To ring in the new year, Kevin Winford and Denis Joiner fired their stolen guns into the air. It was their bad luck that Chicago cops patrolling the South Side caught them in the act.
Their foolish celebration on Jan. 1, 2012, allowed investigators to tie their two guns to a burglary spree in which more than 450 guns had been taken from six stores in Illinois and two other states.
It was a warning sign of what’s become an increasingly popular way for gangs in Chicago to get the guns that fuel their deadly battles. And it’s a problem that’s only gotten worse. Last year, as Chicago’s murder toll hit a level not seen in two decades, the number of burglaries of gun stores in Illinois was nearly triple what it was the year before. Nationally, such crimes rose more by almost a third over the same period, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This is a common theme now,” says David Coulson, a spokesman for the ATF in Chicago.
Illinois ranked in the top 10 among all states for the number of guns burglarized from firearms dealers and for the number of such stores hit in 2016, ATF figures show.
About a month ago, ATF formed a special team in Chicago to target gun-store burglars, Coulson says.
According to law enforcement officials, gangs see gun stores as easy marks to supply themselves. And some see the guns as a way to make some easy money.
The weapons stolen by Winford and his crew were sold to others looking to arm themselves in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, authorities say. One of those guns later was found at the scene of a murder on the South Side.
Winford, Joiner and six other South Side men have been convicted of crimes related to those six burglaries.
All but one has gone to prison.
And the gun-shop thefts continue. In the last month alone, gun dealers in Lombard, Hoffman Estates and Oak Forest were burglarized. Juveniles from the South Side of Chicago were arrested in the smash-and-grab in Lombard, though investigators think adults were involved, too. In Oak Forest, someone threw a cinder block through the window of Eagle Sports Range and made off with at least 40 guns. Federal prosecutors have charged three men with trying to sell some of those weapons.
As a result of such burglaries, the Illinois General Assembly is considering a bill that would create a board that to mandate the installation of surveillance cameras and other security measures at gun stores. The bill was approved by the Senate April 27 by a vote of 30-21 and is now pending in the House.
Federal law doesn’t require that firearms dealers take steps to guard against gun thefts, though the ATF offers them theft-proofing suggestions.
Some municipalities already have the power, through building codes, to require that gun-store operators take security measures.
In Chicago, whose citywide ban on gun stores was declared unconstitutional in 2014, no firearms dealers have opened shop yet. But any that do will have to meet the requirements of a city ordinance already in place that they meet certain safety guidelines.
Des Plaines used its building code to get a gun store that was burglarized in 2012 to improve its security before moving to a new location in the northwest suburb in 2013. Maxon Shooter’s Supplies and Indoor Range was among the gun shops that Winford and Joiner hit in January 2012, court records show. At the time, Martin Moylan, who was then mayor, got involved in the store’s plans to move from Rand Road to East Bradrock Drive.
“We were disappointed in the original security that Maxon had because it was so easy for the perpetrators to get in, smash the cases and take the guns, which were used in felonies in Chicago,” says Moylan, a Democrat who’s now a state representative representing Des Plaines.
He says the Des Plaines police and building department worked closely with Maxon.
“They were very cooperative,” Moylan says. “We made sure our building code was strong to make sure they were secure. It was new construction, so we kind of had them over a barrel. Not every town has a special code for a firearm shop.”
Of the store’s new location, he says, “It’s almost theft-proof.”
Indeed, on Aug. 23, 2016, burglars tried to break into Maxon and were thwarted by the added security. They drove a pickup truck into the building’s bay doors but couldn’t get inside.
Moylan supports legislation that would impose security requirements statewide on gun stores.
Dan Eldridge, who’s owned Maxon since 2015, takes issue with that.
“To create a one-size-fits-all security mandate for gun shops is probably not very effective,” Eldridge says. “The situation depends on where you are, the access to the facility, the density of the police coverage, etc. What is necessary in an urban environment will probably be grossly insufficient in a rural environment.”
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, says gun stores across Illinois already are beefing up security in response to the rise in burglaries.
“The gangs are becoming bolder because not much happens to them,” Pearson says. “I think everyone is upgrading their security.”
But he says subjecting gun stores to state requirements for security is a bad idea: “Whenever you get the state involved, you add costs for everyone, with no results.”
Statewide, 14 gun stores were burglarized last year, with a total of 280 guns stolen, according to ATF figures. That was up from five such burglaries in 2015 and three the year before that.
Only a few gun-store thefts in Illinois and surrounding states were armed holdups. There was just one such robbery in Illinois last year and none the previous two years.
One of the most brazen gun store robberies in the region took place Dec. 14, 2013, in Goshen, Indiana. Shaquan Moorer, 26, of Chicago, joined three Indiana men in an armed robbery of the MC Sports store, according to court records. Dressed in white painter uniforms and masks, they zip-tied terrified customers and employees and stole 47 guns that they stuffed into a duffel bag.
A Goshen detective testified in court that 13 of the guns were recovered in Chicago. Recent tests found that one of the guns found in Chicago was likely used in a shooting here as well as being used in other violent crimes in Indiana, a law enforcement source told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Moorer ended up being convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Far more often, gun thieves smash into stores in the dead of the night rather than confront store owners themselves likely to be armed. Sometimes, they use sledgehammers and bolt-cutters. Other times, they bash a hole in the store with a stolen car or truck.
No matter how the guns are taken, many of those stolen in Illinois and neighboring states have wound up on the streets of Chicago and other cities, where they’ve been used in violent crimes, authorities say.
Winford and Joiner were part of an Englewood crew that used Google to search for “soft targets,” sources say — gun stores near interstates, making a quick getaway easier. The crew sold its stolen guns in Chicago, records show.
Its gun-shop burglary spree began Sept. 2, 2011, and ended Jan. 15, 2012, with the Maxon burglary. The crew also was found to have burglarized gun dealers in Lockport and Roselle, as well as Waukesha, Wisconsin; Hammond, Indiana, and Salem in southern Illinois.
To prepare for the break-in in Salem at a store called Hunting Stuff, Winford bought bolt-cutters and four plastic, 12-gallon storage bins at a Lowe’s in Carbondale, according to court records.
The next day, on Dec. 24, 2011, he and three accomplices broke the glass in the front door, crawled inside and cut a padlock on the security gate with the bolt-cutters, then broke the glass in the display cases where the guns were kept and took 124 firearms valued at $61,000, the records show.
The Christmas Eve burglary took just two minutes. But afterward the crew messed up. They used the bins to haul the guns to their getaway car, a rented Dodge Neon. They put one full bin in the car and poured the rest of the guns into the trunk. Then, they left the empty bins in the parking lot. Those proved to be key evidence against them.
On Jan. 1, 2012, Winford fired his stolen Sig Arms .40-caliber handgun into the air and Joiner fired a stolen 9mm Glock during their New Year’s Day celebration on the South Side. Officers arrested Winford there, but Joiner got away. Police recovered both guns.
Investigators found the guns had been stolen from The Gun Doctor in Roselle on Oct. 10, 2011. Through his mug shot, investigators identified Winford as the man who bought the bolt-cutters and storage bins in Carbondale. Fingerprints on bins dumped in the Salem parking lot matched Winford, now 23, and two accomplices — Joiner and Antoine White, both 24.
ATF agents and Salem police interviewed Winford on Jan. 18, 2012, and he admitted breaking into the store, telling them he yelled “Oh, s—!” when he saw how many guns were there.
Investigators connected all six burglaries to the crew, whose members also included Earl Warner Jr., an 18-year-old Englewood man who was shot to death on Dec. 31, 2011. Authorities think Warner’s killer, Tony Head, was angry with him over how much Warner was charging for stolen guns, according to a source. Head is now serving 50 years for murder.
The Chicago Police Department has recovered at least 57 of the guns the crew took in the burglary of the Maxon store in Des Plaines in 2012. Some have been linked to violent crimes. One of them was found at the scene of the killing of Romell Collins, 26, shot in the head after getting out of a car April 5, 2012, in the 6400 block of South Francisco in Chicago Lawn on the Southwest Side, according to sources.
“These types of burglaries and thefts highlight the extent the criminal element will go to obtain firearms that unfortunately often end up being used for illicit purposes,” the ATF’s Coulson says. “We know that these weapons are passed amongst criminals. This is the unfortunate reality.”