Thomas Allen Hoffman was looking for a “cheapie.”

In the spring of 2007, he browsed a North Mankato gun dealer’s collection for a Hi-Point pistol, one of the least expensive handguns on the market.

Hoffman wanted the gun for personal protection.

He paid $150 to the Red Bear Hunting Emporium and took home a Hi-Point C-9 9mm semiautomatic pistol, serial #P1352366. But soon the gun was stolen, changed hands, then changed hands again, spiraling beyond the bounds of lawful ownership.

Young gang members in Minneapolis passed the Hi-Point among themselves and put it into action. They used the gun to shoot at people. They used it to rob. They used it to terrorize a neighborhood.

The long and shadowy circulation of handguns like the Hi-Point often confounds police and can elude gun control laws.

“If you look at a gun that’s 10 years old, that’s an eternity of how many times it can pass hands,” said Cmdr. Bruce Folkens of the Minneapolis police special crimes investigation division.

Nearly 8,000 firearms have been taken off the streets by police in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the past six years. Some were sold by corrupt dealers. Some were unwittingly sold by gun shops in “straw purchases,” or at gun shows and by private owners, who aren’t required to do background checks on buyers. Others were stolen from their rightful owners.

One of the most common of the illegal firearms seized was the Hi-Point C-9. At least 149 were seized in the Twin Cities from 2007 through last year.

Sold with an eight-round magazine, the C-9 has a suggested retail price of $179. It comes with a lifetime warranty that promises free repair for whoever sends it in, original owner or not. All black, somewhat heavy for a pistol at 1.5 pounds, the C-9 slips easily into a coat pocket.

Hoffman, a phlebotomy technician who lived in Plymouth, fired his Hi-Point a few times at the range. Then he gave it to a friend, an Army veteran named Lee McLearen, for cleaning. On June 29, 2008, McLearen tucked it away in a closet under some blankets before he had a party in his Coon Rapids apartment. He said two of the guests were “chicks from a bar” that he knew only as Binny and Lisa.

After the women left, McLearen realized his debit card was missing. So was Hoffman’s Hi-Point. McLearen reported the theft to the police, but there was no way to track the gun.

Three years later, it resurfaced.

Bored, dangerous, armed

Malo Dashaunta Gomez doesn’t remember exactly where he got the Hi-Point handgun. He thinks he stole it from someone else who shouldn’t have had it.

It was for his protection, he said, which he thought he needed growing up in north Minneapolis.

His father, a gang member, was killed at age 21. Gomez was 2 years old. His father’s murder prompted two community foundations to issue a brochure decrying street killings; it mentioned how the elder Gomez’s death had devastated his three children.

Later in life, Gomez joined the Stick Up Boys gang, but didn’t get his first gun until he was 16, later than many others caught up in gangs.

Gomez grew up wanting to be a gangbanger like his dad, even as he graduated from high school in June 2011 and prepared to go to the University of North Dakota.

That summer, at age 18, his life was in turmoil. His 17-year-old brother had just been arrested after the shooting death of an 18-year-old in an alley in north Minneapolis.

Soon Gomez would join him behind bars.

It was late at night on July 25, 2011. Gomez saw a Minneapolis squad car parked on the side of Penn Avenue N. Two officers inside were focused on some paperwork, the dome light inside the squad car illuminating them against the darkness.

Gomez, hiding in a vacant lot across the street, leveled the Hi-Point.

A bullet slammed into the side of the squad car. More bullets hit the car. Officer Deitan Dubuc ducked to his right, lying down on the squad’s bulky radio and siren box. His partner, officer Michael Moore, looked over his left shoulder and thought he saw something flying at the squad car. He dropped down to take cover.

Six shots, then nothing. Dubuc pushed open his door, got out and pulled a rifle from the trunk. Two officers with dogs joined the search, but they found no one that night.

Crime lab personnel used lasers to simulate the trajectory of the bullets, locating the shooter’s position on the south side of 3230 Penn Av. N. There the officers found nine casings and collected them as evidence. The crime lab could tell they came from a Hi-Point, but they didn’t match anything on file.

Not long after the shooting, gang investigators heard that Gomez was claiming credit for the attack.

He was brought in for questioning. Gomez confessed, and gave a puzzling explanation: “I was bored.”

He was sentenced to 26 years in prison, 13 for his assault on each officer.

“To be honest, it was just to make the police mad,” said Gomez, who’s serving his term at the state prison in Stillwater. “It wasn’t no trying to kill them.” He’s a slight, dreadlocked young man with a right arm crippled from nerve damage that occurred at birth. Gomez said he’s writing a book about his life.

Police had their man, but they didn’t have the gun. Gomez lied that he had thrown it into the Mississippi River.

A few months after the police shooting, 12 blocks to the east and three blocks south, someone else pulled out the Hi-Point.

A mother cowers for safety

Gun blasts jolted a mother of five as she lay in bed. Someone on the street below her second-story window had opened fire.

She had heard street shootouts before in her Hawthorne neighborhood of north Minneapolis, but this one, in early November 2011, was closer.

It was 5 a.m. Next to her, her 4-year-old daughter breathed softly, asleep.

She heard bullets hit the front of the house. The shooter must have been running, or perhaps the target was.

Then a bullet sailed through the bedroom and caromed off the room’s paneled wall. If she had sat up, it would have hit her in the neck.

The firing stopped.

The mother didn’t look at the outside of her house until later, after the police arrived. They found five holes in the front of the two-story stucco home. A discarded bullet lay on the sidewalk. The investigators collected shell casings for analysis.

Police never learned who was shooting that night, but soon they would have the weapon.

An arrest, and a clue

In the early evening of Dec. 1, 2011, a 17-year-old named Cinque Owens stepped out of the juvenile courthouse in downtown Minneapolis. He had just completed a session of the Juvenile Gun Offender Program, which he was ordered to take after getting caught with a gun. A dark blue Buick pulled up to the curb and Owens got in the back seat.

As the Buick pulled away, a second vehicle followed. Inside were undercover officers with the Violent Offender Task Force, a group coordinated by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

The officers had been following Owens for hours. He was a confirmed member of the Stick Up Boys street gang. He was wanted on a probation violation for an assault conviction. For now, they observed.

The officers followed the Buick until it stopped in front of a house at 4842 Aldrich Av. N. Owens got out of the Buick and went inside.

An hour later, he emerged with two other young men and walked south.

In 30 minutes they were standing near the Winner Gas Station at 45th and Lyndale. The officers parked nearby.

A young man and a woman came out of the gas station and Owens confronted them near the parking lot. He had a gun.

“You know what this is,” he said, jamming the pistol under the man’s jaw. “Don’t make this a murder.”

One of Owens’ accomplices, Robert Rydell Williams, grabbed the woman. “Give it up. Where’s the money?” he demanded, pointing his own gun at her stomach. He took cash from her pants pocket. Owens took a cellphone, an ID and a half-empty pack of Newport cigarettes from the man.

The armed robbery lasted just seconds. The officers swept in.

Owens and Williams were quickly taken into custody. A Minneapolis officer searched the area with a police dog. The animal found a black 9mm Hi-Point handgun that had been tossed into the back yard of 4527 Lyndale Av. N.

Owens and Williams got sentenced to prison on charges of aggravated first-degree robbery.

Owens said he didn’t use the Hi-Point, but he was familiar with it.

“I seen that gun a lot of times just around, not even just with Robert. … I know I’ve seen that Hi-Point pass through hands,” he said. “That gun probably went through my enemies and probably came back,” he said.

Now a critical piece of evidence, the Hi-Point was sent to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s “gun library.”

A connection

In a room whose location the sheriff keeps secret, firearm examiner Rick Boelter fired the Hi-Point into a stainless steel tank filled with 600 gallons of water. The water caught the bullet, but Boelter wanted the cartridge casing, one of the most common and crucial kinds of evidence in forensic science.

Fluorescent shop lights on the ceiling illuminated several tall racks crowded with firearms, all of them seized by law enforcement. Some of these are crime guns, some were found tossed into garbage cans or back yards, some were seized from felons or drug dealers or juveniles.

Boelter, who grew up around guns, hunting duck and deer with his family near Willmar, Minn., is one of only eight firearm examiners in the state. From his experience, he knows a casing found at a crime scene can be just as valuable as evidence as the racks of confiscated firearms that are all around him.

In a typical round used in a handgun, the casing is a brass cylinder the size of a Bic pen cap that holds the bullet, gunpowder and primer. As the gunpowder explodes and launches the bullet, it also pushes the butt end of the casing backward into a part of the handgun called the breech face. The force is so great that the casing gets engraved with a mirror image of the breech face, including its nicks and imperfections.

Boelter took the ejected casing from the Hi-Point and examined it through a microscope. At 160x power, it revealed a network of lines and pits left behind by the breech face, a pattern as unique as a human fingerprint. Boelter fed the image into NIBIN, for National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a federal database created in 1999. It takes a computer two to three hours to compare the image to the 1.6 million images stored in the national database, but when the process is over, Boelter gets a report that identifies possible matches to casings found at other crime scenes.

By day’s end, with the help of a Minneapolis police firearm investigator, Boelter connected three distinct crimes to Hi-Point C-9 serial #P1352366.

It was the gun Malo Gomez used to shoot at two police officers.

It was the gun that shattered the tranquillity of a mother of five in her home on 27th Avenue N.

It was one of the guns used in an armed robbery by the Stick Up Boys gang.

Three crimes. Eleven people terrorized. Three young men sent to prison, one for 26 years.

The Hi-Point was sent to district court storage. Its original owner, who now lives in Florida, told the police he didn’t want anything to do with it any more.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747