authorities who were working with state and local law enforcement officials shut down the operation, arresting the son of the longtime owners and an employee, and seizing thousands of weapons and rounds of ammunition at the Compton store and a sister operation near Ojai in Ventura County.
The raids put at least a temporary end to a retail gun outlet that authorities said had provided a steady stream of weapons used in crimes or possessed by felons not legally allowed to own them.
No other California gun dealer had more crime guns traced back to their stores than Boulevard Sales and Service in the last two years, according to federal firearms records.
Over the last five years, 892 weapons were traced to the store on Long Beach Boulevard by law enforcement officials who were investigating crimes, authorities said. Five others were traced to the sister store in Oak View. Twenty-eight guns were tied to homicide investigations, including the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.
“The business we believe acted in concert with gang members and felons,” said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent in Charge John A. Torres, as agents behind him stacked some of the more than 2,000 weapons that were being removed from the gun store.
Torres said Boulevard Sales and Service guns had been sold to members of gangs such as the Compton Crips and Fruit Town Pirus.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and top Los Angeles Police Department officials called the Compton sting a starting point in their plan to aggressively shut down gun retailers whose weapons disproportionately end up being used by gang members, an effort that they said would be a cornerstone of their joint anti-gang campaign that was launched earlier this year.
“Today is a new day in our effort to tell gang members your efforts to acquire guns will be reduced,” said Baca, who vowed to continue to trace weapons that are recovered by his deputies and investigate high-volume sources of such guns. His department had not used that tactic in the past.
Officials who worked on the two-month-long sting described a bold sales strategy inside the long controversial store, which the Rev. Jesse Jackson, during his 1988 presidential campaign, cited as a ready source of Soviet-made AK-47 semiautomatic rifles and Israeli Uzi submachine guns for anyone who had “cash money on Long Beach Boulevard.”
In Compton, some residents who remembered Jackson’s words wondered why it had taken so long for authorities to act.
“Look how many years it took,” said Roscoe Pettway, 42. “All [the owner] did was put guns on the street. All these people getting killed. They should have listened.”
When authorities began investigating the store in January, they alleged, a pattern of illegal sales was immediately apparent.
Convicted felons who were working as confidential informants entered the store, talking openly of past prison stints.
Investigators said store workers “coached” them to use a friend or girlfriend who could clear federally required background checks. Such sales, known as “straw” buys, are illegal.
In many instances, according to a sworn affidavit, the admitted felon counted the cash out of his own pocket in front of store employees. Fourteen such sales took place over the last 60 days, officials alleged.
“The informant would look at the gun and say [to his friend], ‘I want that gun; you buy it for me,’ ” said John D’Angelo, the ATF agent who supervised the sting. “We had to show that the clerks knew exactly what was going on, and we had no problems doing so.”
On one occasion, authorities said, an undercover LAPD officer who was posing as a felon’s girlfriend hesitated over a question on federally required paperwork that asked if she was the “actual buyer” of the gun. The question came with a warning against acquiring weapons for other people.
According to an affidavit that detailed the investigation’s findings, store employee Carlos Rodriguez Castellanos urged her to simply answer yes. If she didn’t, Castellanos allegedly told her, “you not getting nothing.”
The alleged “straw” sales included high-caliber handguns, a Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a pump-action shotgun and a bolt-action rifle with a telescopic sight. Large quantities of ammunition, including three cases of AK-47-type bullets, also were alleged to have been sold to straw buyers.
In one case, federal agents said, an undercover LAPD detective wondered out loud if he should report the gun stolen to avoid getting into trouble. According to papers filed in court, Ann Virgilio, who owns the stores with her husband, Michael Virgilio, agreed that reporting the gun as stolen would be a good idea.
In another instance, the admitted felon, a confidential informant with previous felony convictions on weapons, theft and drug charges, told Michael Virgilio that he buried all of his firearms in his yard until he needed them.
At that point, court documents allege, Michael Virgilio gave the man his business card and told him to make future buys directly through him.
The Virgilios, who opened the store in 1978, were not arrested Thursday.
The actual sales and the pickup of weapons were audio- and videotaped, officials said.
“It’s painfully obvious that they do not care how the gun is going to be used,” Assistant Sheriff Doyle Campbell said.
Arrested at their homes early Thursday were Stephen Patrick Virgilio, 36, of Huntington Beach and Castellanos, 52, of Downey. Both men were charged in a criminal complaint that was filed late Thursday with one count of sale of ammunition to a felon, a charge that carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison.
They were expected to be released Thursday on $100,000 bond each, and a preliminary hearing was set for April 11 in federal court.
Attorneys who represent the two men did not immediately return phone calls. The suspects could not be reached for comment.
The store had come to the attention of sheriff’s officials who were working with the Compton anti-gang task force after 16 weapons taken off the streets by task force members in 2006 were traced back to the location.
Additionally, ATF agents said, informants had told them that the store was popular with gang members and ex-convicts because of the ease in making straw buys.
The sting followed Baca’s January vow on the steps of Compton City Hall to go after dealers whose guns end up with felons.
In 2006 alone, sheriff’s deputies took nearly 900 weapons off Compton’s streets in a concerted effort that they believe helped cut the city’s homicides almost in half. Alleged problems with the Compton gun outlet have been documented before.
In a list compiled by The Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, the store ranked 46th nationwide in terms of the volume of sold guns traced to crimes between 1996 and 2000, with 436.
Asked why the store had operated for so long without being investigated, the ATF’s Torres said his office acted quickly when problems were brought to his attention in recent months.
Sheriff’s officials said they began looking more closely at the operation after Baca asked last year that all guns recovered in Compton be traced through federal records. It then became clear that certain vendors were top suppliers, officials said.
That effort marked the first time that the Sheriff’s Department had tracked all weapons recovered in a single community.
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Over the last five years, law enforcement agencies have seized 892 crime-related guns that originated at Boulevard Sales and Service in Compton, officials say.
Where some of them turned up:
In Los Angeles (350 in South L.A.)
In Long Beach
Source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives