ATF agents lost track of dozens of their own guns, reports show

Journal Sentinel- by John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge

ATF agents have lost track of dozens of government-issued guns, after stashing them under the front seats in their cars, in glove compartments or simply leaving them on top of their vehicles and driving away, according to internal reports from the past five years obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Agents left their guns behind in bathroom stalls, at a hospital, outside a movie theater and on a plane, according to the records, obtained Tuesday by the news organization under the federal Freedom of Information Act.  

In December 2009, two 6-year-old boys spotted an agent’s loaded ATF Smith & Wesson .357 on a storm sewer grate in Bettendorf, Iowa. The agent lived nearby and later said he couldn’t find his gun for days but didn’t bother reporting it — until it hit the local newspaper.

In Los Angeles in 2011, an agent went out to a bar drinking with other agents and friends, reportedly consuming four alcoholic beverages. The next morning he woke up and realized his ATF-issued Glock was gone. It was not found.

All of the agents’ names are blacked out on the reports, which do not say if the agents were disciplined. It is clear that agency rules were not followed in many of the incidents, which show at least 49 guns were lost or stolen nationwide between 2009 and 2013.

One report on an agent who lost her gun when she moved concluded by quoting an ATF order that, in part, says bureau-issued guns when not carried or in the immediate control of the agents “shall be stored in secured, locked locations.”

The order also says agents “must exercise good judgment and common sense when assessing the security of Bureau-issued firearms.”

In Milwaukee, an undercover agent had three of his guns, including an ATF-owned machine gun, stolen from his government truck parked at a coffee shop in September 2012.

The theft was among acascade of mistakes made in the ATF’s Operation Fearless, an undercover storefront about a mile away in the Riverwest neighborhood. The Journal Sentinel uncovered a series of problems in the sting and others like it run by the ATF across the country.

The internal reports released Tuesday reveal the ATF quickly closed its investigation into the guns stolen in Milwaukee. But the matter was reopened after the Journal Sentinel investigation revealed the theft and other problems in Operation Fearless. The follow-up report indicates the agent had not followed ATF rules on how to secure his guns.

congressional hearing on the storefront stings will be held Thursday in Washington, D.C.

The hearing and another expected to be held next month were scheduled in the wake of the Journal Sentinel investigation, which found that the ATF used mentally disabled people to promote operations and then arrested them on drug and gun charges; opened storefronts close to schools and churches, increasing arrest numbers and penalties; and attracted juveniles with free video games and alcohol.

Agents paid inflated prices for guns, which led to people buying weapons at stores and selling them to undercover agents hours later, in some cases for nearly three times what they paid. In addition, agents allowed armed felons to leave their fake stores and openly bought stolen goods, spurring burglaries in surrounding neighborhoods.

Incidents from 2009-’13

The newly released ATF reports show that between 2009 and 2013, agents lost their guns or had them stolen in at least 45 incidents — with a couple of the cases involving the loss of three firearms.

It is unclear if the records include “missing” guns, a separate category used by the agency.

Most of the lost weapons were handguns, but there also were at least two assault rifles stolen. Typically the reports do not indicate what happened to the unrecovered guns. However, in a November 2008 incident, the gun may have wound up in Mexico, according to the report.

The ATF has weapons stolen or loses them more frequently than other federal law enforcement agencies, according to a 2008 report from the Office of the Inspector General with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In a five-year span from 2002-’07, for example, 76 ATF weapons were reported stolen, lost or missing, according to the report. That’s nearly double the rate of the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, when considering rates per 1,000 agents.

The inspector general’s office found the majority of losses and thefts were a result of carelessness or failure to follow ATF policy.

The report cited examples similar to those in the documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel, with agents leaving weapons in public bathrooms, atop their vehicles, on an airplane and one in a shopping cart.

“There’s no doubt that people leave things around, but when you have an agency whose task it is is to focus on firearms, it would seem to me like an extra measure of care would be called for,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and an expert on law enforcement tactics and regulation. “If they are doing this at a rate that is higher than others (in law enforcement), it is something to worry about.”

The sloppy attention to securing weapons could stem in part from poor communication about the importance of the issue by leadership or lack of adequate consequences for those who violate the rules, Harris said.

“You have to make it real. …People have to see there are real consequences,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you might as well not have the rules. It’s just window dressing.”

In 2007, the ATF cut its minimum suspension for a first-time loss of a weapon from three unpaid days to one.

The reduction in penalty was aimed at motivating agents to report the loss quickly, ATF officials told the inspector general in 2008.

ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun said late Tuesday it is the sole responsibility of the roughly 2,400 agents to secure their guns, as outlined in agency policy.

She said the Internal Affairs Division investigates the loss or theft of a firearm and sends a report to the Professional Review Board, which reviews the incident to determine any culpability.

Rules on guns in vehicles

ATF officials have refused to release information about rules pertaining to agents keeping guns in their government vehicles, saying disclosing such rules would make every agent a potential target for robbery or car burglary.

However, the reports indicate that agents can keep guns in a lock box inside their vehicles but not between shifts or overnight.

The reports of lost and stolen guns reveal those rules often were not followed. Other times agents took off their guns in the bathroom and left them behind.

That occurred June 15, 2012, when an agent at Swedish Hospital in Bellevue, Wash., left his loaded ATF-issued Sig Sauer .40 caliber pistol in a bathroom stall, reports show. The gun was later found by someone in the bathroom.

In June 11, 2012, an agent was dropping off his children at a soccer game in Plainfield, Ill., when he put his government-issued Smith & Wesson revolver on his car’s roof, forgot about it and drove away, according to the report. The gun was found on an off-ramp of I-55 and turned in to police.

On July 20, 2009, in Fargo, N.D., an agent put his ATF gun on top of his car and went to water his lawn, according to the report. He forgot it was there, and his daughter took the car to a friend’s house. The agent scoured the area and could not find the gun, according to the report.

In November 2008, an agent left his ATF gun in a fanny pack on a Southwest Airlines plane in Houston. He came back to get it later. That same year, another agent in Houston didn’t realize he had lost his gun for a week. It was not found.

In the incident in Iowa, two boys were playing with a remote control motorcycle on a weekday morning when they spotted what turned out to be an ATF agent’s gun on a storm drain. The Bettendorf police chief said the children could not reach the gun and did not touch it.

The Quad-City Times reported the owner was ATF agent Mark Bartholomew, who lived nearby.

“Bartholomew told police that he recently had misplaced the gun and thought it would eventually turn up,” the article said.

He later told ATF investigators he stopped carrying his ATF gun because of health reasons and thought it was locked in a file cabinet in his house. He saw it was missing Nov. 30, but didn’t tell anyone at ATF.

“He claims to have no knowledge regarding how or when his revolver was lost or how it got into the storm drain. (Name redacted) did not report the loss or recovery of his firearm to his supervisor until after the newspaper article mentioned ATF because he ‘didn’t believe it to be a reportable offense because it was not recovered,'” the report said.

“(Name redacted) said that if the newspaper had not mentioned ATF, he would not have reported the incident to his supervisor.”



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