LAYTONVILLE — If the nation wants to scrub illicit guns from the streets, it will have to attack the easy way they flow to people like Aaron Campbell, a teenager who shot himself in the heart at his mother’s grave.
The 9mm Hi-Point semiautomatic he used originally sold over the counter in Colorado, 1,000 miles from Campbell’s home. But the buyer, investigators say, was acting as a front for an ex-convict nephew from Solano County, who was barred by law from having a gun.
The nephew’s girlfriend allegedly took possession of the pistol in Colorado and mailed it to him in California. From there it moved north on the black market, perhaps to Mendocino County pot growers, and ended up on the tiny Cahto Indian reservation in Laytonville, where Campbell traded a puppy for it.
Months later, devastated by his mother’s fatal heart attack, Campbell killed himself. He was 19 — two years from legal handgun-buying age.
”He shouldn’t have had it,” said Special Agent Jolene Blair of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who investigated the gun purchase. “But he ends up with it and ends up killing himself. Just because people are trying to make money selling guns.”
A young man’s suicide may not be at the forefront of the gun debate ignited by the Connecticut school massacre. But Campbell’s death, on Oct. 11, 2009, illustrates a central problem confronting those trying to stem the bloodshed: the loose way that firearms pass from person to person.
California, even with the country’s strictest gun regulations, remains a prime end point for weapons from states with weaker laws.
Authorities say Campbell’s gun was among a batch of 37 that a Colorado Springs couple bought in 2008 in what is known as a straw-purchasing scheme. Typically, a felon who can’t pass a background check persuades someone with a clean record, such as a girlfriend or relative, to pose as the buyer.
The Colorado couple didn’t keep any of the weapons for themselves, investigators believe. Instead, they passed them along to their gun-trafficking nephew — who sometimes carried them right out of the store.
Investigators caught on to the ploy and arrested the couple, the nephew and his girlfriend, but only after the guns showed up at crime scenes around the San Francisco Bay Area.
So far, 16 have surfaced. One was used in an attack that crippled a pot dealer in Fairfield. One was seized from a gang leader in Oakland. A third was taken from a 17-year-old boy in San Francisco.
Last month, Campbell’s father learned of the guns’ history from a Chronicle reporter.
He spoke in his living room. Against one wall was the couch where his wife, Deana, died of a heart attack July 29, 2009, at age 39. On another was a bookshelf shrine of photos and trophies that belonged to his son, who took his life 74 days later.
”We’re a hunting family. He was raised around guns and he knew pretty much the ins and outs,” said Trent Campbell, a maintenance man on the reservation. “The old saying is, ‘Guns don’t kill, it’s the people behind them.’ But when they’re just being handed out like that, to people who are mentally unstable or depressed, it bothers me.”
Guns are diverted to the streets in four main ways.
They are trafficked by corrupt dealers. They are snatched in burglaries. They are transferred in off-the-books private sales, which are legal in most states under what critics call the gun-show loophole. And they are sold through straw buyers, either in stores or in private deals.
”Every community has its own unique ways of getting guns. And that’s going to be heavily influenced by whatever laws are in that jurisdiction,” said Graham Barlowe, the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ office in Sacramento. “Basically, it’s the path of least resistance.”
Bay Area police agencies do not compile data on the sources of guns used in crimes. But federal figures from 2011 show 28 percent of guns that were recovered by California law enforcement, and traced for any reason, came from out of state.
An analysis of federal firearms bureau trafficking probes, published last year in the Journal of Urban Health, found that nearly a third of the guns in those cases were purchased by straw buyers.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said straw purchases in other states are among the leading sources of guns used in crimes in the city.
”Until we have a federal policy, we’re going to have the issues we have today with weapons coming across state lines,” he said.
Straw-purchasing happens in California, too. However, the state is one of just three in the nation that bar consumers from buying more than one handgun every 30 days. Buyers also face a 10-day waiting period to take possession, and all handguns they purchase are logged in a database.
In Colorado, as in most other states, there is no buying limit and no database, and a background check takes minutes. When authorities suspect a straw purchaser, they can’t punch up the person’s buying history, but must travel from store to store, fishing through sales records.
Investigators say the architect of the Colorado trafficking case, 36-year-old Travis Price, wasn’t interested in acquiring one gun at a time. Not when he could sell $150 pistols for more than $400 on the street.
An affidavit by Agent Blair says Price got his aunt and uncle, Sanae Quiroz-Jones and Jerry Jones of Colorado Springs, to buy 37 guns over six months from the Pawn Shop and the Hollowpoint Gun Shop. The stores sit a block from each other in Walsenburg, Colo., 90 miles south of the couple’s home.
Price and his then-girlfriend, Wendy Gardiner — both of whom had felony records that barred them from buying guns – shipped most of the weapons to Fairfield via FedEx and UPS, federal agents said. Price drove a few home as well.
For 25 years, Joseph Kancilia has owned the Pawn Shop in Walsenburg, which on Sept. 12, 2008, sold thegun that ended up in Laytonville along with eight other firearms. He said he remembered Price and his family because “they bought so many guns. … They said they were gun collectors.”
Price would look at the merchandise, Kancilia said, before telling his aunt, “This would be a good gun for you,” with Quiroz-Jones replying, “I like that gun, too,” and paying in cash.
Studies suggest straw purchasers return to stores where they succeed, while avoiding stores that are more vigilant. But there was nothing openly criminal about the 2008 transactions in his business, Kancilia said.
”I don’t know how you could stop it,” he said. “A guy could come in here to buy a gun, be rejected, walk out the door, then have his buddy come in. You don’t know it’s for the same guy.”
If there were red flags, police didn’t see them waving until Jan. 11, 2009.
That’s when a Norteno gang member from Fairfield, Russell Buchanan, tried a street robbery, said Fairfield police Officer Will Shaffer. A woman intervened and was shot through both of her calves.
In a search of Buchanan’s home, Shaffer said, a detective found the gun used in the shooting as well as a second gun concealed in a shoe — a 9mm Hi-Point. Buchanan told police he had paid $400 for the Hi-Point.
Many guns recovered by police in the Bay Area are not traced. But in this case, Shaffer submitted an online trace request to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and learned that Quiroz-Jones had bought the Hi-Point as part of a 10-gun transaction.
Shaffer contacted Blair, and they started a joint investigation. Their suspicion deepened when a federal agent drove by Quiroz-Jones’ home and noted a Chevrolet pickup parked in front. It was registered to a wanted felon with Solano County ties — Travis Price.
In late 2009, Price, his girlfriend and his aunt and uncle were arrested on a host of charges related to illegal gun dealing.
Price, agreeing to a plea bargain, was sentenced to 63 months in prison and is now at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, where he did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.
Jerry Jones, 51, who cooperated with federal investigators, got four years of probation. His attorney argued he had at first refused to buy the guns, only to relent after Price bragged about nearly killing a man.
His wife, who is 56 and has severe health problems, has not resolved her case. Nor has the 36-year-old Gardiner, whose attorney said she was intimidated by Price and was “pretty much under his control.”
”I can’t say they’re typical straws, but they’re not unusual,” said Todd Leras, the federal prosecutor on the case. He said the husband and wife — though vital to the scheme — had been manipulated, made no profit and hadn’t doled out the guns.
Barlowe, the firearms bureau leader in Sacramento, said such cases are rare and difficult to prove. Authorities must not only show a gun changed hands after its sale but that the buyer intended, at the time of the purchase, to obtain it for someone else.
”We have very, very limited resources,” Barlowe said. “We can’t follow up on every gun that’s recovered. We can’t follow up on 1 percent of the guns that are recovered.”
The spread of the pistols from Colorado Springs was both casual and chaotic.
One was seized from a convicted felon in Vallejo just 23 days after its purchase. Another was taken from alleged Oakland gang leader Martin Manzo, who at the time was on parole for shooting at a pair of undercover officers in 2001.
The most serious crime committed with one of the handguns occurred Nov. 10, 2008, in Fairfield, Officer Shaffer said. A 34-year-old marijuana dealer was ambushed and shot multiple times, leaving him partially paralyzed and with his right leg amputated below the knee.
The next month, police recovered the gun when a 19-year-old man ditched it while running from police. But he was never charged with shooting the pot dealer, who refused to cooperate with investigators.
The precise path of the pistol that ended up with Campbell is unknown. Jerry Jones told a federal agent that Price planned to sell guns to friends who grew pot in “Wiggets” — a possible reference to Willits, 25 miles south of Laytonville.
Trent Campbell said his son got the gun a few months before his mother’s death by trading a pit-bull puppy to a friend who worked at the reservation’s Red Fox Casino, a nondescript building holding 86 video slot machines.
Reached by The Chronicle, the 31-year-old man — who was never investigated, lives out of state now and spoke on condition that he not be identified — said he had bought the gun from another person in Laytonville. Like other black-market guns, he said, it was cheap and easy to obtain.
But after Campbell’s death, he said, “I wished I had never done it. I still feel like it’s my fault.”
Trent Campbell doesn’t blame the man. He, too, knew his son had the gun, and he wonders if he should have done something. “I didn’t think anything of it. Maybe I should have,” he said. “I was still trying to get my own feelings together.”
On a recent day, he recalled the worst time of his life. In less than three months he lost his childhood sweetheart, who ran a reservation youth program, and his son, a star athlete who left behind an ex-girlfriend who was eight months pregnant with his son.
Aaron and his mother were “best friends,” Trent said, and after the heart attack, “he was pretty depressed. We both were, and my daughter as well.”
”We really didn’t have much to say. We were in shock,” he said. “We’d have some good mornings, but other times he’d go in his room, and I’d stare at the TV, not really watching it. It was like that for a while.”
On the day of the suicide, Trent got a text from his son, saying he was at the small cemetery, where his mother’s grave lay under mossy oak and pine trees. He said he planned to go away for a while. “I love you,” the message said.
Trent didn’t understand and tried to call, but he got no answer. Two relatives headed for the cemetery, and as they arrived, in the early evening, they heard a single shot.