Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 12:34 PM
Outside a baby shower in Landover three years ago, Erik Kenneth Dixon snapped. As he argued with his sister and her boyfriend in a parking lot, the 25-year-old man whipped out a .45-caliber Glock and shot her in the leg. Then he chased down her boyfriend, firing between cars and at the running man's feet until he slipped on wet grass. As the prone man held his hands up in futile defense, Dixon executed him, firing seven times.
By law, Dixon was prohibited from owning a gun. He had spent almost three years in prison for shooting at a man. But three months before the baby-shower killing, he gave his girlfriend $335 and took her to an old brick house on a commercial strip just beyond the District line in Forestville, home to a gun shop called Realco.
"He knew which one he wanted and picked it out," the woman would later tell police.
Dixon's Glock was one of 86 guns sold by Realco that have been linked to homicide cases during the past 18 years, far outstripping the total from any other store in the region, a Washington Post investigation has found. Over that period, police have recovered more than 2,500 guns sold by the shop, including over 300 used in non-fatal shootings, assaults and robberies.
Realco has been known as a leading seller of "crime guns" seized by local police, but a year-long Post investigation reveals the magnitude of Realco's pattern and links the guns sold by the store to specific crimes. The Post compiled its own databases of more than 35,000 gun traces by mining unpublicized state databases and local police evidence logs.
The Post investigation found that a small percentage of gun stores sells most of the weapons recovered by police in crimes - re-confirming the major finding of studies that came out before federal gun-tracing data were removed from public view by an act of Congress in 2003. For the most part, these sales are legal, but an unknown number involve persons who buy for those who cannot, including convicted felons such as Dixon, in a process known as a "straw purchase." Such sales are illegal for the buyer and the store, if it knowingly allows a straw purchase. But cases are hard to prove. Law enforcement officials rarely prosecute gun stores, deterred by high bureaucratic hurdles, political pressure and laws that make convictions difficult.
The investigation also found that:
Nearly two out of three guns sold in Virginia since 1998 and recovered by local authorities came from about 1 percent of the state's dealers - 40 out of the 3,400 selling guns. Most of those 40 had received government warnings that their licenses were in jeopardy because of regulatory violations. But only four had their licenses revoked, and all are still legally selling guns after transferring their licenses, reapplying or re-licensing under new owners.
A gun store in Portsmouth, Va., transformed over the past seven years from a modest family-owned business into one of the state's top sellers of "crime guns," leading Virginia in the category of how quickly its guns moved from the sales counter to crime scenes.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigates gun trafficking and regulates the firearms industry, is hamstrung by the law, politics and bureaucracy. The agency still has the same number of agents it had three decades ago. It can take as long as eight years between inspections of gun stores. And even when inspectors turn up evidence of missing guns, they cannot compel a dealer to take inventory.
In Maryland, Realco towers over the other 350 handgun dealers in the state as a source of guns confiscated in the District and Prince George's County, the most violent jurisdictions in the area. Nearly one out of three guns The Post traced to Maryland dealers came from Realco. The rest were spread among other shops across the state.
The store is a paradox for law enforcement and politicians. Its owners say they scrupulously follow handgun laws. State and federal regulators have documented only minor problems in numerous inspections.
Since 1992, more than 2,500 guns recovered by police and tied to crimes in the Washington area have been traced back to their original sale at Realco Guns in Forestville, Md. The total is four times that of the dealer with the next highest number of gun traces.
"The owners of Realco Guns are cooperative with our detectives and have been compliant with all reporting requirements," said Maj. Andy Ellis, commander of the public affairs division for Prince George's police. "It shows a weakness in our system when a company like Realco can adhere to the law yet still be the source of so many crime guns. I can only imagine how much lower our violent-crime rate would be if Realco sold shoes instead of guns."
Dealers on the front lines
Tracing brings into sharp relief the fact that virtually all crime guns are first sold as new weapons by a licensed dealer to someone who cleared a background check. The criminal demand for weapons - especially new ones that cannot be tied to previous crimes - puts dealers at the front line of crime prevention.
One ATF study found that about half the guns in trafficking cases started as "straw purchases" from licensed dealers. As in the Dixon case, a person with a clean record buys a gun for a person who cannot or does not want to do so. The ATF looks to merchants to proactively weed out suspicious customers, such as a girlfriend buying for a boyfriend.
Most experts and ATF officials agree that the number of conscientious dealers far outweighs the minority that break the law. Straw schemes can be hard to detect. A gun traced to a merchant does not necessarily signal that the merchant did anything wrong, the experts say. The number of traces a store generates is shaped by many factors, including the type and number of guns sold, geography, clientele and how clerks vet customers.
The District has no walk-in gun shops but is ringed by more than 100 in Maryland and Virginia. Of the 996 guns successfully traced last year in the city, about one-fourth were tracked back to Maryland dealers, one-fourth to Virginia dealers and the rest to shops nationwide, according to the ATF.
To track crime guns in the District and Prince George's, The Post used public information requests to obtain local police logs listing 76,000 guns recovered by police in the two jurisdictions, then matched the serial numbers against a Maryland database of gun sales.
About 9,400 had no serial numbers and could not be matched. Another 13,300 were rifles or shotguns, which the state does not track. About 44,000 guns were not listed in state sales records, meaning the weapons were probably sold by dealers scattered across the country or had their serial numbers entered into police logs incorrectly.
About 8,700 guns were tracked to the Maryland merchants that last sold them.
Police in the District and Prince George's on average seized more than 160 Realco guns annually from 1997 through 2008. Realco's firearms end up at local crime scenes at a rate nearly twice that of any other active Maryland dealer that had 10 or more guns seized.
On a single day, police have logged two, three or even four guns sold by Realco, records show.
A Taurus .40-caliber pistol sold by the store in March 2004 was put to work in a murder three weeks later at a Popeyes in Oxon Hill, where 20-year-old Robert Garner Jr. killed 22-year-old Kelvin Braxton. Police learned that Garner's girlfriend had bought the gun.
A Glock .45-caliber the shop sold to Alfred L. Evans in June 2004 was used in October 2005 in Clinton at a busy traffic light to kill 28-year-old Keith Ingaharra. After one driver cut the other off in evening rush-hour traffic, Ingaharra stepped from his car waving his hands. Evans shot Ingaharra in the hip, leg and chest and then drove home.
"He had the gun right there at his fingertips," said Ingaharra's mother, Bonnie Rogers. "He just took it out and blew him away."
A Kel-Tec 9mm sold by Realco in January 2007 was used by Terris T. Luckett seven months later to shoot his wife 20 times, killing her at their Clinton home. He then killed a barber, John Scales III, in his shop. Luckett, who bought the gun, incorrectly thought the two were having an affair, police say.
Realco's president, Carlos del Real, declined repeated requests to be interviewed, dismissing the news value of gun tracing.
"It's such a ridiculous topic," said del Real, who took over the shop after his brother died in 2008. "Maybe we should just move our shop a few hundred miles away."
Glenn Ivey said that after he became Prince George's state's attorney in 2002, he asked law enforcement colleagues if he could do anything about the flow of guns from Realco, which he said he knew of from his time in the 1990s as a prosecutor in the District.
"I had an eye toward trying to take action," Ivey said. "The feedback we got was: They are doing it the way they are supposed to. They are following the letter of the law."
Asked about Realco, ATF spokeswoman Clare Weber said stores with greater numbers of traces are inspected more frequently.
"The number of traces that come back to a [gun dealer] is not a revocable offense if the dealer is found in compliance with record-keeping requirements," she said.
Joseph R. Vince Jr., who retired from the ATF's Crime Gun Analysis Branch in 1999 and has worked as an expert for lawyers who represent victims of gun violence, said the pattern prompts questions.
"If a gun store is bleeding crime guns, you have got to ask yourself what . . . is going on," Vince said. "I have no problem with somebody being in the firearms business. That is a legitimate business. But why can't the public be aware of where guns to criminals are coming from?"
Realco walks the line
Realco, one of dozens of dealers licensed over the years to sell handguns in Prince George's, opened more than 35 years ago when Carlos del Real's older brother Greg secured an ATF dealer's license.
The store - whose address is now in District Heights after an annexation three years ago - occupies a 1930 Craftsman-style house on a strip of Marlboro Pike, between the Loose Ends Hair Studio and the Black Ribeye drive-through. Across the street is a Dunkin' Donuts and a check-cashing service. Down the block is a liquor store and a police substation.
Stretched across one end of the front porch at Realco is a "Team Glock" banner, a marketing nod to the angular-shaped handgun. Bars line the windows. Customers enter in the back next to a sign announcing the "Realco Outdoor World & Gun Hospital."
Inside is a small paneled showroom lined with glass display cases and space for only a handful of customers. Rifle bags, gun safes, animal trophies and assorted gun gear fill the shop. Tacked behind the counter is a small yellow notice: "We will refuse the sale of ammo and guns to suspected straw purchasers."
Researchers in law enforcement, academia and the media first began to examine gun tracing data for clues to potential illegal sales in the late 1990s. (The efforts so angered gun supporters that they successfully lobbied Congress to impose a blackout on the once-public data in 2003.) In 1999, The Post identified Realco as the source of 493 guns used in crimes from 1996 to 1998, based on data from the ATF. That was twice the number of any other dealer in the region, and later researchers would rank Realco in the top 10 in the nation for crime-gun traces.
At the time, Greg and Carlos del Real disputed the numbers. They said they operated in a high-crime area but obeyed all laws.
"We step all over these people's constitutional rights to prevent these straw purchases," Greg del Real said.
Months later, Maryland State Police officials told The Post they were "taking an aggressive look" at Realco and potential straw purchases. Nothing came of the investigation, records show.
Greg del Real followed news of the state probe with a letter to The Post, disputing that "our store is in any way responsible for the flow of 'crime guns."
Guns, he wrote, are traced for many reasons that might not include "criminal use," including stolen guns and guns used in self-defense.
"We suspect that those reasons for traces, coupled with our high volume of sales, may account for the 'higher than average' number of gun traces attributed to our store," he wrote.
"The hundreds of sales that we have refused to make over the years," he also noted, "are not reflected in any statistical report."
Realco was back in the news in August 2007 when D.C. police issued a report that identified the leading sources of crime guns seized in D.C. in 2006 - Realco was No. 1 with 76, three times the number of the next-most-frequent dealer.
That month, prosecutor Ivey joined Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition and others outside Realco in a "protest against illegal guns." Inside the shop, Maryland State Police pored over Realco's paperwork. Investigators found little of concern.
"The brothers Del Real were cooperative during the inspection," they wrote.
Crime guns stack up
The gun industry often says that traces reflect little more than the number of guns a merchant has sold. But Maryland dealers that have sold almost as many or more guns than Realco have had their guns seized at much lower rates, records show.
Realco is listed in the Maryland database as selling 19,000 guns since 1984. Of every 1,000 sold, analysis shows, police later recovered 131.
About five miles away from Realco, near Andrews Air Force Base, is Maryland Small Arms Range Inc. The longtime dealer has sold about 15,000 guns over the past 25 years. For every 1,000 it sold, police later recovered 41.
Jack Donald, a longtime salesman at the shop, said police officers often use the range on site, potentially affecting who shops there.
"It may be some kind of a deterrent," Donald said.
Atlantic Guns, a long-established dealer in Silver Spring, has sold more than 18,000 guns in the past 25 years. For every 1,000 sold, police have recovered 28.
And in Rockville, a second Atlantic Guns location has sold more than 21,000 firearms since 1984 - the most listed in state records. Out of every 1,000 guns sold, police recovered eight.
One of the main ATF indicators of trafficking is how quickly guns are seized after they are sold, known as "time to crime." The faster guns are recovered, the ATF has found, the more likely they were bought by someone with criminal intent, sometimes through straw purchases. Anything less than three years is considered a potential red flag.
In general, Realco guns have been recovered more quickly than guns sold by other Maryland dealers. In Prince George's and the District, 55 percent of the recovered Realco guns were logged by police within three years, compared with 40 percent for the guns recovered from other Maryland dealers.
A Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun sold in March 2006 was recovered by Prince George's police 13 months later not far from a body, surrounded by shell casings, on a Landover street. A 26-year-old man was shot and killed after finding two men breaking into his car. The shooter told police that he asked a 21-year-old woman to purchase the handgun for him because he was 20 at the time and "not of legal age to purchase one himself," police said.
In a May 2006 straw purchase, a man bought a handgun at Realco for a felon friend who wanted to shoot abortion doctors. The plot was foiled after the felon's family called authorities weeks later.
In another straw scheme that ended later that year, a 22-year-old District man on probation for a handgun violation had his 47-year-old girlfriend, an office manager at a law firm who had a clean record, buy handguns for him on four shopping trips to Realco, prosecutors said. The scheme unraveled after police recovered one of the guns in the District.
The ATF trace revealed that the woman had bought it at Realco two months before. After talking with an ATF agent, she filed reports that one of the guns was stolen, but she eventually said she gave it to her boyfriend.
The man "went to Realco Guns with her on each occasion," she told the ATF, according to a document filed in court.
The straw purchase
When Erik Dixon first shot at a man, he had in his grip a relatively new Ruger .40-caliber handgun from Realco.
Dixon, then 21, had a string of arrests, was on federal probation, had abused drugs and complained of hearing voices in his head.
Standing outside his mother's home in Landover the night of May 3, 2003, he accused a man, an acquaintance, of attacking him. Dixon ordered the man to the ground, took $200 from him and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the asphalt, and lead fragments ricocheted into the victim's face and shoulder.
As Dixon put the gun to the back of the man's head, a police car turned onto the street. Dixon fled.
When police arrested Dixon two days later, the gun fell from his waistband. Realco had sold the gun about eight months before, records show, to a man who had lived in the area.
Charged with attempted murder, Dixon claimed he was insane. The courts sent him to prison on a lesser charge of felony assault.
Once out, he met Cathy R. Anderson, 31, and soon asked that she buy a gun for him. In January 2007, the pair visited Realco, where she made a down payment on a Glock .45, signing a form saying she was buying the gun for herself. Dixon was in the store with her, she later told police.
She told investigators she didn't know of his criminal past. She said she never touched the gun after she picked it up on a return trip to Realco.
"I took it back to Erik's truck and gave it to him," she told police.
Two months later, Anderson called Maryland State Police, nervous about what she had done. That day, April 5, they opened a straw-purchase investigation to track down Dixon and the gun. Nine days later, he murdered his sister's boyfriend.
He was arrested nine days after that in Virginia. Anderson cooperated with prosecutors, who chose not to charge her. Dixon is serving a 60-year sentence.
In phone messages, Anderson declined to be interviewed, saying Dixon is no longer in her life.
"That was then; this is now," she said. ". . . I'm sorry for what happened."
Contributing to this report were staff writers James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz, videographer Ben de la Cruz, staff researcher Julie Tate and former staff researcher Meg Smith.