Local and federal law enforcement struggle to keep guns out of convicted felons' hands

Felons are able to get guns easily, police say

DENVER - In a flash, in two separate shootings, gunmen took the lives of Mike Thomas and Roger Harris. The victims -- one a respected Aurora detective, the other a man struggling on the streets -- led very different lives, but share a common thread: Both were gunned down by men who had prior felonies and had illegally obtained firearms.

Watch for more on this story Thursday night at 10 p.m.

Though it is against the law for felons to possess guns, a CALL7 Investigation found that people with serious criminal records can easily obtain them, posing a challenge for law-enforcement agencies working to protect communities from violence.

"Mike Thomas' death was absolutely one of the worst things that ever happened in the history of our department," said Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates. "And we still grieve. All these years later, we are suffering that loss, and the notion that it might have been preventable is just deeply, deeply troubling."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, can trace gun purchases and possessions for individual shooting investigations, but is prohibited by federal law from retaining the traces and aggregating the data. So, ATF told the CALL7 Investigators it could not provide detailed information on how felons obtained guns used in violent crimes.

The CALL7 Investigators dug into a handful of gun cases, including the murders of Thomas and Harris, finding that felons often obtain guns through home thefts, purchases from straw buyers, crime rings and unregulated sales.

Thomas was in his car, in plain clothes, when he was shot by Brian Allen Washington. Prior to the shooting, the last known location of the gun was a private owner's collection in Idaho in 1993 or 1994, according to ATF trace documents CALL7 Investigators found in court files. Where the Egyptian-made Helwan 9mm handgun was between that time and the 2006 shooting is unclear.

The owner never reported the gun as stolen, a common theme in many felony cases, authorities said.

The gun owner in Idaho "speculated that a relative had stolen it from him -- his collection -- and he simply didn't know about it," Oates told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia. "There was nothing we could do about it."

In the case of Roger Harris, authorities say an Italian-made Beretta PX4 Storm pistol was used in his murder. The gun, originally purchased legally from a Denver-area dealer, was reported stolen and wound up in the hands of Kervin Rogers.

Rogers already had a lengthy prior felony record that included making threats with a gun and possessing a gun as a felon. Rogers is now in state prison for gunning Harris to death in a parking lot behind a restaurant on Colfax Avenue in Aurora.

Rogers was also convicted of shooting to death two others in a series of alleyway murders. Investigators said the victims had failed to pay Rogers sums of drug money as small as $50.

Harris' mother, Operareader Harris, said her son struggled with drugs, but didn't deserve to be gunned down.

“They must have been arguing and Roger walked away,” she said in tears. “That’s when the guy started shooting. But so many times… They kept emptying that gun on my son. So many times.”

Roger Harris had a record of run-ins with the police, a record that stemmed from seeking drugs on the streets of Aurora.

“The fact that you might be a drug user doesn't mean you deserve to get shot four times and killed by a felon with a weapon who shouldn't have it,” Chief Oates said.

Among other cases identified by CALL7 Investigators:

  • Jerod Reeves, with a prior record of kidnapping, sawed the frozen fingers off the body of a suicide victim in a van on the side of the road in Grand County and then sold the gun to another felon, according to authorities.
  • Robert S. Whittall, arrested in 2011, had convictions for kidnapping, assault and burglary in Arizona as well as a felony conviction in Arapahoe County, Colo., for possession of drugs, according to an ATF arrest affidavit.  Whittall was arrested after the ATF “received information” that a prior felon in possession of a firearm was staying at a hotel near 88th Avenue and Interstate 25, according to the documents.
  • Jeffrey Scott Willcoxon, authorities said, had a prior record of weapon possession by a prior felon, drug possession, burglary and escape and was paying juveniles to steal guns from houses. He was arrested after he sold a Sten MK III machine gun to an undercover ATF agent.

The CALL7 Investigators found that in the past three years, there have been more than 1,000 convictions by state courts in Colorado of felons possessing firearms. And in the last year in federal district court, where tougher sentences are imposed, there have been more than 100 convictions.

However, law-enforcement officials admit the sheer number of guns in the hands of felons is unknown. They also say they lack resources to stop their flow, leaving the public vulnerable.

In an effort to turn the tide, local jurisdictions like Aurora, Denver, and Lakewood have teamed up with the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado and the ATF to focus enforcement and prosecution on felons believed to be violent. Walsh said such a focused effort in Aurora in 2011 was successful in reducing crimes.

"In the end it was about 85 convictions that came out of that operation and there is no question that those -- that action -- had the effect of interrupting gang activity and making those communities safer," Walsh said.

Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates agrees, saying he saw a significant effect in Aurora. Oates expressed frustration, however, that federal funds aren't available to keep the pressure on full time.

“ATF does a great job, but there are not enough ATF agents,” Oates said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office, when they make these cases, they do a great job, but they have all kinds of other demands on their resources.”

As a result, Oates has brought his request for additional resources directly to Washington, where he recently met with President Barack Obama, the U.S. Attorney General, police chiefs and sheriffs from around the country.

“When I had the meeting with the president a couple of weeks ago in the White House, I said that the No. 1 thing we can do is enforce existing federal gun law around possession by felons on the street,” Oates said.

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