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Agents seek guns stolen during Harvey: More than 100 weapons taken from Houston stores during storm

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  • St. John Barned-Smith
  • Alain Stephens

HOUSTON (AP) — A Glock 23 pistol. A .40-caliber Springfield XDM-40. A Ruger P95. Dozens of other handguns, shotguns and long rifles: All missing.

As Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, most people were just trying to stay safe. Cops were busy saving lives.

Across the city, however, crews of enterprising thieves used the disaster to break into gun stores and carry away 109 firearms — untraceable and easily sold.

Investigators from the Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have so far recovered a half dozen of the weapons. Where are the rest?

That what's Ryan Taylor wants to know. He oversees the agents tasked with hunting down the stolen weapons.

One thing is certain, he says: They're crime guns now, and they're not being used for good.

It was Sunday morning, Aug. 27, and much of Houston was underwater. At his home in Kingwood, Rob Elder sat at his kitchen table, wondering how high the water in his street would rise. Then the phone rang. Looters had broken into a Cash America pawnshop in the Houston Gardens area of northeast Houston, 20 miles away.

Elder, an investigator for First Cash Financial, which owns the Cash America chain, reached for his laptop and logged into the store's surveillance video feed.

Thieves had smashed a window, broken through the security bars, and made their way inside. Debris littered the floor. Elder watched as blurry figures carried whatever they could get their hands on out into the murky, waist-deep floodwater.

"You sort of get a sick, helpless feeling in your stomach," he said. "Here's this store you're being asked to protect, it's being looted, and there's nothing you can do."

Normally, Elder said, police would have been able to respond in minutes. But not that day. All available first responders were trying to keep up with the thousands of rescue calls. So Elder, 57, a retired ATF agent, sat back and watched the grainy video, hoping the thieves wouldn't go near the locked room in the back of the shop.

That's where the guns were.

For hours, thieves ignored the locked room. Then, a new crew walked in. One thief wore a dark hooded rain jacket, obscuring his face. Another was bare-chested and had a white T-shirt over his head. He swung an ax, smashing his way into the gun room.

Then, he spotted the store's computer system, and swung again. The video went blank.

By the time authorities arrived, the thieves had carried away 84 weapons.

Hours later, looters broke into another gun shop, then another and another, six in all, during the height of the storm -- three Cash Americas, two Academy Sports and Outdoors locations, and a family-owned gun shop, 19Eleven Enterprises.

It was twice the number of gun-store burglaries Houston typically weathers in a month.

Police and federal agents had worried this might happen and tried to prevent it.

Twelve years ago, after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, thieves took advantage of the chaos and broke into 30 gun stores, stealing more than 1,000 firearms.

When agents got a glimpse of Harvey's initial forecast — with dozens of inches of rain projected — ATF agents feared a repeat, "Katrina, Part Two."

The potential for a run on gun stores during a natural disaster is particularly worrisome in the Houston region, which has more than 650 firearms dealers and where gun store thefts continue to rise. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, about 150 guns were stolen from dealers in the Houston area.

Crews of criminals work quickly and efficiently, driving trucks through storefronts, smashing cases and carrying off dozens of guns in minutes. Stolen firearms quickly vanish into a black market that operates across state and international borders.

Firearms dealers must strengthen their defenses, said Fred Milanowski, the special agent-in-charge of the ATF's Houston field division.

"You've seen where banks have gone," he said. "They have ballistic glass, guards. They do a lot better job with video surveillance. At some point, gun stores are probably going to have to step up."

After Katrina, ATF was given a new responsibility, overseeing security and public safety during natural disasters. Among the top priorities for the new Emergency Support Function 13: preventing thefts of firearms.

In late August, as Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast, ATF activated the ESF 13 system, drawing in a combined force of 2,000 officers that also included agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and other federal and state agencies, said Robert McCloy, an ATF special agent in Washington who oversees ESF 13.

ATF agents sent written warnings and launched automated calls to Houston-area gun stores, urging owners to take extra precautions against looting. After the burglaries began, they sent out robocalls advising gun store owners of the thefts and asking them again to secure their inventory and records.

They gave local law enforcement a list of local gun stores, to allow for speedier response to break-ins.

"A gun is not like a toaster," Gary Orchowski, assistant special agent-in-charge of the ATF's Houston Field Division who was sent to Louisiana for Katrina. "If a store is missing a toaster, no one gets hurt."

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo asked ATF to send whatever help they could spare.

"We know historically when these big storms hit and law enforcement is stretched thin throughout a region, that the criminal element too often come out and try to take advantage of the situation," Acevedo said.

Milanowski and his agents count themselves lucky that it wasn't worse. They credit the warnings they sent to gun owners, a citywide curfew, and follow-up after the storm with gun stores for preventing additional burglaries.

ATF Special Agent Tommy Doyle and his colleagues spent hours trying to get to Cash America's store in northeast Houston in the aftermath of the storm. Time and time again, they had to turn back after finding yet another route underwater.

"I kind of lost count," said the Houston agent. "We were hitting enough locations that at the end of the day I would have trouble thinking through what transpired."

It was one of dozens of locations checked by the ATF's special response team, a Dallas-based group that went on alert in the days before the storm. Agents drove through flooded streets, traveling from gun store to gun store, securing those that had been burglarized until private security or Houston police could take over.

The Cash America in northeast Houston had already put measures in place -- security stanchions by the front door to prevent cars from smashing through the entryway, surveillance cameras and other measures Elder won't reveal.

Doyle and his comrades found the store in disarray and locked the area down until security guards arrived.

After the initial emergencies ended, Doyle's team passed the investigations off to Group 9, a task force of ATF agents and investigators from the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the Houston Police Department. The unit tracks thefts from Houston-area gun stores, a problem that has grown considerably over the last five years.

Initially, there wasn't much to go on in the Cash America heist. Investigators believe the thieves came from two nearby housing complexes, said Ryan Taylor, the special agent who supervises Group 9.

"They were really the only people who had access to that store," he said.

Officials managed to track down one of the weapons almost immediately. A local resident found a Glock 23 on a grassy area across the street from the Cash America, and returned it.

In early September, another weapon turned up, after Houston police officers arrested a man for attempted robbery. He'd used one of the guns -- a Maverick Arms 12-gauge shotgun -- in the crime, ATF officials said.

Investigators interviewed residents of the complex, identified several suspects and searched their apartments. Nothing. If they were the thieves, they'd long since unloaded the weapons.

Agents put out a call for tips, offering $11,000 rewards through CrimeStoppers about the theft and another at an Academy Sports and Outdoors where 12 guns were stolen. They received a flood of tips, but few panned out. For weeks, they waited, working other cases.

Then on Oct. 12, police stopped a man driving in the Fifth Ward about 5 miles from the pawn shop. They arrested the driver for possession of crack cocaine, and also found a Springfield XDM-40 pistol, one of the firearms stolen from Cash America.

A day later, investigators working a narcotics case searched a home 7 miles from the pawn shop and found another of the Cash America guns, a 9 mm Ruger P95DC.

The suspects said they'd bought their guns from the same man, a fence who admitted knowing about the guns but not selling them or possessing them, Taylor said.

"We are currently working on pursuing the seller further," he said. "We believe if he is not directly related to the burglary he has knowledge of who committed the burglary."

This story was reported in partnership with the Texas Standard, a daily radio newsmagazine produced in collaboration with Houston Public Media, Texas Public Radio San Antonio, KUT Austin and KERA North Texas.

FEATURED PHOTO: A man bikes past a Cash America pawnshop in northeast Houston on Dec. 1. The shop was looted during Hurricane Harvey, and dozens of firearms were stolen. (Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/AP)