A Smith & Wesson handgun used over the weekend in an 88-round shootout between a man and five Baltimore police officers was last legally owned by a man who told detectives that the weapon had been stolen a month ago from his truck in a city housing project.
But police say they don't believe his story. They are investigating whether the Anne Arundel County man sold the gun and three other weapons he owned on the black market. He didn't report the apparent theft until police confronted him after the gunbattle in North Baltimore that left two officers wounded, police said.
"Now he's saying the gun is stolen, but only because we knocked on his door," police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said in an interview. "Suffice it to say, I'm dubious."
"We have this one [of his guns] because of an 88-round gun exchange by a man who was wearing body armor," Bealefeld added. "Where are the other three? Where are these other three guns? What kind of horrible deed are they going to be used in?"
Police say the story is a textbook example of the cover story frequently used by illegal gun traffickers whose weapons fuel violence on the streets of Baltimore.
"You don't get to wait a year later until [a gun] is used to kill or maim someone on our streets," Bealefeld said. "Give us a chance to find the gun. Give us a chance to close this loophole that people who traffic in guns legally hide behind."
City leaders - including Bealefeld, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Mayor Sheila Dixon - are pushing legislators in Annapolis to make it a crime not to report the theft of a firearm within 72 hours of its owner noticing its disappearance.
But the bill was killed in the House Judiciary Committee during this session. Some delegates had concerns that such a law would be used by police to hassle law-abiding gun owners.
"As soon as we start telling you that something happened or something was stolen, then the police are out there making uncomfortable suggestions for people whose guns have been stolen," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican.
During a tense hearing on the bill this month, Smigiel said he pressed police and prosecutors to show statistics on how often cases were built and investigated on gun thefts.
Such detailed statistics on what is stolen are not kept in the city, a police spokesman said.
In January last year, a gun used to kill a city police officer had been reported stolen, and city police said they had a lead on a suspect, but they acknowledged later that they never followed up the investigation.
"I think we've learned some lessons from that," Bealefeld said yesterday. "I can't say, 'Give us a chance,' and we sit on our tail when we get information."
The commissioner noted that the department's gun task force is new. Now, he said, detectives from that unit follow up on every report of stolen guns in the city.
At the moment, he said, those detectives are pulling pole-camera footage from where the man said his guns had been stolen and are working to recover the Anne Arundel County man's other three weapons.
"Our job is to find out how that gun got on the street," said Sgt. Rick Willard, with the city's gun task force. "We're starting over a month late now, which makes it harder."
He said he's more interested in finding the weapons than prosecuting the gun owner.
Police know that the man's Smith & Wesson surfaced about 2:30 a.m. Sunday when an officer heard shots fired near the first block of E. Lafayette Ave. and followed a white Audi that was speeding away. The chase lasted for about a mile until the car crashed into an alley in the Harwood neighborhood. Police said the driver, identified as Curtis Blache, 28, got out and hid behind a wall.
Police said two guns were fired at officers - the Smith & Wesson and a .357 revolver.
At one point, the man signaled to police that he was surrendering - but police said he used the lull in gunfire to reload the Smith & Wesson.
During the gunbattle, one officer was struck in the foot and the left leg of another officer was grazed, police said.
The shooter was wearing body armor with steel inserts but was struck in the torso several times.
Blache died Monday night at Johns Hopkins Hospital, three hours after his family requested that he be taken off life support, police said.
Police said the revolver was last legally sold at a naval base in Alaska about a decade ago.