The straw purchasers: ‘Don’t let this happen to you’
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org August 27, 2012 7:54PM
Ohmari L. Sengstacke (inset) was sentenced to five years in prison after he was stopped near the home of then-Sen. Barack Obama with a .40-caliber gun and bulletproof best in his car. His wife, Shantella Spencer, later admitted she was a "straw purchaser" for the gun. | AP
Updated: September 29, 2012 6:03AM
Presidential candidate Barack Obama was resting in his Kenwood home on the morning of Sept. 23, 2008, after a fund-raiser the night before in Chicago.
Outside, a drama was unfolding as police stopped a BMW at the security barriers protecting his house. Officers found a Fabrique Nationale Herstal .40-caliber handgun and a bulletproof vest in the car.
They learned the man behind the wheel was a felon barred from owning a firearm. And when federal agents conducted an urgent ownership check on the gun, they discovered his wife bought the weapon earlier that year at a suburban store.
Shantella Spencer later admitted she was a “straw purchaser.”
Straw purchasers like Spencer have clean records that allow them to get an Illinois firearm owner’s identification card. With a FOID card, they can purchase guns for people banned from owning them. They sign a federal form saying they’re the “actual” buyer when they really aren’t.
Authorities say straw purchasers are a key source of guns for the felons who’ve driven up Chicago’ murder total 28 percent above last year’s, wreaking havoc in neighborhoods and bringing national attention to the city.
But the odds of straw purchasers getting caught aren’t high — unless you buy a gun that gets confiscated outside the home of the future president of the United States.
Spencer’s case, among a dozen adjudicated straw-buyer cases reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, shows how easy it can be to circumvent the laws that bar felons from getting guns. The Sun-Times could not reach Spencer for comment, nor most of the defendants in the other straw-buyer cases.
‘I don’t like guns’
Many straw purchasers are women like Spencer, authorities say. Women make up nearly one-fourth of the people who bought guns that were recovered in crimes in Chicago within a year of purchase, according to a University of Chicago Crime Lab study of Chicago Police crime-gun traces.
A gun used in a crime within a year of being bought is a strong indicator the weapon was obtained through a straw purchase, police say.
Spencer bought the .40-caliber handgun on Feb. 23, 2008, at Chuck’s Gun Shop & Pistol Range in south suburban Riverdale — seven months before her husband was caught with the weapon.
Between 2008 and March of this year, 268 guns bought at Chuck’s were recovered in crimes in Chicago within a year of purchase, according to the crime lab study.
Chuck’s was the single biggest source of crime guns over that period, the study found. Police suspect Chuck’s is a hotbed of straw purchasing. The owner, John Riggio, has declined to comment.
In a written statement to police, Spencer admitted her husband couldn’t buy a gun at Chuck’s because of his “bad background.”
“Even though I don’t like guns, I bought one for my husband,” Spencer wrote. “He and I went to Chuck’s to look at guns. Three days later, he gave me $1,100 to buy a gun. He waited a block away from the store so no one would see us together.”
Spencer said she walked into the store with a piece of paper her husband gave her, specifying what kind of gun to buy.
She also bought bullets, a gun-cleaning kit and an extra ammunition magazine.
Seven months later, her husband, Omhari Sengstacke, the grandson of late Chicago Defender publisher John Sengstacke, drove his BMW to the concrete walls outside Obama’s house and was shooed away by police. But he soon returned.
Sengstacke appeared intoxicated and said he wanted to talk to Obama about a job, police said. He was arrested after officers searched his car and found the gun, even though he didn’t make any threats toward Obama.
Sengstacke was sentenced to five years in prison for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon — a gun possession charge. Spencer received probation in Cook County criminal court for selling a firearm to someone who didn’t have a valid FOID card.
The Mississippi connection
Spencer’s illegal gun purchase didn’t end tragically, but many others do.
In recent years, Chicago Police officers and young children have been among those shot to death with weapons supplied by straw buyers.
A Smith & Wesson .45-caliber handgun that came from a straw buyer killed Thomas Wortham IV — an off-duty Chicago cop and Iraq war veteran — on May 19, 2010.
Wortham was outside his parents’ South Side home when gang members tried to steal his motorcycle and shot him.
Authorities discovered that Quawi “Red” Gates, a South Side college student, was the leader of a gun-trafficking ring that supplied the weapon used to murder Wortham.
Gates’ ring is an example of the “iron pipeline” that feeds guns to Illinois from other states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Mississippi — primarily through straw purchasers. Besides the Cook County suburbs, those states are the biggest suppliers of crime guns to Chicago.
Gates was enrolled at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., where he recruited fellow students and other acquaintances to buy guns for him in 2007 and 2008. He would take a bus from Memphis to Chicago and sell the guns to Gangster Disciples members on the South Side.
Among Gates’ straw purchasers was Jacquisha Denise Sims, a Rust College student. Two of the guns she bought for Gates wound up in gang-related shootings in Chicago, authorities learned.
Federal agents interviewed Sims. Initially, she lied, saying she bought the guns for herself and that they were later stolen from her truck — a common alibi for straw buyers.
Then, she cracked. She admitted buying guns for Gates. He’d give her the cash for the guns, she’d buy them and he would slip her $100 to keep after the deal was done, she said.
A straw buyer wears a wire
Sims agreed to help the federal agents catch Gates. Soon, she discovered the dark side of the gun-trafficking world.
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents asked her to wear a wire and she agreed.
But when she met with Gates to record him talking about the ring, he smelled a rat.
He lured her into a library where he ripped open her blouse and tore out the recording device she was wearing. Gates stuffed the device in his pocket and told Sims not to say a word to authorities, according to court testimony.
The ATF agents arrested Gates after he left the library, and he eventually pleaded guilty to running the gun ring. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Sims received probation.
On the witness stand at Gates’ 2010 sentencing hearing, ATF agent Russell Johnson explained why Chicago gun traffickers choose Mississippi as a shopping ground for guns.
“First is familial ties,” Johnson said. “It began several decades ago. They went up to Chicago for work and left behind family in Mississippi. They come back for holidays, special events, school.”
Firearms also are cheaper in Mississippi, Johnson said.
“And one of the last reasons is that firearms laws in Mississippi are a lot more lax than the firearms laws in the state of Illinois,” he said.
In Mississippi, gun owners are not required to go through a state background check to obtain a permit, as they are in Illinois. They only have to present a valid driver’s license or state ID to a gun store, which still must perform a federally required background check.
The gun that killed Officer Wortham
The .45-caliber handgun used to shoot Wortham started its journey to Chicago in 2002, when Smith & Wesson shipped the weapon from its Massachusetts factory to an unknown customer. The gun wound up at Ed’s Pawn Shop in Byhalia, Miss., a short drive from Rust College.
In May 2007, Gates persuaded Michael Elliott, a man he knew from playing basketball on campus, to buy three guns for him.
Elliott, whose record was clean, went to Ed’s with Gates and bought the guns for him. In exchange, Elliott made $100. He was later sentenced to six months in prison.
The investigative trail went cold with Elliott.
Gates refused to identify his Chicago customers who bought the straw-purchased guns, including the Smith & Wesson used in Officer Wortham’s slaying three years later.
Wortham’s murder clearly disturbed U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr., who sentenced Gates at a courthouse a year ago in Greenville, Miss.
“I can’t — it’s inconceivable to me that someone of your intelligence would intentionally put — there is no — put a firearm in the hands of people who are going to kill other people,” Pepper said. “And Mr. Gates, you had to know it. You had to know it.”
Keeping the lights on
While gunrunners like Gates can make a lot of money, their straw purchasers generally don’t. For straw buyers, it’s often a way to make a quick buck, not a career path.
Take Dwan Ryals, a reputed Mickey Cobras gang member with a clean record. He was caught buying guns for felons in 2010. Ryals pleaded guilty in Cook County criminal court and was sent to state prison for four years.
When he was caught, he told police he once sold a felon a Smith & Wesson handgun because he was worried his electricity was going to be shut off.
He gave the police a simple motive for buying guns for convicted crooks: “I lost my job.”
How a straw purchase works
Anthony Garner provided a step-by-step snapshot of a straw purchase in his testimony against a suburban gun store owner in 2000.
Garner was a Marine deserter who admitted buying guns for gangs on the North and West sides in the late 1990s.
He pleaded guilty, agreed to cooperate against Donald Beltrame, owner of Suburban Sporting Goods, and was eventually sentenced to 15 months in prison.
A federal jury, however, acquitted Beltrame of knowingly selling firearms intended for a felon after a trial in 2000.
The authorities busted Garner after one of the guns he bought was used to kill an 18-year-old boy on a Chicago sidewalk in 1998. Another gun he purchased was used to shoot at an off-duty Chicago Police officer, who wasn’t hit.
The Chicago Police Department submits every gun recovered in a crime to the ATF for ownership tracing — and those two guns came back to Garner as the original buyer. The tracing showed Garner bought a total of 14 guns, which he admitted purchasing for gang members.
On the witness stand in Beltrame’s trial, Garner said he was the frontman for a gang member named “Ronnie.” He said he met Ronnie in Rogers Park, where they both lived. But he said he didn’t know Ronnie’s last name and lost his telephone number.
He said Ronnie picked him up on Aug. 25, 1998, and handed him cash to buy guns.
Garner purchased guns at two other suburban stores before they walked into Beltrame’s business, he testified.
Garner gave this account on the witness stand of how the deal went down:
† Beltrame “asked us how we were doing and if he could help us. I said, ‘No, we’re just looking right now.’ ” Ronnie “was mentioning how he liked the price” on a Jennings 9mm handgun “and it was a nice gun. [Beltrame] mentioned, ‘Yeah, it was a nice price on it.’ ”
† Garner took out his Illinois FOID card because he wanted Beltrame to let him inspect the Jennings. “I said, yeah, I want to get this one.”
† Then Ronnie tapped Garner on the leg. “I said, ‘That’s what you want, right?’ [Ronnie] said, ‘Yeah, but I want more than one.’ ”
† Beltrame was still at the counter and Garner “got scared.” At that moment, Ronnie turned to Beltrame and said: “What kind of deal or what kind of play could we get it we get four or five of them?”
† Garner didn’t have enough money for five guns, so Ronnie reached into his own pocket to make up the difference. The total was $800 for five Jennings 9mm handguns. Ronnie later paid Garner $400 for doing the straw purchases.
At Beltrame’s trial, prosecutors said he “joined the charade to make the sale.”
On the witness stand, Beltrame testified that no straw purchase ever took place. Garner came into the store alone, Beltrame said. “Ronnie was a figment of Anthony Garner’s imagination,” Beltrame said.
An assault weapon for him or her?
Authorities say it’s hard to convict someone for a straw purchase — and even harder to convict a store owner for “knowingly and willfully” selling a gun to a straw buyer.
Sometimes, though, a gun dealer tips off the authorities about a suspected straw purchaser.
A south suburban gun dealer notified ATF after Keith Cantore and a female friend walked into the store saying she wanted to arrange to buy a TEC-9 assault weapon from a private seller in Indiana.
“Yes, I told her what gun to buy,” Cantore said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “The gun shop asked me, ‘She’s not buying these for you, is she?’ I said, ‘I’m a convicted felon. I can’t own firearms.’ ”
About a week later, Jill Sartori, a former high-school classmate of Cantore, picked up the weapon at the store. ATF agents arrested her and Cantore for participating in a straw-purchasing scheme.
Sartori pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. She also agreed to cooperate against Cantore, who pleaded guilty and received a 40-month federal prison term.
Cantore said the gun dealer who tipped off the ATF about their conversation in the store was under the wrong impression that he was plotting to commit a crime.
Cantore said he was helping Sartori buy a gun that she needed for protection against someone who was harassing her. Sartori was pressured into cooperating against him, Cantore insisted, and he cut his losses by accepting a guilty plea, even though he now contends he was innocent.
Later, the authorities made an example of the two.
They distributed fliers of Cantore and Sartori with the word “Convicted” across their mug shots and the headline “Don’t Let This Happen to You!”
“I am no saint — I have been in a lot of trouble,” said Cantore, who was originally barred from owning a gun because of a 2001 felony conviction for delivery of marijuana.
“This was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but the best life lesson,” he said.