The case of the .50 caliber rifle

ATF and prosecutor decide on no charges for county officials who purchased military gun.
Photo courtesy of Gary's U.S. Infantry Weapons Reference Guide. (see link in story)

No charges will be filed against former and current Faulkner County officials who, in 2008, used money meant for law enforcement purchases to buy a Barrett M107, .50 caliber rifle that Sheriff’s Office officials say cannot be used by deputies because it is meant for military targets.

“It shoots through buildings,” Sheriff Karl Byrd said. “There is absolutely no legitimate law enforcement use of this rifle.”

The county used the asset forfeiture fund — a state fund built from property seized over drugs — to buy the rifle and equipment for $11,874.60. Then Prosecutor Marcus Vaden used then County Civil Attorney Stephan Hawks to make the purchase.

Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland beat Vaden during that election in 2010, and Hawks resigned this year.

At the time of the purchase, Hawks wrote “yes” on a form, indicating he was the “actual buyer” of the weapon and not buying on “behalf of another person,” according to a Firearms Transaction Report form 4473 filled out by Hawks. He and County Administrator Jeff Johnston went to the store together to buy the rifle, a scope, cleaning kit and a case of 80 rounds of ammunition, Johnston told agents during their investigation.

“Normally, a law enforcement agency such as the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office would purchase a firearm on departmental letterhead,” a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wrote a report in March 2011. “It would not be purchased by an individual.”

The rifle was then given to a non-law enforcement county official — County Administrator Jeff Johnston — who admitted to shooting the weapon while drunk, according to an ATF Report of Investigation that the Log Cabin Democrat obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

Last month, Johnston pleaded innocent to charges that he used about $3,859 in county money to apply asphalt to the driveway at his home in 2008. Johnston was interviewed for the rifle case, which looked into possible violations by Hawks.

According to the reports, the semi-automatic rifle eventually made its way from Johnston to Vaden and into the county’s drug task force evidence locker. At least one employee was told by Vaden to “hide the gun until after the election (between Cody Hiland and Vaden.)”

Faulkner County Prosecutor Cody Hiland said the rifle, which is owned by the prosecutor’s office but is being held at the Sheriff’s Office, is “obviously” a “waste.”

When he didn’t know where the gun came from, Hiland asked the ATF to trace the gun in February 2011. The trace showed Hawks bought the gun Oct. 30, 2008 from Don’s Weaponry.

County Judge Preston Scroggin did not return a message left on his cell phone Wednesday afternoon. A receptionist said the county judge is out of the office this week. Johnston did not return a message left at his office or an email also sent Wednesday afternoon.

Hiland said his office decided to close the case.

“We reviewed the file, and we’re not comfortable going forward with criminal charges at the state level,” Hiland said.

The US. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas did not return a message Wednesday asking why no charges were filed. Hiland said the case was handed back to his office for possible prosecution.

The federal government is investigating or has handed back four cases involving county officials. That includes an investigation into the county’s 2008 purchase of five guns, including four AR-15 rifles for the County Road Department.

The sole road policeman, Michael Jason Bell, who was responsible for writing tickets on violations by gas-well trucks, was fired this month after a The Log Cabin wrote about a police report where a woman said Bell struck her and held a gun to her throat. The woman later dropped her charges. No charges were brought against Bell, but he lost his law enforcement commission and then his job.

In documents about the rifle case released Wednesday, Johnston said Bell sold “department ammunition when [Bell] was employed by the Sheriff’s Office. Johnston bought an entire case from him which belonged to the Sheriff’s Office,” according to an investigation report.

Hiland said a county employee cannot legally sell county property without proper authorization, but the statute of limitations has expired for charging Bell with anything, and the case would need more proof, he said.

During the ATF investigation, Johnston gave investigators a typed letter with the name “Jason Bell” on it and said “Bell had given him the letter to give to the police.” The letter is part of another ongoing federal investigation and not available under the Freedom of Information Act, Hiland said.

In the report on the rifle, an investigator wrote that the letter “describes the acquisition, location and alleged theft of weapons belonging to the Faulkner County Road Department.”

In 2009, Bell reported a Glock was stolen from his apartment, according to the report.

The investigation report on the purchase of the .50 caliber rifle is marked out in several spots because of an ongoing investigation, Hiland said.

A Sheriff’s Office employee said the Quorum Court has the power to address issues surrounding the rifle case, but Justice Barbara Mathes said justices don’t plan to look into anything involving county employees, the selling of county equipment without authorization or the use of the asset forfeiture fund.

Hiland said the purchase is a loss to the county and that the money “could have been used to support legitimate law enforcement efforts.” He said he is looking at options for what to do with the weapon to recoup losses.

 

Report of Investigation

More