Gun dealer in Fast and Furious case could be freed
WASHINGTON — A firearms dealer convicted during the fallout from the government’s failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking program may soon be set free after winning a court battle for a new sentencing hearing.
A federal magistrate has ruled that Ian Garland deserves a new hearing because of errors made when a judge initially sent him to prison for five years.
Prosecutors, while acknowledging mistakes, plan to oppose early release for Garland. They hope to present new evidence at the Dec. 13 hearing that he knew many of the 190 firearms he sold to city officials in Columbus, N.M., were being smuggled into Mexico.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix set up Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents allowed illegal sales in order to track firearms to drug cartel members in the U.S. The agency lost track of many weapons, and about 2,000 made it into Mexico, including two connected to the shooting death of a federal Border Patrol agent in Arizona.
The scandal cost top ATF officials in Phoenix and Washington their jobs and led to a contempt of Congress citation against U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
None of the gun dealers in the Phoenix area who were involved in the case were prosecuted. Many of the weapons, however, were ferried through New Mexico to El Paso, then smuggled into Mexico. And in New Mexico, city officials in Columbus were caught up in gun smuggling. The mayor, police chief and a town trustee were among those prosecuted for conspiring to smuggle weapons into Mexico, including the roughly 190 purchased from Garland at his Chaparral Guns store in Chaparral, N.M.
A federal grand jury indicted Garland in March 2011 on allegations that he knew the weapons were bound for Mexico. He pleaded guilty four months later to conspiracy and false statement charges. Court officials calculated his five-year sentence on the basis that many of the weapons were “machine guns.”
But Magistrate Gregory B. Wormuth in New Mexico ruled Oct. 7 that Garland deserved a new sentencing hearing because many of the firearms actually were pistols or nonautomatic weapons. Garland and his attorneys hope the new hearing will set him free because he already has served more than half of his sentence.
In emails, letters and phone calls to The Times, Garland said he was arrested so the government could justify Fast and Furious. He said he never knew the Columbus officials were actually smuggling weapons. Mexican government officials are eager to speak to him about Fast and Furious, he added, saying he will cooperate whenever he is released.
“I’m nothing more than a scapegoat,” he wrote Nov. 18 from prison in Yankton, S.D. “I’m here because the ATF let me sell for 18 months to people they knew were smuggling arms to Mexico.... It’s because of that stupid Fast and Furious operation.”
His attorney, Todd A. Coberly of Santa Fe, N.M., added in an interview: “After these guns surfaced in Mexico and a Border Patrol agent was shot dead, they kind of reversed course and started prosecuting this firearms dealer that they were allowing to sell. And I honestly don’t think Ian fully knew what was happening with these guns.”
But Steven R. Spitzer, a federal prosecutor in El Paso, said the government maintained that Garland “had reason to believe the firearms he sold were destined for Mexico.” Spitzer agreed, however, that the calculation used in giving Garland five years was flawed and that “a new sentencing hearing may be appropriate.”
Spitzer also told the court that prosecutors would present evidence at the hearing that Garland should remain in prison because of new information about weapons recovered from Mexico and Garland’s “criminal conduct.”
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