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ATF Heist Exposes Vulnerabilities in System for Firearm Disposal

A federal contractor stole an untold number of guns from a West Virginia facility. At least one of the weapons had been marked as destroyed.

March 19, 2019

he Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is reeling from revelations that a security contractor assigned to a gun-disposal facility in West Virginia stole a "substantial" number of guns and firearm components. Christopher Lee Yates of Martinsburg is accused of taking advantage of a long-standing difficulty faced by the ATF: What to do with the thousands of guns federal agents recover from criminals each year?

While details in the case remain scant, court documents show that Yates admitted to stealing more than $1,000 worth of firearm parts from the National Firearms and Ammunition Destruction Branch (NFAD) in Martinsburg, and resold at least some to a Maryland resident. According to a separate complaint filed on March 4, ATF agents searched Yates's car and found a semiautomatic pistol that had been marked "disposed" at the facility in August 2017.

In the course of investigations, law enforcement frequently seize property connected to crimes, like cash, real estate, and vehicles. When cases are closed and the evidence is no longer needed, police have to dispose of the property. According to agency reports, ATF agents seize approximately 23,000 guns every year. All old evidence guns, as well as obsolete service weapons, are sent to Martinsburg for disposal.

Yates was employed at the Martinsburg facility by Universal Protection Services, which provides security for several federal facilities in the West Virginia panhandle. Spokesperson Vanessa Showalter said Yates had worked as a guard at the facility for "a number of years," at least since 2013. He underwent a background check as required by the federal government, according to Showalter.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the scheme was uncovered when a local police force requested a trace on a gun part, and ATF records listed the part as "disposed" at NFAD. CBS News reported last week that ATF had launched a multistate effort to recover the weapons and parts Yates is accused of stealing and reselling.

Before the early 2010s, former ATF agents say, agency employees around the country were required to dispose of recovered guns themselves. Under the old system, once seized weapons were no longer needed as evidence, agents in the field had to find a local facility able and willing to destroy them.

David Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works for the gun violence prevention group Giffords, recalled bringing a haul of weapons to Ford in Detroit for destruction. Chipman and a colleague melted the weapons in one of the carmaker's smelters. In other instances, Chipman said he and colleagues took weapons to metal recycling facilities to use specialized hydraulic metal-cutting machines to shear through the guns' frames. Agents signed a document certifying the weapons were disposed of only after they personally witnessed that the guns were completely destroyed.

However, Chipman said agents ran into difficulty finding adequate facilities near field offices. As he explained, gun-destruction services were provided by businesses out of goodwill toward law enforcement, and so were not always timely. That led to field offices having to store large numbers of guns for months at a time.

As a result, the ATF started requiring officers to send weapons to the Martinsburg facility for destruction. After federal law enforcement agencies switched from .40-caliber service pistols to 9mm in 2016, the ATF also sent thousands of its agents' old weapons to NFAD for destruction. In 2017, contracting records show that ATF purchased a hydraulic cutting machine specifically to destroy guns at Martinsburg.

In a March 2018 report, the Department of Justice Inspector General said that the ATF "maintains effective control over the disposal of firearms." According to the report, guns sent to NFAD are initially stored in a locked vault with restricted access until destroyed with an industrial shredder. An ATF agent and "a credentialed employee or contractor" are supposed to witness the destruction and then sign a certification that the weapons have been disposed of.

However, as the complaint against Yates makes clear, weapons were stolen and falsely certified as destroyed at least as early as August 2017.

We don't yet know how many guns and parts were stolen, nor how Yates was able to obtain the weapons falsely logged as destroyed. His attorney, public defender Nicholas Compton, did not respond to a call seeking comment.

In an emailed statement, ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said that Yates is accused of stealing parts, completed guns, and ammunition. "ATF has made substantial progress in recovering the stolen property and is working around-the-clock to pursue all leads," Langwell wrote.

Correction: an earlier version of this story erroneously stated that ATF agents in the Detroit field office brought weapons to be destroyed at a smelter operated by General Motors. The agents in fact brought the weapons to be destroyed at a smelter operated by Ford.

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