Many years ago, I worked a breaking news story about a Baltimore businessman who had been shot to death outside his office on the way to the company's annual Christmas party. I got one of the victim's business associates on the phone and asked him a bunch of questions, including: "Did you do it?"
Now, I know that sounds crass, but what did I have to lose by asking? All the guy did was hang up on me. (He was later convicted of hiring a hit man to kill the president of the company.)
I had the same attitude Wednesday when I wrote an email to the attorney for 25-year-old Darrick Jerome Greer, a convicted felon, asking if Greer would like to explain where he got the gun he wasn't supposed to have. What did I have to lose? It's a question that I've been asking a lot this year.
Every time a felon, like Greer, gets caught with a gun — either for simple possession or for using it to carry out another crime — I ask: Where'd it come from? Who was the enabler? Who sold or gave the felon his weapon? Do the police even pursue that question?
(I must add: My efforts to get those questions answered by the Baltimore Police Department have been — how should I put this? — futile. Yeah, futile. Good word.)
In the Greer case, a state trooper found him with a Hi-Point semiautomatic handgun, loaded with four .380-caliber cartridges, during a traffic stop last September. Police discovered that the gun was stolen and that Greer was a felon awaiting sentencing on federal bank fraud charges.
(Quick detour: According to prosecutors, Greer and several unindicted co-conspirators engaged in an elaborate scheme of phony check-writing to fleece two banks of a total of $183,846 between November 2012 and January 2014. The U.S. attorney's office says Greer's partners in the scheme were often young people with money problems. They gave him their personal identification numbers and bank cards. Greer would deposit checks from third-party accounts into those accounts, then later withdraw cash from them. Greer used the accounts of more than 50 people to get $97,816 from M&T Bank and $86,029 from Bank of America.)
He pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with this scheme and was awaiting sentencing when the state trooper stopped him.
Since then, much has happened in young Greer's life: A judge sentenced him to 42 months in prison for bank fraud and identity theft and ordered him to pay full restitution to the banks. Then, last week, Greer pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He faces up to 10 years in prison when he goes in June before the same judge who gave him the 42 months and that very large overdraft fee.
Being curious, I wondered about the gun: Would Greer like to share how he came by it?
I did not get a response from his attorney. Of course, I didn't really expect one.
Which gets me to the point I've been chasing: That it's difficult — and maybe impossible — for law enforcement to identify, charge and prosecute most gun-providing enablers of "bad guys with guns."
I went over this with Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
First of all, if a felon caught with a gun was the one who stole the gun — rare circumstance, Rosenstein says — he's unlikely to admit it.
If he bought it, he'd have to decide to cooperate with the feds or cops and give a name and an address, and that's assuming he even knows the true identity of the guy who sold him the gun.
"Even when defendants cooperate, usually they either truthfully tell us they bought it from some unknown dude on the street, or they lie and say they bought it from some unknown dude on the street," says Rosenstein.
"When a cooperating defendant gives us a name of the alleged seller, we have a lead but no useful evidence. You cannot prosecute anyone with just the testimony of an armed criminal who has multiple convictions, and usually a string of other crimes for which he was not convicted, and who is hoping for a lighter sentence in return for his testimony."
While it's possible to trace guns purchased recently from licensed firearms dealers, tracing guns from the underground market is much harder. "Most crime guns were probably last purchased on the street and no report was made," says Rosenstein. "There is no way to know how many times they changed hands."
But agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still investigate such cases, Rosenstein says.
"Sometimes we are able to send the cooperating defendant in as an informant and make an undercover purchase of illegal weapons or catch the seller with illegal guns," he says. "Successful cases are rare, but not because of any lack of interest or effort by ATF."
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.