Guns culture spreading on our streets

July 25, 2013 - All News

In Toronto, criminals looking to get their hands on firearms have several options: rent, buy, borrow and steal. A look at how guns circulate, once on our streets
Special to SAF
Toronto police officer Rob North saw the robbery suspect standing in the middle of Rankin Cres, feeding a shell into a single-barrel shotgun.
North, responding to a report of a Beer Store holdup, stopped his squad car on an angle, thinking he could get out and behind it for cover.
The suspect, Jeron Powell, saw North getting out of his cruiser about 30 metres up the road, and swung the gun up, hip-level.
“When he raised it, I knew right away that this wasn’t good,” North recalled.
Hours earlier, Powell had rented the 12-gauge, sawed-off shotgun for $200 and a day’s work from a man in an Etobicoke housing project.
North heard a zip as something cut the air and hit his forehead. He touched his hand above his left eye and looked at the blood on his hand.
North remembers thinking: “Holy sh-t. I’m shot.”
On that January evening in 2009, the suspect fired five shells at pursuing Toronto cops. Four were slugs that would have blown a large hole in whatever they hit. These missed their targets.
The bullet fired at North was a casing of birdshot pellets that disperse when fired. One of these pellets hit North’s forehead but did not penetrate his skull.
“A slug round would have killed me,” said North, now a homicide detective who has seen rented guns in some of the cases he’s investigated since his confrontation with Powell in 2009.
“It causes a lot of concern that these things are available out there for rent,” he said. “Because if it can happen to a police officer, it can happen to anybody.”
It’s easy to buy a pistol in the US due to lax gun-purchase laws. From the States, the gun pipeline gets it across the border to Toronto. And once here, they start circulating on our streets.
In Toronto, where comparatively strict laws make gun possession difficult, criminals, depending on their street-level connections and budget, have several options. But criminals desperate for firepower will rent, buy, borrow and steal.
Whether a gun is domestic or foreign, big or small, comes with ammunition or without, are among the variables that set prices on Toronto’s black market for firepower.
While most guns used in Toronto crimes are smuggled from the US, about 20 per cent are traced to domestic sources, such as break-and-enters.
In one case, a Toronto man was accused of stealing more than 20 firearms, most of them handguns, from storage lockers in Durham Region. In another case, a Scarborough man was found with several shotguns and rifles, including five taken during a break-and-enter in Caledon.
A gun stolen from a home or storage locker can command less than a smuggled gun, which will sell for as much as 10 times the original value.
This markup is driven in part by the risk taken by the mule who, if caught at the border, could face several years in prison. And because US guns are often new, ordered for trafficking by Toronto criminals.
If not smuggled or stolen, guns headed to Toronto streets have found another supply route, a Toronto police bust revealed. Chief Bill Blair some time ago spoke of a case involving two local men with firearms licences who bought guns, obliterated the serial numbers and then sold them to the street. It is called straw-purchasing.
“About 70 guns hit the street as a result of the actions of those two guys…. They were buying really inexpensive guns and selling them on the street at a premium,” Blair said. “Now, we’ve locked them up and we got some of the guns, but the majority of them were already out there.”
Gun size matters
While the shotgun used in the 2009 Beer Store robbery was rented for $200 and would likely sell for $600 to $800, handguns, easier to conceal, typically sell and rent for more.
An economy brand Hi-Point 9-mm sells for around $1,500 on the street while the rarer but coveted .50-calibre Desert Eagle — which comes in a gold finish — can sell for $3,000 or even as much as $6,000.
In another gun-renting case, a Toronto man charged $600 per night for a handgun.
In August 2006, undercover officers met crack dealer Marvin Washington at a jerk chicken restaurant on Finch Ave. The officers said they wanted a gun and Washington said he had a source. He made a call, then told the officers to drive to the Jane St address of Joel Thomas. Thomas got in the undercovers’ car, showed a loaded 9-mm Helwan handgun and exchanged the rental for cash.
“(Thomas) wanted to utilize what’s known as a community firearm that allows customers to rent the firearm over a weekend or week to do whatever they wanted to do with it and then they had to return it,” said one of the officers who investigated the case.
After accounting for pretrial custody, a judge sentenced Washington to four months in jail and Thomas to 11 months.
So-called “community guns” are a growing problem facing the public and police.
“The reality is that some of these guns are being used in multiple crimes, and not necessarily by the same people,” Supt Ron Taverner of Toronto police’s 23 Division said earlier this year. “We know that guns are being shared, rented.”
The drugs nexus
Often stored in shoeboxes, guns are dealt for money or an equivalent amount of drugs like cocaine, the deals done in apartments, cars and, in at least one case, a clothing store.
An apartment in 2675 Eglinton Ave W consisted of a couple bedrooms, a bathroom and a combined kitchen and living area, but police who raided the unit in January 2009 found little to suggest the 500-square-feet of space was anything but a store selling drugs and guns.
In one of the bedrooms, two pit bulls and their feces. In the living room, no chairs or couch but an aquarium holding an alligator and rat. And in a closet, two shotguns and two rifles.
In the kitchen, no food, cutlery or dishes. The freezer contained two clear plastic bags of cocaine. In a drawer under the counter were three handguns, a Taurus .357 revolver loaded with six rounds, a .38 Special snub-nosed revolver and a Glock loaded with 10 rounds.
Other ammunition found in the apartment was in small bundles, leading a police officer to testify during the subsequent trial that the rounds were packaged for sale.
“This was an apartment being used for… selling crack cocaine and guns,” said the judge before finding Lyvon Lambert guilty of gun possession. After noting Lambert’s previous record and accounting for time he spent in pretrial custody, the court sentenced him to serve nearly 10 more years in prison.
In another case, as part of an investigation of illegal guns flowing from Windsor to Toronto, police watched John Currie pull into a laneway behind a clothing store on Danforth Ave, exit his Jeep, hand another man a shopping bag of guns and ammunition, and the man walk into the store. Later that night, a third man walked out carrying the bag.
Of the eight guns sold that night in 2009, one had its serial number obliterated and could not be traced, six were smuggled from the US, and another was reported stolen in Hamilton the year before. Currie served 2 ½ years in jail.
Ammo premium
Sale and rental price go up if ammunition is included.
“Prior to… 1998, the normal citizen could go into a gun store and buy ammunition by showing photo ID,” Toronto police gun expert Michael Press testified in a trial. “Now, you are required to show an actual firearms licence for that particular class of firearm (and) what type of ammunition you are buying.”
This restriction means ammunition on Toronto’s streets can sell for up to $25 a bullet. Until recently, a shortage of ammunition due to the demands of overseas wars also strained the supply chain.
Bullets of the same calibre — that is, the same diameter — come in different lengths, points and casings, and due to scarce and irregular supply, Toronto criminals cannot be choosy.
Toronto police sometimes seize crime guns with mismatched bullets in the magazines.
How fast a criminal can lay hands on a gun depends on his street connections to people like Omar Allen.
Allen was called as a defence witness in the trial of Lyvon Lambert, whose apartment police raided and found the pit bulls, alligator, drugs and guns. Allen said on the stand that the drugs and guns were his, but the judge did not believe his attempt to spare Lambert.
Allen, a convicted criminal and drug dealer, testified that “if it is time to get down and dirty, I am locked and loaded” and that while he “ain’t no Santa Claus,” he would loan a gun to a friend in need.
‘Holdup in progress’
While his accomplice waited in the getaway car, Jeron Powell went in the Beer Store with his rented shotgun and ordered everyone down on the floor. He grabbed some money but not much, said Det Nunzio Tramontozzi, who investigated the case.
Det Rob North remembers the radio call came in at 7.17pm on the evening of Jan 24, 2009. “A holdup in progress at the Beer Store at Symington and Dupont.”
North was about to respond to the call when he heard a shot. He drove closer to the scene and heard two more. (Two undercovers had approached a man in the street and asked to talk to him. The man was Powell, who smiled and pulled the rented sawed-off shotgun to fire two rounds that missed, Tramontozzi said.)
North turned his car onto Rankin Cres, saw Powell and drew his Glock as he got out of the cruiser. The officer says he does not recall hearing the shotgun’s boom or seeing the muzzle flash.
“The adrenalin that you feel is astronomical. I can recall a short time later having a massive headache.”
A couple of firefighters who arrived on the scene “sort of had this look of terror on their face”, said North, who now believes he was going into shock.
They put him in an ambulance headed for St Michael’s Hospital.
“In my mind I’m thinking I’m OK,” but North wondered why the ambulance was driving so fast. “I finally said, ‘Listen, if I’m not going to be OK, I’m going to need to make some phone calls’.”
In the weeks after the shooting, North struggled through emotional swings. “You’re home and sometimes you’re laughing and sometimes you’re crying… and I’m thinking: What’s going on with me? This isn’t the way I normally act.”
After several weeks, North decided he was not “going to sit there and be a victim”, and went back to work. Powell later pleaded guilty to robbery and attempted murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
After his arrest that night, Powell told officers he planned to hold up a convenience store after the Beer Store job, then return the gun, Tramontozzi said. Police never learned the identity of the man who rented the shotgun to Powell.
“There are people out there that criminals can go to rent the guns, to commit whatever criminal offence they want, and after that they return the gun,” Det Tramontozzi said. “It’s very easy to do. It’s done all over the city. It’s very disturbing.”
— Torstar News Service