Stolen Army assault rifles keep showing up in California
Authorities in California's agricultural heartland weren't looking for a military assault rifle when investigating the domestic assault case, but they did find one.
Police came across the AK-74 in the garage of a Spanish-tiled house in Fresno. His strikingly banana-shaped magazine - loaded with 20 rounds - was in a nearby storage container.
AK-74s are similar to their more famous cousin, the AK-47. They shoot three bullets every two seconds. Because of the speed at which they fire, civilians cannot legally own them in the United States without a license.
The weapon, which was accidentally recovered in 2019, had been stolen eight years earlier from Fort Irwin, a base in California's Mojave Desert, where many soldiers trained before tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The three thieves had access to the base because they were military police - the soldiers who were called during a break-in. To get into the supply depot known as Building 934, they cut through a fence, broke open one door, and cut through another to get into the weapons storage room.
One of them was a member of the Fresno Bulldogs street gang. Sgt. John Rodriguez said in an internal interview that he joined the gang as a fifth grader but was no longer active. That was in March 2011 - four months before 26 AK-74s and a sniper rifle were robbed.
After the theft, Rodriguez and Pfc. Harvey DelValle II took off nearly 300 miles to Fresno to clear their prey. At an employee's house, the two soldiers began calling potential buyers.
This is how the weapons of war ended up on the streets of Fresno. The guns were among the at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms lost or stolen in an Associated Press investigation over the past decade.
The Fresno authorities quickly recovered some of them.
Less than two weeks after the theft, agents located one in the detached garage where a Bulldogs member, Moses Zapien, lived with his girlfriend.
The gun was on a shelf above her bed. Somebody tried to scrape off the serial number. The magazine with bullets was inserted.
Zapien told authorities he bought it to protect his home at what he thought was the bargain price of $ 200. The garage was in what was a boom town for railroad depots a century ago, but which was now gang territory.
Zapien said he understood the source of the gun was a Bulldogs member who worked on a military base and "brought one back to the streets for the gang". The gang started in prison and its members were accused of using weapons and drugs, and networking for human trafficking and prostitution.
Another six AK-74s reached the gang's hands through lengthy negotiations, Rodriguez's associate Nathan Granados told federal investigators.
About a week after the theft, Rodriguez and Granados met in the back room of a tattoo shop with three gang members who had traveled in a white BMW SUV. Rodriguez brought one of the AK-74s to show and tell.
The discussion was promising enough that the two groups later reunited and negotiated further. Around midnight they drove to a house to exchange. Rodriguez went into the backyard basement and got six guns. The Bulldogs handed over $ 1,400 and the deal was closed.
How many remain in gang hands is unclear. Some of the 26 stolen weapons appeared by chance. In June 2012, an insurance expert found one in a vehicle that had been repossessed by a felon.
The three soldiers were sentenced to six to 20 years in prison in military courts. At least 14 civilians were charged.
Although the case is now closed, at least nine AK-74s remain missing nearly a decade after the theft.
Ohm reported from Washington; Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee.
Contact Hall at https://twitter.com/kmhall.
Email AP's Global Investigations Team at email@example.com. Further work can be found at https://apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.
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