Saturday, April 20, 2013
The gun pipeline: Mules who bring firearms across border pay high price for fast money
Batte, a single mom from Sarnia, is just one of the many people used to mule guns across the border each year.
An ongoing Star investigation reveals that border officers seize few of the guns destined for the criminal market in Toronto and across Ontario.
Today, we look at the stories of three mules to show how the lure of quick money brings guns to the GTA.
Batte, now 34, was living with her young daughter at a friend’s house in May of 2007 when she was introduced to Roger Peddie, a Kitchener man who was visiting Sarnia. He said his name was “Jerome.”
Peddie told Batte he was looking for someone to travel with him to Atlanta. He promised her $400 if she would take the trip.
At the time, the attractive brunette was going through a difficult time in her personal life and smoking “a ton of marijuana,” according to the judgment in Peddie’s later trial on gun charges.
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The free trip to a city to which Batte had never been seemed appealing and, in the weeks before, she took two short trips to Michigan with him.
The judge noted in the Peddie trial judgment that Batte said the purpose of these trips with Peddie was to “bring something back,” but she did not recall what.
On June 4, 2007, the pair headed south in Batte’s Chevrolet Cavalier on the 12-hour journey down Interstate 75, a highway well-travelled by gun smugglers.
Batte, as she later told court, spotted Peddie’s real name on his passport at the border crossing. That angered him, but the two continued on, eventually sharing a room in an Atlanta motel. Peddie handed Batte some marijuana and $100 from a “pretty thick wad of money” to get something to eat. Then, he left the motel to “get the car packed,” he told her.
Batte knew something was being put in her car, but she thought it was marijuana.
At 2 a.m. that night, after only a few hours of sleep, the pair began the drive home. What they didn’t know was that the province’s Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit were already interested in Peddie. According to the judgment in Peddie’s case, his name had come up in connection with another man, Ronald McKenzie of Oshawa, who was rumoured to be trafficking guns from the U.S. “at a rate of 30 to 40 per month.”
The plan was for Peddie to get out at a friend’s house in Port Huron, Mich., just 20 minutes from Sarnia, and for Batte to drive across the border alone.
She was uncomfortable, but Peddie told her nothing would be found because the car was “professionally done.”
Batte’s car was searched at the border; the glove box and middle compartments, rear passenger sides and underneath the seats. Her trunk was removed and X-rayed. Nothing was found.
Having crossed the border earlier, Peddie took Batte’s car and drove to his home in Kitchener where he met the other man, McKenzie. Later in the day, police involved in the investigation pulled over McKenzie and found hidden in the rear door panel a Cobray M-12 machine gun, a silencer, two handguns, a revolver and three ammunition magazines.
The guns originated in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Tucked beside them was a plastic shopping bag containing the magazines and Peddie’s fingerprint was on the bag in McKenzie’s car, according to the judgment in Peddie’s case.
At Peddie’s trial, the crown laid out a circumstantial case involving the movement of cars and the discovery of the weapons. The crown maintained that Peddie and McKenzie were involved in the “criminal enterprise” of illegally importing firearms, according to the judgment in Peddie’s case.
In the early summer of 2009, Peddie and McKenzie were convicted of firearms trafficking and possession. Both were sentenced to six years in jail. With credit given for time served, Peddie served 23 months and McKenzie 21 months.
Batte, the unsuspecting mule, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit an indictable offence and received a year of house arrest and probation.
Batte got $100 of the $400 Peddie promised her.
In 2009, Toronto police seized 861 crime guns in the city, at least 70 per cent of which are smuggled in from the U.S. A crime gun is any gun that is illegally possessed or has an obliterated serial number, or is seized in relation to a criminal act, such as a shooting.
In the same year, border services in Ontario seized just nine crime guns they believed were headed for the criminal market, according to a 2010 internal report on gun smuggling obtained by the Star.
“Intelligence and investigations conducted by law enforcement agencies reveal that hundreds of firearms are smuggled into Canada yearly that are destined for the criminal market,” says the report.
While border services seize hundreds of guns across Canada each year, most belong to legitimate American travellers who don’t declare their weapons, which is against the law. These “mom and pop” guns made up the majority of the 2,641 guns seized by border services across Canada between 2005 and 2009, according to the report.
Still, all firearms, the report says, are a public safety concern because even “mom and pop” guns that make their way into Canada could be stolen or diverted to the criminal market in some way.
The Star’s research also found that border services is confiscating nearly half the number of guns they did a decade ago. From 2001 to 2005, border services seized an average of 856 firearms per year. Over the past five years, the average has been 494 firearms per year. A spokeswoman wouldn’t speculate why that is.
In an email to the Star, she said the agency places a “high priority on the detection and interdiction of undeclared firearms.”
“I blame myself for getting involved with the wrong crowd, which I should have known better,” said Toronto’s Stephen Bobb in a handwritten letter to a Michigan judge before his sentencing in 2009.
Bobb, then 21 and an auto mechanics student at Toronto’s Centennial College, was raised in a supportive home in the city’s northwest end, by two parents married nearly three decades who taught their two sons to “do the right thing.”
Offered a chance to make $2,000, Bobb jumped at it.
“I saw quick money and let it get the best of me. I certainly wasn’t thinking properly and didn’t realize the consequences until it was too late.”
By the time a Michigan state trooper pulled Bobb over for speeding on an October morning in 2008, he had already done one successful gun run from the U.S. to Canada, according to an affidavit filed in court from a special agent with U.S. Homeland Security that says Bobb admitted to doing so in an interview with investigators.
That October morning, on Interstate 94, Bobb struck the trooper as nervous when asked questions about where he had been and where he was headed, the same affidavit says. He let the officer search his 1994 Nissan.
Under the back seat, the trooper saw tool markings on bolts of a fuel gauge unit attached to the gas tank. In the trunk, he found an open bag of ground coffee, commonly used by traffickers to mask the smell of drugs. And on the underside of the gas tank, two bolts were missing and another not completely tightened.
The car was then transported to a towing company, where troopers used a scope to look inside the gas tank. Inside, in a secret compartment, they found five vacuum-packed packages, each with a handgun wrapped in carbon paper — four were powerful Taurus-brand guns (two .45 calibre, one .40 calibre and one 9-mm) and the fifth, a Rock Island 9-mm. Each package contained two magazines.
An American named Jesse Sundal originally purchased those guns, according to another affidavit filed in court by an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Sundal, a now 35-year-old from Fort Atkinson, Wisc., was already on the firearms bureau’s radar, which was working with Canadian police. Just months earlier, the Toronto police identification unit, using special chemicals, forensically extracted the serial number of an illegal gun seized during a search warrant in Toronto. Sundal had purchased that weapon, according to the affidavit.
When investigators first interviewed Bobb, he denied knowing about the guns, but said he had been offered $2,000 to transport something illegal from the U.S. to Toronto. During a second interview days later, Bobb admitted he knew he was transporting handguns back to Canada and told investigators that six weeks prior, on another trip, he had smuggled guns.
The affidavit in Sundal’s records says the American told an investigator that Bobb had called him the day before his arrest by state troopers. Sundal said Bobb asked if he had any guns. Sundal said he had five and removed the serial numbers with a grinding tool. Officers were able to trace the purchase of four guns to a legal purchase in Wisconsin from Tom’s Military Arms and Guns.
Sundal was sentenced in May 2009 to 48 months in jail for possession of firearms by an unlawful user of a controlled substance.
In January 2009, Bobb pleaded guilty to illegally transporting firearms. In June of that year, a U.S. judge sentenced him to time served.
“Intelligent,” “respectful,” “ambitious,” “truthful and “honest” were some of the descriptors used by Bobb’s parents, little brother, longtime girlfriend and numerous extended family members, friends and employers in 39 reference letters submitted before his sentencing.
“I was immature and stupid for what I did and I will never ever get myself into such activities again,” Bobb wrote in his letter.
When police can’t find a record of a firearm in the Canadian system, it means they’ve been smuggled into the country, so they request to run a trace with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, through their assistant attaché who is based in Toronto.
In the past five years, Canadian police have asked the firearms bureau to trace 6,574 guns seized on this side of the border.
The ages of mules smuggling suspected crime guns vary, though the largest group was 26-35 years old, according to the 2010 report.
Most are men, though females make up a sizeable portion (17 per cent) when compared to seizures of all guns.
That’s what notorious Toronto gun supplier Lisa Parmanand called a gun shopping trip to the U.S., a “lula” being code for a gun. Parmanand, 32, was convicted in 2012 of trafficking firearms and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her mule, whom she sent “dipping” in 2009, was David Barrett, a young man from Toronto with a promising future.
Parmanand was the supplier of guns to two notorious Scarborough street gangs — the MNE and the 400 Crew.
Barrett, then 22, had returned home to Toronto and started a landscaping job after studying civil engineering at a Seventh-day Adventist university in Washington state. His parents paid $34,000 a year in tuition before he dropped out more than halfway through his degree. Back in Toronto, he helped care for his elderly grandmother, his mother told his bail hearing.
In March 2009, a Toronto police’s gangs and gun unit wiretap investigation known as Project Fusion intercepted a series of phone calls between Parmanand and Barrett, according to court documents. At the time, Parmanand was trying to find “a youth” a gun.
The plan was for Barrett, who’d already successfully crossed the Niagara border with two handguns strapped to his body, to head to the U.S. At one point, Barrett was taking too long to make travel arrangements. She texted, calling him a “real twit.”
“I’m dippin’ in the morning, everything book,” Barrett texted on March 18, before heading to Georgia, one of Ontario’s top source states for crime guns.
While in Georgia, Barrett was caught on a gun store’s video surveillance picking out two firearms and handing money to a man who purchased them.
Two days later, on April 1, agents from the U.S. firearms bureau raided a suburban home just outside Atlanta searching for him. That same day, Parmanand and dozens of other residences were raided as part of Fusion’s “take down.”
They found him, along with a 9-mm pistol, a .357 Magnum, 100 rounds of ammunition and two empty gun boxes, one of which was for a “Baby 9” compact Glock handgun.
Three months previous, in January 2009, Toronto police raided a home on Scarborough’s Bakerton Ave. In the ceiling, they found the “Baby 9” that went with the box found in Atlanta and another gun, a .45 calibre Heckler & Koch.
Those were the guns, Barrett later admitted to police, that he’d strapped to his chest when he drove across the Niagara border a year earlier.
The U.S. firearms bureau let Barrett go, advising him he was wanted by Canadian authorities. On April 7, Barrett, facing 17 firearms offences, surrendered to Toronto police.
Barrett had no criminal record at the time. He pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking firearms in January 2012, and was sentenced to seven years minus time served. Because he spent three years in pretrial custody, he only had to spend an additional year in jail.
At his plea hearing, Superior Court Justice John McMahon said the most important mitigating factor in Barrett’s sentencing was he had taken responsibility for his actions.
“You have dealt with trafficking and what leads to death on our streets. You are going to spend a significant amount of time in jail as a person with no criminal record,” he said. “But as I said to you, and I say it genuinely, that you are a person that, with your background and education, can do a lot with your life. And I wish you every success down the road.”
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