A Hennepin County corrections officer, now fired, and a Minneapolis schools cook have been indicted on federal charges that they conspired to buy guns on behalf of gang members involved in robberies and drug deals.
Three alleged gang members also were indicted Wednesday, including a man charged in the shooting that wounded an 8-year-old Minneapolis girl.
At least seven weapons, large amounts of ammunition and firearms magazines were purchased over several months, with orders often placed in coded conversations over jail telephone lines, according to an investigation by a task force led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The weapons turned up in local crimes, and agents said they are not discounting the possibility that more guns will be traced back to the straw purchasers or another cell of buyers associated with the group.
Federal authorities said Wednesday this is the first large-scale conspiracy case involving the straw purchase of firearms to be prosecuted in Minnesota. They described it as unique because of the specific and repeated purchase requests that gang members passed along to the school employee and the corrections officer, who is now a fugitive.
“This was a partnership between straw purchasers who showed a pattern of buying particular weapons and ammunition that was very quickly turning up in criminal acts,” said Scott Sweetow, the ATF special agent in charge of the bureau’s St. Paul region.
People who buy firearms on behalf of those with criminal histories — who are prohibited from making the purchases themselves — are considered to be straw purchasers, a federal crime.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said his office is committed to getting illegal weapons “off the streets and out of the hands of violent criminals. Straw buyer prosecutions are one way to accomplish this.”
Agents move in at four homes
Early Wednesday, about 50 ATF agents and task force officers searched four homes across the Twin Cities, arresting two of the three gang members, recovering two additional guns, firearms magazines and suspected crack cocaine. An ATF special response team, one of five such units across the country, was called in to execute a warrant at a home in Brooklyn Park because a gang member living there was considered extremely dangerous, Sweetow said.
Sweetow said the involvement of the corrections officer in the ring was particularly troubling. “We’re interested in the recovery of firearms found in crimes,” he said, “but we’re particularly concerned when the person involved holds a special position of public trust and abuses that trust.”
The corrections officer was identified as Jacquelyn Burnes, 29, of Maple Grove. ATF agents served an arrest warrant at her parents’ home in Osseo on Wednesday morning but didn’t find her there. She was fired in late March after authorities were alerted to her involvement with the gang members.
Burnes allegedly purchased three firearms in January and February for her boyfriend, Diontre Hill, whom she met while working last summer as a guard at the county workhouse in Plymouth, according to authorities. Burnes and Hill developed a romantic relationship while he was in jail and it continued after his release.
Hill, who also was indicted, was convicted in a 2011 aggravated robbery where he used a firearm, according to court records. He was arrested last February during a Minneapolis traffic stop, when a Glock 9mm pistol and a 33-round magazine — purchased by Burnes — were found in the car. Hill, 21, of St. Louis Park, who was in the Hennepin County jail Wednesday on charges related to the 8-year-old’s shooting, is a member of the “BTG” gang, which is linked to the TreTre Crips, according to authorities.
Angela Carter, 32, the indicted school employee, is a cook at South High School in Minneapolis. Last winter, she bought two firearms and violated federal law by giving false information to the gun store, records show. At one point, Carter was living with a convicted drug felon, records show. Several days ago, her daughter was struck by a bullet in a north Minneapolis alley shooting. Hill has been charged with first-degree assault in that case. The girl was hospitalized Wednesday at Hennepin County Medical Center, and doctors said she could lose her eye.
Keniko Bland, 20, a close friend of Carter’s who was also indicted, was already charged with using a gun while threatening to kill his previous girlfriend, according to ATF agents. He is a member of the TreTre Crips and was with Hill in the car when police stopped them and found three guns last February, according to court documents.
Raheem Watkins, 21, the third gang member to be indicted, was convicted in 2011 of using a gun during an aggravated robbery. Last month, he was arrested by Brooklyn Park police, and a stolen firearm was confiscated, records show.
Carter, Bland and Watkins made their first appearances Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. A magistrate judge ordered that Bland and Watkins be held because they are considered flight risks and dangers to the community.
A focus on ‘time to crime’
Federal agents pay close attention to how quickly a gun is used in a crime or recovered by police after its purchase — a span known as “time to crime.” They are especially alert to any firearm bought within a year of being used in a crime.
In the case of one of the guns bought by Burnes, the “time to crime” period was just eight days, authorities said.
In another example, recorded jail calls show that in mid-February, Hill directed Burnes to meet with Watkins to take an order for more guns. She told Hill that she did as she was asked, and about three days later, a shooting occurred between rival gang members at Sinners Lounge in downtown Minneapolis. During a struggle with a doorman, one of the men caught on video is shown dropping a gun that police traced to Burnes.