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Eighteen months after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in Arizona by Mexican bandits using guns purchased through a U.S. government program called Fast and Furious, we still don’t know who within the Department of Justice knew about the program, much less who authorized it.
Certainly there has been no serious talk about prosecuting any of the people responsible for assisting in the illegal sales of over 2,000 guns to Mexican arms traffickers – guns that were subsequently involved in the murders of BPA Terry and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata, as well as possibly hundreds of Mexican citizens.
But while that investigation has dragged on, with Attorney General Eric Holder denying knowledge of the program, denying knowledge of who was involved and denying congressional investigators access to tens of thousands of documents that might answer those questions, New Mexico gun dealer Rick Reese and his two sons Ryin and Remington have sat rotting in separate detention centers, jails and prisons around the state accused of a similar crime involving some 30 guns.
The Reese family, including Rick’s wife Terri, ran a gun shop in Deming, N.M., and was arrested in late August of 2011 on charges of knowingly selling guns to Mexican smugglers and various other related charges.
After spending 6 months in jail, Terri Reese was finally granted bail in March of this year, but Rick and the boys have been repeatedly denied bail on the pretext that they are flight risks or might try to engage in a Ruby Ridge-type standoff.
The rationale for denying the Reeses’ constitutional rights is that Rick knows some people in Mexico, his home has a well and solar power and there were guns and ammunition in their homes and businesses when they were arrested. That’s right: Guns and ammo in the home and business of a federally licensed firearms dealer (all of which were seized a year ago and have never been returned) is being offered as evidence that they can’t be trusted – and a judge bought it.
Well, there’s also the fact that Rick and Terri were involved with a local tea-party group. That’s probably reason enough right there.
The Reeses are scheduled to finally get their day in court in late July, almost a full year after they were arrested and incarcerated. The first of several pre-trial motion hearings was held last week in which the judge heard arguments as to whether the charge of criminal conspiracy should be dropped. The prosecution contends that the Reese family members were all in cahoots in a conspiracy to sell guns to illegal buyers, falsify purchase paperwork, smuggle guns to Mexico and launder the illegal proceeds. The defense contends that the family operated a business buying and selling firearms, ammunition and accessories, and that they made every effort to ensure that every sale they made was legal and properly documented.
During this first hearing, we learned several things about the prosecution’s case. For instance, we learned that prosecutors acknowledge that every gun the Reeses sold was properly logged into and out of their store inventory, and that FBI background checks were conducted, and approvals received, for each purchaser. They also agree that all taxes were paid and no money was exchanged “under the table,” nor did any of the family members receive compensation above their normal company paycheck.
We learned that Rick Reese also employed retired and off-duty law enforcement officers as part-time help in the shop, and that a substantial portion of the company’s business came from law enforcement officers and agencies.
We learned that prosecutors consider three family members standing close to each other and quietly talking to be evidence of conspiracy and that the lead investigator in the case has a very low opinion of fellow law enforcement officers. When asked if he considered the fact that the Reeses employed LEOs in the shop to be contraindicative of a criminal conspiracy, he replied that he did not because “a lot of them [cops and former cops] are dirty.”
Probably the most important fact we learned at this hearing was that the entire investigation was instigated based on a tip that a woman named Penny Torres was making suspicious purchases of guns and ammunition, and might be illegally buying for someone else. That tip led to Torres’ arrest and her subsequent grand jury testimony against the Reese family and another gun shop where she had made some purchases. The presumption is that her cooperation garnered her leniency in the charges and sentence she was facing for her criminal activity.
What is most significant about the arrest of Penny Torres is that the original tip identifying her as a potential “straw buyer” came from Terri Reese.
Torres had claimed that her purchases were in preparation for a large family reunion at an area ranch where her relatives wanted to do a lot of shooting. At some point after the sales, Terri Reese became suspicious of Torres’ story and contacted a friend in the Luna County Sheriff’s office, who acted as the shop’s go-to guy in law enforcement. He assured Terri that he would make a report to ATF and get back to her.
Torres testimony against the Reese family led to a months-long sting operation conducted against the Reeses by a federal agency called Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI. That investigation involved a confidential informant named Roman, who was trying to earn a reduced sentence for drug and human smuggling. His job was to make purchases of firearms and ammunition from the Reeses while dropping hints that his intent was to illegally take the guns to Mexico. The trick was to drop those hints in such a way that they wouldn’t alarm the Reeses, but that someone listening to a recording of the tape and reading a transcript would conclude that the Reeses knew, or should have known, his intentions.
Roman, by the way, speaks only broken English, and his conversations with the Reeses included a lot of Spanish, a language that no one in the Reese family speaks, but which has been transcribed for the court in English.
Who would believe that a gun dealer’s report of a suspicious purchaser would lead to a federal investigation of the dealer herself, culminating in a raid with armored vehicles, helicopters and heavily armed officers and agents from multiple jurisdictions?
Or that a few firearms and ammunition sales in a high-volume gun store, including the sales that Terri Reese had reported as suspicious, would result in confiscation of virtually everything the family had accumulated over a 25-year marriage and 17 years in business – bank accounts, gun and coin collections, store inventory, vehicles, real estate, just about everything the family had?
Or that the same Justice Department that had instructed dealers to sell over 2,000 guns to known straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels while making no attempt to track or interdict them – with a few arrests and minor charges against the straw purchasers, but no charges against the ATF and DOJ employees who masterminded the criminal operation – would effectively destroy a family for not being quite diligent enough in their efforts to screen their customers?
It is worth noting that as HSI progressed in their investigation against the Reese family, they were briefing and receiving guidance from Phoenix ATF Bureau Chief Bill Newell – the man responsible for directly overseeing Operation Fast and Furious.
For the Reese family, who have already served 10 months behind bars and have had all of their worldly possessions taken from them, the July trial is an opportunity to prove their innocence and try to reassemble what’s left of their lives.
For the prosecution, it is imperative that they prove that the Reeses were intentionally engaging in the criminal activity they have already been being punished for. Failure to get a conviction would leave egg on the face of a relatively new federal law enforcement agency trying to establish itself, and would mean that the various agencies involved wouldn’t get to divvy up the spoils already pillaged.
Once again though, we see a case where those inside the government and law enforcement are handled with kid gloves and given the benefit of every doubt, while those outside of government and law enforcement are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence – even after the government has taken away the resources they need to make their case.
If you would like to help the Reese family in their struggle, a defense fund has been set up at:
REESE DEFENSE FUND ATTENTION Patricia Arias First Savings Bank 520 South Gold Deming, NM 88030