At least 105 stolen guns from our region ended up connected to criminal investigations in Northeast Tennessee and as far away as California, according to a News Channel 11 analysis of stolen gun and evidence records obtained from law enforcement agencies.
Our investigation found some of those stolen guns are connected to violent crimes, including assaults, burglaries, drug crimes, kidnapping and even murder.
“It just didn’t seem fair”
DeShaun Greer lost his life when a man with a history of violent criminal charges and a stolen gun murdered him outside a former downtown Johnson City business on Spring Street in 2014.
“He was funny, because he was just different and he really didn’t care what other people thought, but everyone liked him because he was so nice to everybody,” Greer’s former roommate and friend Dillon Faver said. “Just a loyal friend who would be there for you. It’s really unfortunate to lose somebody as good as he was.”
While Jamarcus Jackson’s bullets hit other people on that early Sunday morning, those victims survived. Greer did not.
“I always say he should’ve never even had that gun,” Faver said. “It just didn’t seem fair.”
A gun theft victim’s burden
Just six months prior, six miles away, Bobby Lady reported the same gun used in Greer’s shooting death as stolen.
“That was a brand new gun,” Lady said. “Had never been fired.”
According to a police report, he told Washington County investigators when he came home he found his front door open and guns missing. Lady, who calls himself a responsible gun owner, is now living with the reality that he’s not the only victim.
“Mine were locked up. The safe was taken off the hinges,” he said. “I was devastated. It’s heartbreaking. There’s a hole in my heart that’s going to be here forever. I cried and cried and cried when I found out what happened to that young man.”
One of at least 105
Over the last six months, we’ve collected and reviewed stolen gun records from local police and sheriff’s departments dating back six years. Our analysis found the gun used in Greer’s murder is one of at least 105 stolen from people in the Tri-Cities eventually connected to crimes since 2011. Those 105 guns don’t include the more than 600 other stolen guns recovered by investigators where the data isn’t readily available.
“It’s something that concerns us any time that there’s a weapon stolen,” Johnson City Police Department Maj. Karl Turner said. “It’s also a concern that that stolen gun could be used against an individual.”
Our analysis of police reports shows while some thieves tried to sell the guns, others actually used them. The reports show people used those stolen guns to fire shots and threaten to blow a man’s “brains out,” while others kept a gun nearby when asking for sexual favors and during fights, assaults and even a reported kidnapping in April 2017 in Erwin.
Chief Regan Tilson said the victim left his truck running at a gas station with his small daughter inside when the alleged kidnapper “jumped in the truck and drove away,” later dropping off the child next to the interstate. The chief said the suspect found a gun inside the truck and later sold it for drugs. Chief Tilson said the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina found the gun during a search warrant of a drug house.
40 guns at one drug house
We found stolen guns connected to drug crimes too, like the more than 40 Erwin police said they found inside a trailer in 2012. Chief Tilson said the guns were part of a collection worth around $35,000. He said he believes the people who had the guns, four of whom he said police arrested, planned to sell and trade them.
“It was a trailer in one of our trailer parks that we had purchased drugs at two nights before with a confidential informant,” Chief Tilson said of the location where they found the guns. “The informant told us that there was suddenly a large amount of guns in the home. We couldn’t figure out where they came from, called around to surrounding agencies to see if they had any reports and nobody did. The victim had been in the hospital for two weeks, came home and discovered the break in.”
Chief Tilson said police recovered all but one of the stolen guns in that case.
JCPD’s recent arrest
Just last month, Johnson City police said they found a stolen gun in the possession of a convicted felon from Spartanburg, SC after a crash near University Parkway and Interstate 26. Officers said in addition to the stolen gun, they found scales, cash and diverted prescription medications.
Police said they charged Fredrick L. Gist with being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, identity theft, possessing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, theft of property and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
From Kingsport to California
We identified stolen guns linked to crimes all over the region and beyond. We even found one from Kingsport discovered in California.
A man found the pistol with a loaded magazine in his front yard in Hayward, just two blocks away from an elementary school and not far from San Francisco, according to a Hayward Police Department report. A Kingsport Police Department report shows the gun disappeared almost three years prior after its owner reported it stolen. The victim said someone took the gun out of his nightstand.
No geographic boundaries
Stolen guns from other places ended up in the Tri-Cities too. Records identified their origins as far away as Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas and even Alaska.
“We know firearms and the criminal element, they know no geographic boundary,” Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Public Information Officer Michael Knight said. “Firearms traffickers are not stationed in one area. They go from one city to another city.”
Knight said in addition to public education, ATF is working to try and identify gun trafficking locations throughout the United States.
“Even when we have one firearm that’s stolen, that very well may be responsible for dozens of criminal acts in the future,” he said.
Gun thefts on the rise
Federal Bureau of Investigation records show the number of guns reported lost or stolen increased nationwide every year between 2010 and 2015 by more than 20% during that time. The data shows during that same time period, Tennesseans reported more guns missing than people in all but eight other states and the District of Columbia with more than 37,000 in all.
The increase occurred as gun crimes in Tennessee jumped by almost 25% since 2013, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Knight said the jump in thefts is partly the result of an increase in gun production and gun ownership.
The number of gun thefts increased by 9% between 2014 and 2015 in Tennessee. During that time, a new state law went into effect, allowing gun owners to leave their guns in their cars without a permit.
“The criminal element also knows that law,” Knight said.
Since then, the number of conceal carry permit owners in Tennessee has skyrocketed to more than 600,000 valid permit holders, which is an increase of almost 24% since 2015 alone.
More car gun thefts
JCPD data shows car burglaries and car gun thefts hit seven-year highs in 2017 with 610 auto burglaries and 47 car gun thefts. Car gun thefts made up almost a third of the more than 600 stolen guns in the city during that time, according to JCPD.
“It could be any number of things,” Maj. Turner said of the reason for the increase.
Gun ownership responsibility
While Don Reimer supports the change in law, he thinks cars are more of a target now because of it and said gun owners need to be more responsible as a result. The general manager of Shooters Edge teaches an eight-hour handgun carry permit class. While he knows not all victims of gun theft are careless, he hopes others take notice.
“It does bother me,” Reimer said of our findings. “We have to make it as difficult as we can on someone else getting ahold of our firearm. Don’t make it easy on a bad guy. You went through all of the time to do it legally. You purchased the gun. You’re doing the training. Keep the gun safe. Don’t put it in the hands of someone that’s going to do something criminal with it. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Nationwide, the violent crime rate is us two years in a row, but is still much lower than a decade ago, according to federal statistics.
Greer is one of the many people who fell victim to violent crime. According to his best friend’s mom, her son was crushed when he learned of his former roommate’s death.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Alisa Hearl said. “My adult son was destroyed at that moment. The phone call was heart-wrenching.”
Hearl, a carry permit holder herself, couldn’t help but shake her head when we told her how many other stolen guns police found at different crime scenes, knowing full well Greer’s case serves as a reminder.
“He was full of life and seconds later he was dead,” she said.
Outside Greer’s former basketball court, there’s another reminder. King University gives out an award every year to a teammate who shares the same attributes as the former player.
“He was a good guy,” Hearl said. “He was a great guy.”
How you can help
Knight said the first step is properly storing your weapons.
“We’re asking the public just to use good judgment in terms of securing their firearm when it’s not on their person,” the ATF employee said.
He said that good judgment includes being cautious when posting any details about your guns, hunting trips and vacations on social media.
He also highly recommends people take a picture of their guns and write down their serial numbers and then store them in a separate place. In that case, if their gun is stolen, there’s a better chance police will track it down.
While we collected and organized most of the data for this story ourselves, we also relied on data secured by The Trace, a non-profit, and National Broadcasting Company as part of our analysis. That data helped us identify the stolen gun from Kingsport that ended up in California.
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