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Straw-gun buying at licensed shops fuels violent crime in South Florida, authorities say

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 12/6/2021 Jay Weaver, Miami Herald

On a warm Memorial Day evening, a gunman jumped out of a white sedan and shot two young men as they were walking home in North Miami. Edson Dorce, 21, was killed and his friend wounded — two victims of gun violence in what had been a flurry of shootings over the long holiday weekend.

More than 18 bullet casings were found at the scene, along with a firearm believed to have been used in the drive-by fatal shooting of Dorce, who was struck in the chest. The weapon had been purchased a month earlier on April 28, 2021, at the federally licensed Gun World of South Florida in Deerfield Beach, according to federal authorities.

The buyer of that firearm was Amador Aulet III, who claimed on an official federal form that he was purchasing the weapon for himself — a lie, authorities say. Although no one has been arrested in the North Miami murder investigation, Aulet has been charged federally with making a false statement on the form because prosecutors say he did not purchase the unidentified firearm for himself. He is suspected of selling it to someone else with a criminal past, possibly the perpetrator in the North Miami fatal shooting.

Aulet, of Coral Springs, has pleaded not guilty to a federal indictment that carries up to 10 years in prison. His defense attorney, Michael B. Cohen, declined to comment about his case.

Authorities say that Aulet is the epitome of a “straw” gun buyer, who until now had no criminal history and could pass a background check while purchasing multiple weapons and ammunition from federally licensed firearm shops in South Florida. He is suspected of selling the guns for hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece to other people with a criminal past or possibly to others who exported them to foreign countries.

Although it is difficult to quantify, authorities say straw-gun buying is commonplace in South Florida and fuels violent crime in the region.

Since July, there have been four false statement cases including Aulet’s filed in federal court. While that number may not seem high, authorities say each straw buyer typically purchases dozens of weapons from various licensed gun stores and then sells them directly or indirectly to criminals who use them in drug trafficking, armed robberies and sometimes murders.

For example, a Miami-area man, Richard Williams, was charged in October with making a false statement on an official federal form when he bought more than 40 firearms — including Taurus, Smith & Wesson and Springfield 9mm and .40-caliber pistols — from 11 federally licensed gun stores in Florida that “he was purchasing ... for another person,” according to court records. Williams has pleaded not guilty.

This fall, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives teamed up with the Justice Department and National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association, in an education campaign focusing on the problem with cautionary messages: “Don’t lie for the other guy” and “Buy a gun for someone who can’t. ... Buy yourself ten years in prison.”

“It’s a serious problem,” said Christopher Robinson, assistant special agent in charge of ATF’s office in South Florida.

U.S. and foreign criminals

Robinson said straw buyers can profit substantially from selling firearms on the black market to criminals in the United States or to gangs in the Caribbean or South America.

Since the United States does not have a national gun registry, Robinson said it is difficult for law enforcement to trace firearms to criminals — even when weapons are recovered at crime scenes. He said such investigations are challenging because the weapons purchased by straw buyers are routinely resold through intermediaries and the firearms often don’t carry prints.

“The crux of the problem is, a lot of these people who commit violent crimes don’t want [to leave] their prints on the weapon,” he said. “Sometimes you may get prints and get DNA, but more often there is nothing to tie that person to that gun. It ends up being a burdensome process to determine where the gun came from” because it’s either old or the serial number has been obliterated.

As a result, federal agents zero in on straw-gun buyers because they leave a paper trail with their personal information on the ATF form 4473 that is required as part of making their purchases and going through background checks at federally licensed firearms stores.

Robinson said authorities rely on the false statement statute by going after straw gun buyers who lie on the required ATF form that their purchases are for them. In doing so, federal agents and prosecutors can disrupt the illegal supply chain of weapons by putting the straw buyers in prison.

Sometimes, targeting a straw-gun buyer can lead to the arrest of a perpetrator who obtains a weapon from him or an intermediary and then uses it in a fatal shooting — in which case the “ounce of prevention is worth the pound of cure,” he said.

In the federal case against Aulet, ATF agents say he purchased more than 100 guns from licensed dealers in Palm Beach and Broward counties between May 2020 and July 2021, according to a criminal affidavit. Of those, one was recovered at the fatal shooting of the North Miami man on the 12700 block of Northwest 10th Avenue on Memorial Day, while two others were recovered at crime scenes by the Riviera Beach Police Department and Saint Lucie Sheriff’s Office this year.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office targeted Aulet in an undercover operation this summer, when Aulet bought a Glock 9mm pistol, other handguns and rounds of ammunition from a licensed dealer and resold them to another person who, in turn, sold them to a BSO detective for thousands of dollars.

“Based upon the unusual volume of firearms purchases by Aulet, firearms recovered in crimes, and the purchase of firearms by an undercover detective within days of Aulet’s purchase indicates a pattern of buying firearms consistent with straw purchasing,” the ATF criminal affidavit said.

Both ATF agents and police detectives did not want to discuss Aulet’s case and its connection to the open murder investigation in North Miami.

After Aulet was charged in July, ATF agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office made three similar false statement cases in South Florida.

Among them: Daniel Dantinor bought 81 handguns from five licensed dealers, including Gun Country in Fort Lauderdale, between March 2020 and January 2021, listing himself as the buyer on the official federal form, according to a criminal affidavit filed in August. The majority of his purchases were Taurus 9mm pistols; he paid for them in cash.

At least four of Dantinor’s gun purchases from the licensed dealers were recovered from other people suspected of committing crimes, the affidavit says.

Dantinor has pleaded not guilty to a false statement charge. His defense attorney, Omar Guerra Johannson, did not respond to a request for comment.

In November, Shawn Richard Gordon, of Lauderdale Lakes, was charged with buying five pistols in his name at a couple of licensed Broward County firearm stores and shipping them to Canada over the past two years, according to a criminal affidavit. Gordon’s arraignment is set for mid-December. His lawyer with the federal public defender’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Happens at legit shops

U.S. Attorney Tony Gonzalez said that when most people think of illegal firearm sales, they think of unlicensed gun show dealers or illegal sales on the street, which involve no federal forms and no criminal background checks. (A small number of Florida counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, have local ordinances requiring gun show dealers to conduct background checks before completing a sale.)

“But illegal firearms sales can also happen at a federally licensed gun shop,” Gonzalez said, stressing why such dealers must always require a buyer to fill out an ATF form because that paperwork can be the only traceable evidence tying a straw purchaser who resells a weapon to a criminal.

“It prevents a worst-case scenario of a criminal getting a foothold into a federally licensed firearms dealer,” he said. “When that happens, multiple guns can end up not only on our streets, but also on the streets of other countries in large quantities.”

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