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transcripts

FRONTLINE "Hot Guns"
Air Date: Tuesday, June 3, 1997

Edited by Michael Chandler
Written, Produced and Directed by Doug Hamilton

MARIA ALICEA: I see the house every day when I go to work, so it's always there every day and I always think about her. There's not one day that I don't think about her.

NARRATOR: When convicted felon Peter Garcia was released from prison, his wife Evelyn, reluctantly agreed to let him come back home.

ROBERT ALICEA: She took him back and he started the same thing all over again. And it escalated.

MIGDALIA BRAVO: And I begged her. I said, "Evelyn, please don't take him back. He's going to kill you. He's going to kill you, Evelyn. Don't take him back."

NARRATOR: Early on this winter morning, police entered the Garcia home in Far Rockaway, New York, to find a grim scene. Evelyn's son and nephew had been shot, but were alive. Evelyn was dead.

PROSECUTOR: This defendant, Peter Garcia, is responsible under our law for taking a .380 Lorcin and shooting his wife, Evelyn Garcia.

NARRATOR: The gun that killed Evelyn Garcia was a Lorcin .380, the gun most frequently traced by the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Police had hoped that crime scene evidence would prove that Peter Garcia pulled the trigger, but some Lorcins are manufactured with a special coating that rarely leaves fingerprints. Without prints, the best police could hope for was to uncover half an answer.

CHARLES HOPKINS: After the gun was test fired, I conducted a microscopic examination on the recovered bullets and the recovered casings, cartridge casings, to determine if they were fired from that gun or not fired from that gun.

NARRATOR: Ballistics tests conclusively showed that the gun found at the scene was indeed the murder weapon. But tracing the pistol's serial number was essential to prove that Peter Garcia owned the gun. For that, local police would turn to the ATF. But when ATF tried to trace the Garcia gun, Lorcin said there was no record of the gun's serial number-- that the gun had never been made.

DARYL McCRARY, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: When you run a trace on a firearm, it's going to tell a story. The story is going to be that this gun originated, or was born, in this location. In this particular case, what was different is, is that that did not occur.

NARRATOR: How does a gun that was never made kill an innocent woman? The answer leads to a world of corporate neglect and criminal greed, to a black market in guns and those who are trained to stop it, and ultimately to one of the largest gun thefts in United States history.

NARRATOR: The mystery of the Garcia gun would not be solved in New York City, but 3,000 miles away in an area east of Los Angeles known as the "Inland Empire." It was here that agents from the ATF had been mounting undercover operations to stem the tide of illegal guns.

DARYL McCRARY: I'm out to buy guns and explosive devices that are operable, that are functioning, that are loaded. I don't know any other facet of work where the slightest mistake, you know, could be your last.

NARRATOR: Daryl McCrary was an Air Force special agent during the Gulf war. For the last five years he's worked undercover for ATF.

DARYL McCRARY: I've been in more danger during my undercover assignments in the United States than I've ever been in, or ever felt, associated with my time in the military. I mean, I've seen pretty much everything, from machine guns to two-shot Derringers to high-capacity 16-plus-round hand guns, 30-round drum-fed guns, street sweepers, Mac 10s that are often seen in the movies. It is just a hodgepodge of different guns, accessories, tools of the trade, if you will. Small-caliber, .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol-- the caliber on this is a 9-millimeter demilitarized version, basically an M-16. Modified shotguns-- those are the ones that have been-- the barrel has been sawed off at one end. This is referred to as a "Spas 12." It's an assault shotgun. What would someone do with this? Nothing more than cause a lot of damage and, you know, wreak a lot of havoc with a firearm like this. Imagine. This is basically a grenade thrower, you know, is what this is. No more than that.

NARRATOR: Every gun in this room was recovered by ATF as part of a criminal investigation, but few can ever be traced back to a criminal. So it was no surprise when the ATF failed to trace the Lorcin .380 that killed Evelyn Garcia. The search for the Garcia gun might have died there, but a few months earlier, McCrary had received an eyebrow-raising tip from a confidential informant. The usually reliable C.I. believed that he could get two Lorcin .25-caliber handguns, new in the box and completely "clean"-- street language for a gun that cannot be traced back to the buyer.

DARYL McCRARY: The guns came to us in a box. One of the things that stood out was the bar code. There was actually a bar code on the box.

NARRATOR: Not only were the guns brand-new, their serial numbers ran sequentially, starting with the number one, meaning that some of these guns were the first ones ever manufactured by Lorcin. McCrary was suspicious.

DARYL McCRARY: But that we were buying that first case, you know, bells and whistles were going off. [ATF tape] Special agent Daryl McCrary of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Riverside field office. I will be attempting to make a purchase of one case which is approximately 36 Lorcin .25-caliber handguns from our primary subject, Jeremy Mendoza. Investigation Number 93195950005-S, as in Sierra.

NARRATOR: McCrary arranged to meet the gun supplier, 22-year-old Jeremy Mendoza, by posing, in his words, "as just some knucklehead wanting to buy guns."

DARYL McCRARY: I keep it simple. It's not television. It's not "Dirty Harry." It's Daryl McCrary's life in the balance, based on what decisions I make and how I present myself to people.

[ATF tape] That's a nice gauge, man. That new? How much you get for that?

NARRATOR: Mendoza's asking price was $40 dollars a gun, an usually low street price for a completely clean weapon.

DARYL McCRARY: It's a very dangerous environment and its an ever-changing environment and you've got to be very quick on your feet and you've got to have to have the ability to adapt very quickly to changing situations. The first time I was introduced to him, I was wearing a wire, and that is to say that I was wearing a device and my confidential informant, without even giving me any type of forewarning or whatever, he just reaches up and he slaps Mendoza upside the head-- bam! And I'm thinking, "What the hell is going on here?" It's, like, everything changes within a split second and I'm going, "Oh, its all going to hell now in a handbasket." Immediately, you know, I assume a defensive posture because I don't know what's going on. And immediately the C.I. goes, "Hey, man. You got a wasp on you! You got a wasp on you!" He starts beating Mendoza and Mendoza starts beating himself and he's jumping around. And at that time, the guy's looking at me and he's going-- and I'm thinking, "What? What? My fly's open?" I look down and my wire's dangling on my leg. So I'm, like-- I reach down and grab it and stuff it in my pocket. And just as I do that, Mendoza straightens up and he turns around and he looks at me. And it was, like, for a moment there, he knows something's not right, but he doesn't know what it is. And I just start talking again. "Okay, you said you were going to do-- you all right? You said you were going to do what?" And it was just the luck of the draw that that particular day was not my day to be called up, I guess.

NARRATOR: Mendoza offered to meet again and guaranteed a steady supply of guns. What shocked McCrary was the sheer numbers for sale.

DARYL McCRARY: When you're out in an undercover capacity, when you're working with an informant and he brings back one gun, that's no big deal. When he brings back two or three guns, that's no big deal. When they pull up, you know, and it's kind of like shopping on the Home Shopping Network, and they open up their trunk and there are cases of guns in the trunk, you can barely hide your surprise. I mean, I'm literally having to think to myself, "Don't-- don't give yourself away. Don't give yourself away. Just relax," you know, "take a deep breath, look off," because I'm thinking there's no way that this guy has all these guns. There's no way. How can he have all these guns? Nobody has-- I don't see this many guns if I go to a gun shop, you know? And to known that they must have come from somewhere and that they're brand-new and they're in the box and they're packaged-- you're thinking, you know-- you know, "Where the hell did this come from?"

NARRATOR: What Daryl McCrary was seeing was the tip of the iceberg. For the previous 10 years the inexpensive pistol market had skyrocketed and with it the number of illegal guns on the streets. In California, for every 10,000 cheap handguns sold each year, roughly 2,200 have shown up in crimes. It is an explosion that has caught even veteran law enforcement officers by surprise.

SCOTTY ZOULKO: We're talking a lot of guns. We average probably eight to ten guns being brought in here daily. I mean, it's overwhelming, the amount of guns. When I first started here, we averaged maybe one gun a week.

NARRATOR: Scotty Zoulko works in the evidence vault of the San Bernardino Police Department. It's his job to keep track of weapons recovered from crime scenes, a task getting harder to keep up with every year.

SCOTTY ZOULKO, San Bernardino Police Department: The boxes on the shelves are all handguns and there's an average of about 40 guns in each box. When I came here in 1975, we had a gun room that was probably smaller than this aisle, right here. And we only-- we probably only had 100, 150 guns total, long guns and handguns. There's a lot of guns in here. There's probably in excess of 10,000 guns in here.

NARRATOR: Police departments across Southern California recover and dispose of nearly 40,000 guns every year. While all makes and models of guns have flooded the illicit market, the weapon of choice for gun traffickers is the inexpensive, easily concealed pistol. The dramatic increase in the number of cheap handguns manufactured in the 1980s and early '90s paralleled the tripling in youth gun deaths.

GAREN WINTEMUTE, M.D., University of California, Davis: I'm an E.R. doc. I practice emergency medicine and I used to do it full-time. It's not enough just to treat trauma. We need to prevent it. And if we want to expand our ability to save people from dying from a gunshot wound, we need to keep them from getting shot in the first place.

NARRATOR: Dr. Garen Wintemute has been working for new regulation of the firearms industry for the past 10 years. His main target is the cheap handgun.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: The idea here is to refocus upstream, but it's foolish to ignore, as we have for so long with regard to firearm violence, where it starts and that's with the manufacturer of firearms. I'm actually something of a moderate on the spectrum of gun policy. I don't own any guns at the moment, but I have in the past. I've taught shooting for a living. I grew up with guns, to some extent, and I think they have a legitimate role to play in society. I think the role they do play has gotten entirely out of control. The basic consumer protection framework that people have come to know and rely upon for everything from motor vehicles to teddy bears simply does not exist and it does not exist as a result of conscious and deliberate action taken by Congress in the 1960s.

NARRATOR: The very existence of the inexpensive, homegrown handgun market can be traced to the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. Eager to do something to stop the flow of cheap, small-caliber guns like the one that killed Kennedy, the federal government demanded new, strict controls on imported handguns.

Pres. LYNDON B. JOHNSON: What in the name of conscience will it take to pass a truly effective gun control law?

NARRATOR: But the 1968 Gun Control Act would have unintended consequences. Its restriction on foreign guns created an entirely new, protected American industry, which now produces all of the country's cheap, low-caliber handguns. Six companies in Southern California dominate the business, all located within a one-hour drive of the hotel where Kennedy was shot. Together the companies manufacture over a quarter of a million guns each year for a combined annual sales of nearly $15 million dollars: Bryco Arms, Lorcin, Davis, Phoenix and Sundance. Three years ago, Dr. Garen Wintemute published a report on these companies, damning the production methods and marketing practices of the group he calls the "ring of fire."

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: It's borrowed from the term describing the volcanoes that sit around the ring of the Pacific Ocean. And there was an effort to link-- by adopting that term, to link the sense of hazard associated with those volcanoes to these firearms manufacturers. We specifically looked at a known number of guns made by each company in a defined period of time so that we could look at the risk per gun, if you will, of being involved in crime, regardless of the number of guns any particular company made. And it was on that basis that we found that guns from the "ring of fire" companies were more than three times as likely to show up in ATF's tracing data as were guns from other major manufacturers. Something is different about the way these guns are functioning in the criminal community.

BRUCE JENNINGS, President, B.L. Jennings: He's had quite a devastating effect. He has promoted the idea that our guns are unsafe and he's done this in a reckless and careless manner. And he has gotten a number of people to believe it.

NARRATOR: Bruce Jennings is the patriarch of the southern California gun industry.

BRUCE JENNINGS: A brand new P-51 mustang, built two years ago by hand. It's got a Rolls Royce engine in it, 1,640 horsepower-- 450 mile-an-hour airplane. We're just ordinary people living ordinary lives. You know, we're not out here creating problems. We're just minding our own business and, you know, concentrating on manufacturing sales of firearms. It's a legitimate business. It's an interesting business and we enjoy it.

NARRATOR: Bruce Jennings is the president of B.L. Jennings, one of the largest distributors of small-caliber pistols in the country, a company he started as a spin-off from his father, George's, firearms business.

BRUCE JENNINGS: My father tried everything in business. He tried the fishing pole holders. He tried hair spray devices. He tried tooling. He tried medical devices, snake bite kits. My father's arms were just covered with scars from where he was testing a snake bite cutter kit. He was quite an inventor and a very interesting man, but most of his ideas were a little bit on the odd side. Here is when my father was doing fishing pole holders-- a little, you know, plastic PVC and a metal stake for a fishing pole holder. But what he did, he doodled on paper continuously and this is one of the guns that he developed. You can see the shape of the gun. You can see little mechanisms and little sketches and--

NARRATOR: This design would later become the Raven .25-caliber pistol, one of the most successful guns ever manufactured. George Jennings would sell three million of them over the next 25 years.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: George Jennings's son, Bruce, learns the trade from Dad, splits off in 1978 to found his own company, Jennings Firearms. Bruce's sister, Gail, splits off with her husband, Jim Davis, who's George Jennings's plant manager, to found Davis Industries in 1982. And then onto the market also comes a high school buddy of Bruce Jennings, by the name of Jim Waldorf, who decides, "There's room here for me, too." His plant manager is the disaffected brother, John, of Jim Davis, husband to Gail Jennings, daughter to George Jennings. Not to leave out George's nephew Steve, who also founds a company that never got very big and has since gone out of production. It's one family.

DARYL McCRARY: [ATF tape] Hey, look here, man. these [unintelligible] ain't going to come back to me, right?

GUN SELLER: Huh?

DARYL McCRARY: I mean, this shit ain't going to come back to me if something happens, dropped, something like that, right?

GUN SELLER: Nope. I don't know you. You don't know me.

DARYL McCRARY: Right.

NARRATOR: McCrary's investigation was into its second month when Mendoza revealed something new. Instead of the cheap .25-calibers he had been selling, Mendoza unwrapped two cases of powerful, Lorcin 9-millimeter pistols, the increasingly popular gun on the street. At the crucial moment, as the cover team was taping the buy, McCrary got another surprise.

DARYL McCRARY: So I'm standing here and right in the middle of that, a big tractor-trailer, 18-wheeler, pulls up into the parking lot and he cuts right in the middle of our deal. I mean, so while we're doing this deal, it's, like, pretty much for anybody else out there, I don't exist anymore. So I'm thinking, you know, I'm going have-- "Well, hold up, man. I need-- you know, this man in this truck, he's kind of peeking us out.'' You know, ``I want to make sure that we're doing this deal and nobody really knows what we're doing, you know?" So he accommodates me and he says, "Okay. No problem." You know, we start talking about his car and, you know, girls and stuff like that and I'm waiting. I'm thinking this is the truck from hell. This guy goes forward and then he backs up. I'm thinking, "Well, what is this. This is"-- any time but now, you know, we'd have never been able-- I couldn't have found a truck, if I needed one, but now this big truck's here. And what I'm trying to do is slow this deal down so that we capture this for later, you know, prosecutorial reference we're able to say, "This is what happened on this particular date" and associate it with some tape, some footage. Finally, the truck pulls off and I'm, like, "Okay, this guy's gone." I'm looking around. Everything's okay. We do the deal. He counts the money out. Everything's square. Boom! And we're off to the races. But it was, like-- you know, just like I said, Murphy's going to rear his ugly head and it seemed like every time we would get together, it would be one more thing that would happen. You know, first it's the bee thing, now it's the truck.

NARRATOR: The very next day, Agent McCrary learned that his biggest worry had come true, that he was not Mendoza's only client. An ex-con known as Andre Mitchell was also selling the same models of Lorcin guns to another ATF undercover agent.

UNDERCOVER AGENT: Yeah, what was special about this situation was, yeah, the guns were cheap and the amount we were haggling over-- "Well, how many do I get for ten? How many do I get for fifteen? What about later and getting some cases or something down the road?" So it just seems like this guy had a, you know, endless supply, you know, and he was confident that he could get more.

DARYL McCRARY: He asked, "Hey, man, where are you getting these guns?" and Mitchell replied, "I know a guy who's getting it from the factory." And this was a very crucial piece of information because now we knew the source of the guns. We know the gun type. Now we knew the source of the guns, which would lead us in a different direction.

NARRATOR: Alarmed at the spreading gun sales, McCrary decided to put out a trace on the pistols he was buying from Mendoza through both the ATF and California systems. He got the same puzzling results as the New York police when they tried to trace the Garcia gun. According to Lorcin, the guns with those serial numbers had never been produced.

DARYL McCRARY: There was nothing on the gun. It was if this gun was never sold, never existed. So essentially, you have a gun that has no history.

NARRATOR: McCrary then learned that Mendoza actually worked at Lorcin. Every sign pointed to an inside job. To find out how deep the Lorcin gun ring went, McCrary decided to broaden his search to include criminal records involving any Lorcin gun. Crime by crime, he patiently developed a system for tracing the guns.

DARYL McCRARY: It's only after I get this list that I realize, you know, the magnitude of this problem. These are coming directly from the factory. These are hot off the presses, if you will. We're able to realize that this guy is a hot commodity. He does, in fact, work for Lorcin Engineering. It's getting that special prize in the crackerjack box and that's what we got.

NARRATOR: Lorcin Engineering is the country's fifth largest handgun manufacturer. Its president, Jim Waldorf, prides himself on making "the world's most affordable handguns."

INTERVIEWER: [at gun show] Is this one of your better sellers?

JAMES WALDORF: It's a good seller, but our best seller is actually the .380. The 380 is the number- one-selling gun in the United States. It's a seven- shot capacity. We've sold quite a few of them. I think, as far as .380 production goes in the United States, we were probably 40 percent of the .380 sales in 1993.

INTERVIEWER: Forty percent?

JAMES WALDORF: Forty percent in 1993.

INTERVIEWER: That's an incredible figure.

JAMES WALDORF: It is an incredible figure. Well, we truly are the world's most affordable handguns and we consider ourself, actually, the blue-collar gun of America.

INTERVIEWER: So you've done good numbers with this, as well.

JAMES WALDORF, President, Lorcin Engineering: It's been a very popular seller. It's been a very popular seller. Essentially, affordable firearms, or a gun that does not have a retail price tag of perhaps $600 dollars, is a Chevrolet, it's not a Mercedes. Functions extremely well. Quality is extremely good. But we build Chevrolets and the average American drives a Chevrolet and they don't drive a Mercedes. [at gun show] Retails in the area of about $149.

POLICE CHIEF: That's fantastic. I pay an average of $600 for the firearm that I carry.

JAMES WALDORF: We're giving them affordable self- protection. There's two million people a year that defend themselves with a handgun and you don't hear that on the 6:00 o'clock news. And we're giving them affordable self-protection, something a blue-collar worker can afford to keep in his dresser drawer at home to protect his family.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: It's cheap, for sure. The prices are low and if that's what they mean by affordable, I agree. I very much disagree with their contention that these guns, on balance, are protection. Like the other companies, Lorcin promotes its guns primarily as means of self-protection, but there's actually a great deal of evidence-- in fact, there's a periodical called "Gun Tests" which I think arguably might be considered "Consumer Reports" for the gun community-- doesn't accept advertising, calls it like they see it. They class these guns generally as potentially worse than useless for defensive purposes.

INTERVIEWER: "Gun Tests" magazine, which, speaking of your .22, said, "We wouldn't pay any amount of money for a gun that self-destructs in a couple hundred rounds. Stay away from this one."

JAMES WALDORF: Well, number one, I think you have to realize that "Gun Tests" magazine is an extremely, extremely critical magazine and I think that, number two, you want to take a look at what issue of "Gun Tests" that was, and it's probably a very old issue.

INTERVIEWER: May, '96.

JAMES WALDORF: May, '96? I haven't seen that issue. I haven't seen that issue.

NARRATOR: "Gun Tests" magazine, like Garen Wintemute, has been critical of almost all the "ring of fire" guns.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: [at firing range] And it's jammed again. I'm not going to be able to clear this one. Can I get some professional help here? I point my gun at the bad guy, I pull the trigger and the gun locks up, as they often do, as they have in my hands. I'm not speaking hypothetically here. Suddenly, I'm facing an armed intruder with a gun in my hand pointed at him that is useless to me. I'm in deep trouble.

NARRATOR: Garen Wintemute's research has inspired 31 communities in California to pass laws banning the sale of low-quality guns, threatening the profits of companies like Lorcin.

JAMES WALDORF: America was built with firearms and it's certainly a person's civil right to own a firearm. And I think that when you start looking at prohibiting ownership of a firearm based on the price of the firearm, you've just taken a very large segment of society that told them that they don't belong to an elitist class and therefore they have no right to defend their family.

INTERVIEWER: So you think that those laws would be discriminatory.

JAMES WALDORF: Absolutely discriminatory. I feel they'd be more discriminatory than slavery.

INTERVIEWER: More discriminatory than slavery?

JAMES WALDORF: Absolutely.

LORCIN SALESMAN: [at gun show] This one comes with a detachable wrist strap or shoulder straps for the ladies. We don't want to leave the ladies out of it. You can carry that, also, over your shoulders.

NARRATOR: Manufacturers like Lorcin achieve their success by keeping sales volume high. They do so by constantly developing new technologies, new materials and new markets.

JAMES WALDORF: [at gun show] Women are probably 25 percent of our sales. It's growing. But there is a huge consciousness of personal safety in the women's market. A dealer survey suggested that it wasn't actually women that were buying them, it was buying them for their wives and their girlfriends.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, and there was an assumption that they like pink.

JAMES WALDORF: An assumption they like-- a feminist type of thing and, as Carlotta pointed out, she'd prefer a black gun.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: They have a famous ad with three of their pistols, one with a pearl-handled grip, one with a pink grip. And the caption on the ad is "Three little ladies that get the job done." The handgun industry exhibits all the behaviors of a consumer product industry.

BRUCE JENNINGS: Well, the feel of a gun in itself is kind of a powerful feel. You get to pick something up that makes you more equal then the person standing next to you and a lot of people buy it for that. Most people love to pick up a gun and feel it. They like the way that it feels in their hand. It transfers a kind of a spiritual feel into their body by holding such a powerful piece. But the gun is a very sensual item. It's a very powerful sensual piece of equipment. This little pistol has a laser device located in the frame. And the frame of the gun is made out of polymer, which is plastic and this is the new standard. This is where, in 1997, the firearms industry is headed. The laser -- I'll demonstrate it here -- is this red dot. The red dot is where the bullet will impact. It's a very fun feature for a gun and, especially when you're doing target shooting, it's very, very fun.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: The laser will tell you where that bullet's going to go, but it doesn't tell you what's there. It doesn't tell you that that moving target at the other end of the darkened room is a bad guy and not a member of your family who's gotten up to go to the bathroom.

NARRATOR: The most recent studies show firearms kill nearly 40,000 Americans a year, injure over twice as many and are involved in nearly a million crimes. But Americans have mixed feelings about their guns. Two thirds believe guns contribute to violence. The same number believe they need them for protection.

DARYL McCRARY: [ATF Tape] When you have them, man, just set a case aside and I can get at them, you know what I'm saying, just set a case aside and I can get at them. You know what I'm saying. All right man, it's all good. I'll get with you.

NARRATOR: The Mendoza case was entering a crucial stage.

DARYL McCRARY: [ATF Tape] Four-door Chevy California license plate OUR- oscar, uniform, romeo, 701, Chevrolet Impala, light cream color, I'm right in back of him.

NARRATOR: McCrary found himself caught in the classic undercover agent's dilemma. He knew the source of the guns, but he didn't know who else might be involved. The longer he spent investigating, the more guns would hit the streets. And Mendoza was putting a lot of guns on the street.

DARYL McCRARY: We had made deals to buy as many as four, five cases of these guns at one time. It was just that this particular person was selling them, being Mendoza-- selling them faster then we could keep up with them, try as we might. I mean, he was selling them too fast and, you know, obviously, our anxiety level was going to go up because of that. And we did not want to miss one gun. If we had the opportunity to buy it, that was an opportunity that that gun wasn't going to go out on the street and be used in a crime. Eighteen cases, .25 calibers-- that's 36 guns to a case, or a .9-millimeter, that's 30 guns to a case. And he sold 18 cases. You know, you're thinking that, you know, this guy's serious, that this is for real, that there's no doubt about it, this guy is a player and we've got to take him down as quickly as possible.

NARRATOR: Jeremy Mendoza had no criminal record. He had been employed at Lorcin for almost two years and was considered a quiet but good employee who worked in the powder coating section that bakes the rough black finish onto the guns, the finish that hampered the police in Far Rockaway from getting fingerprints off the Garcia gun. When McCrary learned that a shipment of Mendoza's guns had reached all the way to Sacramento, he decided it was time to go to the Lorcin plant and bring him in.

DARYL McCRARY: An average industrial complex, much like you'd find in any other part of Southern California. I know I was quite surprised the first time I came down here to find that a gun manufacturer would be in a building such as this. The morning that we arrested Mendoza, we walk in and what we see is just boxes and boxes of guns. And we don't see anybody. We don't see any workers. We don't see any security. We don't see anybody. And we kind of looked at each other as if to say, "Well," you know, "what's going on?" Suddenly, we do see a worker and he doesn't seem particularly interested in us. We make contact with him and he walks back, he gets Mendoza, who comes up. And I just walked up to him and I pulled out my badge and I said, "You know what time this is." And he said "Yeah." And it was simply that. I mean, there was a brief look of surprise and then there was a resignation of "You got me."

NARRATOR: When McCrary entered the Lorcin factory, what he saw had shocked him. Here at one of the biggest gun manufacturers in the country, he says he was within arm's reach of guns in all states of assembly, with nobody there to stop him.

DARYL McCRARY: I've dealt with security on a pretty high level and anybody with a security background with knowledge of this would probably say "What security?"

NARRATOR: Michael Bryant had worked at Lorcin as a production line supervisor, overseeing 30 workers including Jeremy Mendoza.

MICHAEL BRYANT, Former Lorcin Supervisor: Well, there was no security. There was absolutely no security at all. They had no security officers, no metal detectors, anything like that, so people would walk in during lunchtime, and walk into the shipping and receiving department and just look at the guns, just play with them a little bit and look at them to see how they looked, put them back inside the box and go back up-- and go about their business.

INTERVIEWER: Did they ever take them out of the box and keep them?

MICHAEL BRYANT: Oh, yes! There were guns missing out of the shipping and receiving department. If you were slick about it and watchful, you could take whatever you wanted.

JAMES WALDORF: Guns were stored in locked rooms and the locks weren't sufficient enough to keep the two employees out of the rooms.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have security guards?

JAMES WALDORF: No, we didn't, not at the time.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any kinds of fencing or locked--

JAMES WALDORF: They were locked, closed rooms. And I think that if you take a thief that's intent on stealing something, if they want something bad enough, they're going to steal it.

DARYL McCRARY: A gun manufacturer has to have a certain level of controls because this is a controlled item. Every gun that is serialized is a controlled item. And to be able to just walk into a building and not be questioned, for a gun manufacturer, is out of the question. It just would be unfathomable. I mean, it would be like being able to walk into a major department store with nobody there and all the goodies there for the taking.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: Let me give you, as a contrast, Smith & Wesson. Go to Smith & Wesson, hundreds and hundred of yards away from the manufacturing facility, you encounter a gate. You do not get through that gate without clearance of the very burly, very well-informed and electronically-connected security guard, who's in a block house. And if you did get in, you'd have a hard time getting into the plant. Most of Smith & Wesson's plant is underground, for security reasons. It was built at a time when they were worried about its destruction as an act of war. But Smith & Wesson is like a fortress. Lorcin is like a park.

INTERVIEWER: Here you're producing firearms and you have them being stolen by the thousands and there's not even a fence, there's not even a security guard?

JAMES WALDORF: Now, listen, that's a pretty sensational aspect and that's a very sensitive aspect to me because I don't like the idea of thinking that people stole a couple thousand handguns from us, either.

MICHAEL BRYANT: I told Jim exactly what was going on. I told Jim that there was drugs being sold in the plant. I told him that there were guns coming up missing and that there was racism in the plant. And then Jim said, "Okay, I'm going to investigate and I'll call you back."

NARRATOR: Bryant says that so many guns went missing from the factory floor that he was afraid he might at some point be blamed for the losses. He devised an inventory system of his own to keep track of the gun parts coming and going from his department.

MICHAEL BRYANT: So I developed a system and kept accurate account of the .380 frames, the slides, and the .25 slides and frames. And I would write down then time in one box. I would write A and B and then how many, 102 left at 8:37 A.M., a hundred would be complete with the blue, because I had also color-coded, also, so I would have a document to show how many slides and frames that went into the department and came out.

NARRATOR: Soon after starting the inventory system, Bryant was fired from the company. He filed a racial discrimination suit that was settled out of court by Lorcin for $3,000.

NARRATOR: The impact of Lorcin's security and accounting problems were showing up in police departments across the country, as when Scotty Zoulko tried to trace a Lorcin .25-caliber reported stolen in Riverside County.

SCOTTY ZOULKO: The gun that we pulled out is stolen from a shipment of guns that was sent out of the Lorcin factory. According to the records, they had it missing since February of '96 and we've had it here since February of '95. I don't know. Cute, isn't it? I don't know what they do over there and how long it takes them to discover something is missing, but if it takes a year, a lot of things could happen with that gun in a year.

NARRATOR: According to an internal ATF memorandum, the agency has "experienced considerable difficulty tracing guns through Lorcin for several years." And they say there have been over 100 traces in which Lorcin provided incorrect information to ATF, the biggest problem of this kind they have ever had with a gun manufacturer.

JAMES WALDORF: We have done the best at accounting for every single gun that we manufacture as humanly possible.

INTERVIEWER: You've not heard at all that there was a problem with guns being traced to Lorcin and Lorcin saying that the gun had not been manufactured?

JAMES WALDORF: No.

INTERVIEWER: Guns that had been used in crimes?

JAMES WALDORF: No.

INTERVIEWER: You've never heard this before?

JAMES WALDORF: I've heard an allegation, but I don't think that it's ever been confirmed.

INTERVIEWER: So you really did not know of any accounting problems that the company had?

JAMES WALDORF: Oh, I had heard allegations, but I think every company in the world has had accounting problems. And, again, I wish we could get into more detail, but you've absolutely worn me down.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I'd like to talk about it more--

NARRATOR: Frontline has learned that ATF is conducting a criminal investigation of Lorcin, trying to determine if it broke the law by failing to report missing guns and whether Lorcin misled the ATF during its investigation. But this case has also raised questions about the agency itself and the way it traces guns.

ATF STAFFER: [on the phone] My name's Tammy and I'm with the ATF Tracing Center in West Virginia and I need some assistance with a gun trace.

NARRATOR: During the year of the Mendoza investigation, the unsuccessful traces of Lorcin guns all came through the ATF National Tracing Center, yet no one saw a pattern and raised a red flag.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: ATF, I think, ends up damned if they do and damned if they don't. They are attempting to regulate an industry with one hand and several other fingers tied behind their back,

NARRATOR: A simple computer program could have alerted ATF to the unusual pattern of the Lorcin traces, but they didn't have one. And that's not the only inefficiency in the system. Part of the problem is that Congress has forbidden ATF from using computers to track gun sales, not wanting to create a central registry. Instead, the ATF must follow a paper trail and rely on a labor-intensive process that finds the gun's owner in less than half of its cases.

ATF STAFFER: [on the phone] I need to speak to someone who can give me assistance with a gun trace.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: It is tremendously inefficient and it's inefficient by design. The last time they tried to make a serious effort to regulate not just the industry, but even illegal commerce in firearms, there was a serious effort made to abolish them altogether. I think ATF, as a law enforcement agency, deserves to have the sort of manpower, the sort of materiel resources that they need in order to do that job.

DARYL McCRARY: I know I got up in the morning, I had this case on my mind. I would sleep, I would dream about different parts of the case. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and say, "Oh, I didn't think of that," you know? I would have never imagined in a million years that, very new to the job, that I would, you know, stumble upon a case like this-- the magnitude, you know, all these guns. You know, I wouldn't have thought about this being in 15 years.

NARRATOR: Daryl McCrary is now a rising star in ATF, honored by his colleagues for cracking one of the biggest cases in bureau history. But he's still bothered by the guns that got away.

DARYL McCRARY: Every gun that gets out is a gun that could be potentially used in a crime. It's a gun that could be potentially used in an act of violence against another person. And as an agent or as a police officer, you have edict that you're going to go out and you're going to prevent this from happening. This one gun could be the difference in, you know, a person going home at night.

NARRATOR: After three years, McCrary knows what happened to only a fraction of the Mendoza guns.

DARYL McCRARY: This particular gun, serial number 367584, it's an L-.380, was recovered in-- or a request for the trace was done in 1995, out of New York City.

INTERVIEWER: That's the gun that killed Evelyn Garcia.

DARYL McCRARY: That's the information that I have. This gun was used in a murder in New York City.

NARRATOR: In addition to the gun that killed Evelyn Garcia --the gun that never existed -- the Lorcin guns have already shown up in over 400 crimes: a homicide in Virginia, a robbery in Louisiana, a car-jacking in California.

CRIME VICTIM: They screamed and pulled out guns, saying, "Everybody get down."

NARRATOR: This woman was terrorized along with seven other people in the armed robbery of a restaurant.

CRIME VICTIM: I was waiting for a gunshot to go off. I just thought, "This is it" or "Somebody's going to die here."

KARIN HAYES: First you're, like, numb.

NARRATOR: Karin Hayes was carjacked at gun point on her way to make a pizza delivery.

KARIN HAYES: But after a while, the thought starts to sink in and that is terrifying. That's when you really get scared again. I watched for days, for weeks, I watched to make sure nobody follows me home.

NARRATOR: The ATF now estimates that the Mendoza case alone put 6,000 illegal Lorcin guns onto the streets.

KARIN HAYES: You've got to be kidding me. Six thousand guns! That is amazing. Jesus! That is a small army.

DARYL McCRARY: To have 6,000 guns out in the illicit market is to have 6,000 or more potential violent encounters on any given day. So I mean, it's a nightmare in the making. I mean, you've got all the ingredients for trouble.

NARRATOR: That trouble -- started at Lorcin -- has spread clear across the country.

DARYL McCRARY: I've got Charleston, South Carolina. I've got Long Beach, California. I've got Marion, Indiana; Atlanta, Georgia. How do they get from A to B? How did a gun that was made here, that was stolen directly from the factory-- how does that gun get to Chicago? How does it get to Detroit? The guns kind of take on a life of their own.

Dr. GAREN WINTEMUTE: There's a pattern here. "Mr. Waldorf, a bunch of your guns are missing." "It's not my fault." "Mr. Waldorf, your guns are used all the time in crime." "It's not my fault." These folks are looking for anybody else to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It just doesn't fly.

JAMES WALDORF: I'm sorry, I don't buy that. Guns don't go off by themself. Somebody pulls the trigger.

DARYL McCRARY: This illicit business of trafficking in firearms is capitalism at its best. Capitalism is all about return, the selling of goods for the highest return. It is a business and people should know that, a thriving business, a very big business. This was cheap guns for the taking. This was a great opportunity to exploit.

PROSECUTOR: And this defendant had a .380 Lorcin and he said, "Evelyn! Evelyn!" Shot her, boom, in the head.

NARRATOR: Daryl McCrary's investigation sent four street gun dealers to prison, but so far the Justice Department has issued no indictments against Lorcin or its executives. As the investigation continues into its third year, the ATF estimates the number of guns missing from Lorcin has now reached nearly 14,000.

ANNOUNCER: Still interested? Check out FRONTLINE's Web site at this address. [http://www.pbs.org] How on- target are you about the guns around us? Take our guns quiz and find out. Or get a closer look at those junk guns and how they're rated. Check out the best arguments on both sides about guns and gun control or read what it feels like to be shot, and much more at www.pbs.org. Next time on FRONTLINE-- it's the new American dream. For us--

EXPERT: This is about people making money--

ANNOUNCER: --and the government.

EXPERT: --and about politicians controlling the system.

EXPERT: These guys are predators.

EXPERT: Why is the government even in the business of gambling?

ANNOUNCER: How much do we all stand to lose? "Easy Money" next time on FRONTLINE. Your comments about "The Opium Kings," a story about the Burmese heroin trade, showed a range of opinions on the drug war and America's role in the war. Here's a sample.

ALLEN S. THORPE: [Orangeville, UT] Dear FRONTLINE-- Seeing the cocksure, macho attitude of U.S. government officials in this program reminded me of the "toughness" that led to the debacle in Vietnam or the fiasco at Waco. Why is it that we always seem to back dictators like the Burmese junta? While heroin is certainly a plague on our country, I would submit that the more dangerous drug, especially in our policy-making offices, is testosterone.

D. SURMANI MURDOCK: [Venice, CA] Dear FRONTLINE-- It is utterly hypocritical for the American government to be persecuting Khun Sa when America itself is the biggest exporter of one of the deadliest drugs known to mankind. American companies flood the world with cigarettes, which kill far more people than heroin. Why go on this rampage against the poppy instead of tobacco? Obviously, it is because tobacco provides enormous profits to American business.

ROBIN GIVENS: [San Francisco, CA] Dear FRONTLINE-- Stopping Burmese opium production is a fool's game because there are millions of square miles of territory suitable for growing poppies all over the world. I am one of millions who are fed up with this brain-dead drug war, which causes so much needless human misery worldwide. There is no way to stop drug use, but if we legalize drugs, 95 percent of the troubles we have with narcotics will vanish like a bad dream.

ANNOUNCER: Let us know what you thought about tonight's program. [fax (617) 254-0243; e-mail, frontline@pbs.org; U.S. mail-- DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134].

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