OAKLAND — Holden was a convicted felon, and background check laws prevented him from purchasing a firearm legally. So he came up with a workaround that federal authorities say is part of a statewide trend: he recruited a friend to purchase guns in a place with fewer gun restrictions than the Bay Area — in this case, Las Vegas, Nevada — and bring them back.

It was through this method that Holden and his co-defendant, 22-year-old Jose Sotomayor, came to sell nine pistols and two assault rifles to an undercover police officer. Last November, the two were indicted as part of a large federal and state law investigation targeting gun and drug trafficking in the South Bay.

On Sept. 6, after pleading guilty to selling guns without a license, Sotoymayor was sentenced to two years, six months in federal prison. Holden has pleaded guilty as well, and is awaiting sentencing in January 2020, according to court records.

The Holden/Sotomayor case pales in comparison to the scale of several Bay Area gun rings that have been busted in recent years, but the modus operandi was the same; federal authorities estimate that hundreds of thousands of guns have been brought to the Bay Area from Nevada and rural places in California that have fewer restrictions for gun dealers.

Jill Snyder, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, said that in 2016, more illegal guns were seized in California than any other state. She said guns are brought to the Black Market in two main ways: gun store burglaries, and “straw purchasers” who buy the guns from so-called “source states,” and transport them to an area where they can be sold at a profit.

“For California, it’s its own source state. Most of the guns we seize that have been purchased were in another part of California,” Snyder said. “We do have cases, though, where firearms are trafficked from Nevada…It depends on the type of gun you want, it depends on the area you live in, if the guns are accessible. If you want a machine gun that might be more, if you want a silencer that might be more. It’s supply and demand, like everything else.”

Whenever it can, the ATF tracks the “time to crime,” from when a gun is illegally trafficked to when it turns up in a criminal investigation. Agency records made public in federal sentencing memos in a gun trafficking case last year note that one pistol sold on the streets of Oakland was used by a gang member in an Auburn homicide 90 days later. Another was used in an attempted murder in San Leandro within a day of being acquired.

Sentencing disparities

Federal sentencing are more punitive for the trafficking of drugs classified as dangerous, like methamphetamine or heroin, than they are for firearms trafficking. A count of conspiracy to sell firearms without a license — a common charge levied against gun traffickers — carries a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison. Federal meth distribution charges, by contrast, can carry a maximum term of life.

Last November, Oakland resident Andre Martel Winn was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for leading a gun ring that was caught trafficking dozens of firearms throughout the Bay Area. Federal authorities linked the guns to more than a dozen crimes, writing in court records they were used in three separate homicides and four attempted murders.

Authorities say Winn and his co-defendants legally purchased guns in Nevada, and brought them back to Oakland for resale, taking Greyhound buses and transporting the guns in their luggage, a method travel authorities say reduced the risk of being arrested.

“The Oakland-based conspirators paid the middlemen for the gun orders prior to the purchase of the guns via MoneyGram money orders wired to MoneyGram locations in Nevada,” federal prosecutors wrote in sentencing memos in Winn’s case. “The middlemen picked up the cash and gave it to yet another level of conspirators who purchased the firearms in Nevada — hereinafter, ‘the straw purchasers.’ The Oakland-based coconspirators traveled from Oakland to Reno via Greyhound Bus, picked up the guns, and brought them back to Oakland.

But Winn may be an exception. His sentence was so high because of a charge of robbery affecting interstate commerce, from a gas station robbery in Oakland committed within 24 hours of acquiring the gun he used. Several of Winn’s co-defendants, convicted of gun trafficking charges, were sentenced to as little as three months probation.

Another 2016 case involved several East Bay residents traveling to the Sacramento area, burglarizing gun shops for dozens of weapons, and reselling them in Alameda County. The defendants were brazen — one burglary involved driving a pickup truck through the front of a gun store and grabbing guns as the burglar alarm blared — and a gun store owner wrote a statement saying the thefts put him out of business, yet all but one of the defendants was sentenced to 33 months or less in prison.


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