Owners and employees of the Triple J Armory gun store clean up after the business was burglarized in a smash-and-grab involving a Jeep Cherokee that plowed through the front entrance in the early hours of May 24, 2017.
Dragon Man Mel Bernstein believed his store — stocked with thousands of guns, including 200 machine guns — was impenetrable. A pack of seven German shepherds, chain-link fences, reinforced steel doors and 36 surveillance cameras have kept thieves at bay for decades.
But Bernstein’s store was just as vulnerable as dozens of others across Colorado. On the evening of Aug. 27, copycat thieves took his truck, rammed it into the Colorado Springs store’s entrance to create a breach and stole 82 guns, including two machine guns. Based on the success of burglars committing a rash of similar crimes across Colorado in the past year, the burglars had every reason to believe they would get away.
What the burglars didn’t know was that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had formed a task force to go after smash-and-grab gun store thieves aggressively. Task force members swarmed Bernstein’s property within hours of the crime. Task force members arrested suspects and recovered most of the guns before they could be sold to Pueblo street gang members, as intended.
Solving gun store burglaries has become a top ATF priority in Colorado, said William Henderson, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Denver field division. In fact, records show the problem is growing faster in Colorado than in the rest of the country. The theft of guns is troubling because they get into the hands of criminals, who have been linked around the country to shootings, a homicide and robberies, he said.
The number of gun thefts from federally licensed gun dealers across the U.S. increased 51 percent in one year to 9,281 stolen guns in 2016. By comparison, Colorado gun thefts more than doubled from 121 stolen in 2015 to 273 taken in 2016, said Lisa Meiman, ATF spokesperson.
Federal agents have not yet tallied the number of guns stolen in 2017.
“We need the public to know how dangerous this kind of crime is to them,” Acting U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer said.
Gun store burglaries are part of a larger crime cycle built around the black market. People steal SUVs and trucks to crash into stores, causing thousands of dollars damage by destroying display cases and doorways. After they steal the guns, they sell them to criminals, who then use the guns to commit additional crimes, including robberies and murder, Troyer said.
For more than a year, it seemed like thieves had the upper hand. There were many burglaries and few arrests. But since the task force was formed, state, local and federal police and agents have arrested 17 alleged offenders, and they have an arrest warrant for another suspect.
The Colorado task force has become a national model for other states dealing with growing gun store thefts, Henderson said. But solving the crimes isn’t easy, and authorities expect the break-ins to continue. Gun store burglars are constantly adapting, Troyer said. In one case, two burglars cut a hole into a wall of a pawnshop and fished for rifles and shotguns.
“It takes a lot of grit to go after criminals who steal guns,” Henderson said. Task force agents “worked all hours of the day and night, on vacations and weekends.”
Investigators didn’t follow any formula, he said. They work long hours and use every conceivable investigative tool, including DNA, to solve the crimes. A review by The Denver Post of the cases offers a glimpse into how the task force is solving them.
Gun store burglaries
The map shows gun store burglaries in 2017 (red) and 2016 (purple), according to news reports (it is not a complete list). Note: The Triple J Armory was burglarized twice: May 24, 2017 (11 handguns stolen) and June 22, 2016 (20-30 guns stolen). Circle size represents number of guns stolen: unknown-10, 11-25, more than 25. Click a map marker for details.
Source: Denver Post research
Investigators follow the crime chain
Although smash-and-grab thieves keep some of the guns, they also sell them, Troyer said. Bernstein says his machine guns are worth up to $30,000 each, but the thieves sell them for a fraction of that on the black market.
In December and January, gang members, including 18-year-old Viet Trinh, had been accused of a rash of Denver-area gun burglaries. Trinh was one of six teens and young adults who were involved, ATF officials say, in several smash-and-grab burglaries including the following break-ins:
Nov. 10: Shooter Ready in Thornton Dec. 17: Parker Arms in Wheat Ridge Jan. 8: South Platte Tactical in Brighton.
As careful as Trinh and fellow gang members were to disguise themselves with masks and gloves, they were equally sloppy on social media. Investigators and prosecutors are solving the crimes by following a well-marked computer trail in which multiple suspects incriminated themselves.
Trinh, who allegedly mentioned online his plans to kill cops, advertised his sudden wealth of guns on Facebook. He took selfies of himself flashing a gun and a grimace.
Trinh, using the alias Kyle Zimmerman on Facebook, casually messaged associates and friends to illegally offer the guns for bargain prices.
Confidential informants help solve thefts
Task force members also have relied on confidential informants to ferret out who is selling guns on the street.
Colorado Springs detectives and ATF agents set up a sting with a confidential informant after the informant said Cole Anderson, 26, was selling stolen guns for $100 each. Federal court records show how the arrest went down.
On July 14, the informant bought four guns from Anderson, including two shotguns and a black powder rifle, for $440. When officers ran the serial numbers on the guns, they learned that each had been stolen from Top Dollar Pawn Shop in an unconventional burglary.
Four days earlier, thieves bored a basketball-size hole into the pawnshop wall in Colorado Springs. They used a metal pole to fashion a hook-shaped tool to fish eight guns off a gun rack and through the hole, according to court records.
On July 25, Anderson sold the informant a Mossberg shotgun and a sawed-off shotgun for $500 at a motel in Colorado Springs. Anderson told investigators he was selling the guns for a man named Adam to settle a debt over methamphetamine.
Task force members used Anderson’s cellular phone text messages to determine that Adam was Adam Mowery, the same person who had sold a $35,000 stolen John Deere tractor to Anderson’s mother for $4,000.
Between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, the U.S. attorney’s office charged Anderson and Mowery on gun charges including possession of stolen guns and theft of guns from a federally licensed gun shop.
Gun shop owners play an integral role
Task force members also work closely with gun store owners. They recommend ways to thwart smash-and-grab burglars, including locking guns in a safe at night, and they encourage store owners to work closely with investigators to solve the crimes. Gun store owners have followed the advice, building concrete barriers in front of their stores and stringing metal cables through gun triggers to prevent them from being stolen.
Dragon Man Bernstein played a big part in solving his own gun store smash-and-grab. He knows better than anyone what damage the guns can cause in the wrong hands.
Bernstein often boasts about the arsenal he has for sale. The weapons include 200 machine guns from the U.S., Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia and Israel that can fire up to 550 bullets a minute. Once called the “most armed man in America,” Bernstein carries live mortars; flamethrowers; belt-fed, military-grade automatic weapons; and grenade launchers. Anyone over age 21 with no criminal record can buy a machine gun from him because he has a special federal license, he said.
On Aug. 27, stepdaughter Jennifer Scoggin offered to buy Bernstein dinner. While he and Scoggin were eating ice cream at a restaurant, her son, Camron Specht, and two other men smashed into his store, Bernstein said.
He later watched video from his 36 surveillance cameras and spotted the masked suspects climbing out of Camron’s car. Task force agents did an exhaustive investigation before arresting Scoggin and Camron, Bernstein said. Prosecutors also charged Ryan Sharpe and Gian Vance with stealing guns from a federally licensed gun store.
“It was an inside job. They saw (smash-and-grabs) on the news and re-enacted it,” Bernstein said. “It’s a good thing they caught them. They wanted to supply the Pueblo street gangs with the guns.”