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Hands that hand a gun to a killer

Theresa Jones had a drug problem and an empty wallet. So when a neighbor offered her $75 to buy him a gun, she readily agreed, even though the man had a criminal record and couldn't legally buy or possess a gun.

Dwayne O'Brien has clamped down on straw buyers and suspicious customers at his Delaware Vally Sports Center. (Steven M. Falk / Staff)
Dwayne O'Brien has clamped down on straw buyers and suspicious customers at his Delaware Vally Sports Center. (Steven M. Falk / Staff)Read more

THERESA JONES had a drug problem and an empty wallet.

In 2003, when a neighbor offered her $75 to buy him a gun, she readily agreed, even though the man had a criminal record and couldn't legally buy or possess a gun. After the sale, the neighbor carried off his new Ruger 9 mm pistol. Jones never saw it again.

Four years later, in one of the city's toughest 'hoods, Raymond Hainey was on a quest for vengeance.

He saw 19-year-old Nazir Gary and acted quickly.

He brandished Jones' pistol and blasted Gary as the teen drove in Kingsessing on a frigid afternoon three days before Christmas 2007.

Today, Jones remains in penal purgatory, awaiting sentencing for her role in arming a killer.

In the war against gun violence, crimefighters are cracking down on "straw purchasers," that is, people like Jones who commit a felony by buying guns for convicts prohibited from purchasing them themselves.

Thugs recruit acquaintances with clean records to buy them guns, and women are a growing target.

Blinded by love or fueled by financial need, women represent a quarter of about 350 straw buyers arrested in Philadelphia since a multiagency Gun Violence Task Force launched in 2006, data shows.

But few straw purchasers realize the penalties that await those caught, thanks to a recent law that stiffened punishment for straw buyers.

"They foolhardily expose themselves to serious time in prison: If you buy more than one gun , you subject yourself to a mandatory minimum sentence of five to 10 years," said Thomas Burke, senior supervisory agent of the Gun Violence Task Force.

That means that straw buyers can end up serving more time behind bars than the punks who actually used the illegal gun in crimes. And for women, many of whom are single mothers, such strict sentences can turn their children into orphans.

Such outcomes have prompted some critics to question the fairness of the law.

"Women in the throes of drug addiction or acting out of romantic loyalties are sitting ducks and have no idea they are being thrown to the wolves," said Glenn Gilman, a defense attorney who represents Jones, now 46. "Yes, committed a technical crime, but do they deserve the draconian penalty imposed?"

Law-enforcers say that they do.

"There's a lot of responsibility when it comes to buying a firearm, both from personal safety and how you secure that weapon," said Mark Potter, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia field division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Finding the source

In a city that averages five shootings a day, guns loom large in Philadelphia's crime-fighting efforts.

Authorities recover about 5,000 crime guns a year, Potter said. And firearms are killers' preferred weapon, with 80 percent of the city's homicides carried out by gun-toting thugs.

"Because guns are manufactured to last a very, very long time, the life of a crime gun is infinite," Potter said.

So gun-tracing has become a critical component for authorities trying to keep firearms out of hooligans' hands, he added.

"There are many sources of how crime guns hit the streets, and multiple ways they get transitioned from a legitimate purpose to a prohibited purpose," Potter said.

Some thugs burglarize gun shops, while others commit residential robberies to arm themselves, he said. Punks trade and sell illegal guns on the street, obliterating their serial numbers to make tracing tougher. Some enterprising thugs even rent guns to other goons, the same way video stores rent out movies; the higher the gun's body count, the cheaper its rent.

Straw purchasing plays a part, as well, although "time-to-crime" data suggests that it isn't the city's most prevalent source of crime guns.

Short time-to-crime rates - the time between a gun's retail sale and law enforcement's recovery of it in a crime - make a gun easier to trace. Several short time-to-crime traces linked to the same gun shop suggests that the shop is crooked or criminally careless, Potter said.

Philadelphia's time-to-crime rate is nine years.

Still, local and state bigwigs have blitzed the region with ominous ads warning would-be straw buyers of the stiff sentences they face for that offense.

The ads came a few years too late for Theresa Jones, who is set to be sentenced Dec. 22.

Apt punishment?

In the life of Nazir Gary, Theresa Jones seems like a bit player.

At the time of his slaying, Gary had his own set of problems. He'd been arrested in the armed robbery of an acquaintance two months earlier and was out on bail, awaiting a preliminary hearing. Ironically, the charges against him included gun offenses.

As Gary drove down 52nd Street near Kingsessing on Dec. 22, 2007, Raymond Hainey stepped out of the shadows and blasted some bullets his way. Gary, who lived two blocks away with his mother and grandmother, died a half-hour later at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hainey fled, and, for awhile, the case sat unsolved.

But Hainey ignored one key killers' canon: Ditch the murder weapon.

Two weeks after Gary's death, two cops on routine patrol pulled Hainey and a buddy over for unspecified suspicious activity in Southwest Philadelphia, according to court records.

During questioning, Hainey got nervous, brandished his gun and tried to "rock," or kill, the cops, according to court records.

The officers wrestled the weapon away from him and chucked him into federal prison, where the chatty Hainey made plenty of incriminating statements to fellow inmates.

He told one that he had shot Gary because he thought - mistakenly - that Gary had shot Hainey's little brother. He lamented that he hadn't gotten rid of the gun after Gary's death, and worried whether ballistics tests would link the murder to him.

Ballistics tests did prove that the gun Hainey drew on police was used to kill Gary, and investigators charged Hainey with murder. He pleaded guilty and now is serving 15 to 30 years at the state prison in Camp Hill, according to court records.

Because police also traced a drug dealer's seized gun back to Jones in 2006, she faced five to 10 years in prison, the mandatory minimum for someone who illegally buys two or more firearms for someone else.

But she got "demandatorized" and will get a lighter sentence because she's cooperating with authorities, Gilman said.

Some think that she's getting off easy.

After all, she bought guns for thugs who then used them to kill a teenager, to try to kill two cops, deal drugs and possibly commit other unknown crimes.

Dwayne O'Brien, manager of the Delaware Valley Sports Center, where Jones bought the guns when the shop was owned by someone else, complained that the criminal-justice system falls short in punishing those who buy or use guns illegally.

"You know what they end up getting?" asked O'Brien. "A slap on the wrist and no fine. They'll lock you up for child support, but you get caught with a stolen gun, and they plea that down to nothing."

Straw buyers should get no slack, he said.

"The guy who did the crime wouldn't have been able to do it if someone hadn't bought the gun for him," O'Brien said. "Common sense will tell you that if this guy can't own a gun, he shouldn't have a gun. So if you're that dumb that you buy him a gun anyway, you deserve what you get."

But Gilman pointed out inconsistencies inherent in the criminal-justice system. For example, Kevin Garner, the accused drug dealer who had one of the guns that Jones bought illegally when an undercover narcotics officer arrested him in 2006, got off free when the judge dismissed all charges against him, according to records.

And although Jones pleaded guilty to the charges against her in July 2008, she remains in limbo, waiting for her sentence to be imposed. Court records show that her sentencing has been postponed at least nine times.

That's a common stalling tactic when police and prosecutors want to ensure that a defendant will testify against another in other pending cases, Gilman and other law-enforcement sources said.

"The D.A.s use that as a powerful sword to get these women to cooperate," Gilman said. "For the women who have no information to give, it's bye-bye birdie."

Gary's family doesn't like to talk about his case.

While Gary's mother now lives in Manayunk, his grandmother and other relatives still live in the violence-plagued neighborhood where Gary died.

They have little time to waste on thoughts of Jones' fate.

"He's dead," Gary's grandmother said on a reporter's recent visit to her home, just two blocks from where grubby, time-ravaged teddy bears still mark the spot where Nazir fell.

"What difference does it matter anymore?" she added, as she slammed the door shut.