A key to stopping the spike in violent crime in Springfield in the past two years could be stemming the flow of stolen or illegal guns, local law enforcement leaders said.
More than 600 weapons, including handguns and high-powered rifles, have been reported stolen from homes and business across Clark County in the past five years. At least 120 guns were stolen last year, according to data obtained by the Springfield News-Sun.
And just shy of 250 convicted felons — who are legally barred from owning weapons — were found with guns in Clark County in the past five years. The News-Sun investigation showed that the peaks in violent crime correspond with similar upticks in illegal gun charges.
Police in Springfield have identified a small group of people as the main culprits in much of the recent gun violence that hit a 14-year high in 2015, Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen Moody said.
>>LEARN MORE: Springfield violence at its highest peak in 14 years
Many of those people are convicted felons who police say have found illegal ways to get weapons — whether it’s buying them on a black market, using straw buyers or stealing them.
“They’re the ones who are killing people, they’re the ones who are shooting people — the guys who don’t have the legal right to possess a firearm,” Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson said.
Springfield police, the Clark County Sheriff’s and Clark County Prosecutor’s offices are working together to identify people who commit gun violence but they said tips from the community help them put suspects behind bars quicker and for longer.
“It’s vitally important that we hold these people responsible,” Moody said.
‘In the wrong hands’
More than 14,000 guns were reported stolen across the U.S. last year, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Just shy of 450 guns were reported stolen in Ohio, ATF data shows. At least 120 of those were reported in Clark County, according to Springfield police and Clark County deputies.
Several gun shops have been broken into in Southwest Ohio recently and Clark County law enforcement have found some of those weapons during arrests here.
A Springfield man allegedly linked to one of the largest heroin busts in Springfield police history was caught with a gun stolen from a Vandalia gun store that was robbed in November, Moody said.
Stolen guns are networked across the region, state and country, Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said. Two guns stolen from a Springfield Twp. home in 2011 were recently recovered in crimes committed in Baltimore, Md., the sheriff said.
“It shows you how stolen guns end up in the wrong hands,” Kelly said.
A majority of stolen weapons remain on the streets, not yet traced by police, Moody said.
At least 249 people in Clark County were indicted on a charge of weapons under disability in the past five years, according to the Clark County Common Pleas Court clerk’s office.
>>DEEPER LOOK: Court cases reveal more behind Springfield gun violence
People convicted of certain felonies, such as a felonious assault, domestic violence or drug violations, are prohibited from owning guns, according to Ohio law.
So some ex-felons buy stolen guns on the black market or get them through “straw purchases” — when someone who legally can buy a gun is paid to purchase one for someone who can’t, Moody said.
“A handgun or long rifle is just like currency,” the police chief said.
Often times the illegal guns are linked to drugs, Moody said. Dealers have cash to buy stolen guns, he said, which they use themselves, sell to others or trade for drugs.
Two Miami Valley men who pleaded guilty to stealing guns from a Vandalia gun shop in August told a judge they planned to sell the weapons to drug dealers for cash, according to court records.
“(Thieves) know that there’s an illegal market that they can dispose of a firearm and they’re going to get the biggest bang for their buck with a gun,” Moody said.
Stolen guns often sell for three to five times their original value, Kelly said after the Fox Shooting Loft in Mad River Twp. was targeted by robbers in January.
None of the 33 guns stolen in that break-in have been recovered and no arrests have been made.
‘Not hard to get a gun’
Timothy Jones Jr. of Springfield shot and killed 28-year-old Dovon Williams and 27-year-old Arbrie Smith in 2011. Jones is now spending two life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for the shooting deaths.
Mary Dill is the mother of Williams. She started the group Parents of Victims of Crime to help other Springfield families coping with the loss a loved one to violence.
Jones was a convicted felon who wasn’t supposed to have a gun.
“It’s not hard for them to get a gun,” Dill said.
Violent crime in Springfield was at it’s highest levels in more than a decade in 2015, with more than 12 people killed by gunfire and 50 people injured.
Data on the number of people arrested for possessing guns illegally corresponds with violence in the city.
Violent crimes spiked in 2012 and again 2015, Wilson said. Those are the same years the county saw the highest numbers of weapons under disability charges. There were 55 people charged for illegally possessing a gun in 2012 and 53 people in 2015, according to court data.
Those statistics show law enforcement is holding gun offenders responsible for their crimes, Wilson said.
But more people remain on the streets with guns who shouldn’t have them, Moody said.
“Some people we’ve charged are on the run,” Moody said.
Dennis Kennedy Jr., 21, of Springfield pleaded guilty to a charge of improperly handling firearms in a motor vehicle. But he skipped his sentencing in May and has been on the run for more than a month. Police have issued a warrant for his arrest.
Prosecutors called Kennedy “one of the biggest players” in local gun violence. In 2015 he was charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of George Walker Jr., but the case was dismissed after a key witness was fatally shot in a separate incident.
Police arrested 16 people in connection with the crimes, including Kennedy. Out of that group, seven of them were felons charged with having illegal guns.
That night police found Krista Jones, of Springfield, with a stolen assault rifle, Moody said. Jones’ case is set to go to trial later this month.
A gun was stolen out of a home on South Limestone Street on Feb. 25, 2015. It was found less than a month later in the hand of Terrence Victoria when he was shot by sheriff’s deputies at the Horseshoe Sports Bar in Springfield Twp.
Victoria was accused of threatening bar patrons with the weapon before deputies arrived and he allegedly pointed it at a deputy.
Getting stolen weapons off the streets and out of the grasp of criminals will cut back on violence, Wilson said.
“The violence ebbs and flows as we put certain people in prison,” he said.
Police are actively keeping their eyes on other offenders they know are still on the streets.
“We made a dent in the problem,” Moody said, but there is still work to be done to stop it.
‘Need to put them away for longer’
Prosecutors are approaching gun violence with certain techniques to temporarily get shooters off the streets. But Wilson said the key to a bigger solution that results in a lasting peace is getting cooperation from the community.
A charge of having weapons under disability holds a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
That makes catching criminals with guns on them just a Band-aid, Wilson said, but if witnesses in shootings came forward they could put the culprits in prison for decades or life on felonious assault or murder charges.
“They let them right back out,” Dill said about many of the violent criminals she sees walking the streets in Springfield right now. “We need to put them away for longer.”
But until the community gets angry and helps build solid cases, Moody said investigators have to work with what they have. That often means citing suspects on lesser charges with shorter sentences.
“We have to have our cases right when we take our case to prosecutors — we don’t have the luxury of being half right,” Moody said.
Some evidence such as bullet casings or DNA can support weapons charges, Wilson said, but eye witnesses build a stronger case.
Witnesses were threatened when they came forward to help put her son’s killer behind bars, Dill said.
Tips about crimes can be anonymous, Moody said, with apps, social media and other ways residents can quietly give information to detectives.
“This is about people living safely in their community,” the police chief said.
Tips don’t only have to be after a violent crime. Any information about felons with weapons can help make arrests before tragedy happens, Wilson said.
“A lot of laws are written be to reactive, but we try to be as proactive as we can,” he said.
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