ATF agents across the country have been working to track down thousands of guns and firearms parts that had been seized by law enforcement and were supposed to be destroyed but were stolen first, according to sources familiar with the effort.
The agents are searching for some of their own retired service weapons as well as guns from other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and DEA.
All of the weapons had been sent to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Firearms and Ammunition Destruction Branch in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to be shredded, according to court documents and congressional letters.
A longtime guard at the ATF facility has admitted to carting off thousands of firearms, gun parts and ammunition and selling them over several years.
Christopher Yates, 52, a guard who worked as a contract employee for ATF for 16 years, was charged in federal court in West Virginia. He pleaded guilty in April to possession of a stolen gun and stealing government property.
Yates is set to be sentenced in August. He faces up to 10 years in prison on each count but is unlikely to get the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines.
The ATF has recovered more than 4,000 guns and parts that had been reported missing while Yates worked there, according to Yates’ plea agreement.
Yates admitted to stealing at least 3,000 slides, a key part of a gun allowing it to fire, from Glock semiautomatic handguns. He also admitted to stealing dozens of guns, including at least four fully automatic machine guns, which are closely regulated by the ATF.
It’s not clear from the plea agreement if all of those machine guns have been recovered.
Yates told prosecutors that when he was alone at the facility, he stole the weapons and parts and then sold them.
The agency did not provide many details to Congress on the scope of the theft in a letter to senators sent in March and obtained this week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the March 28 letter, to U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), then-Acting ATF Director Tom Brandon said he could not say much because of Yates’ open case.
Johnson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Peters, the committee’s ranking member, had written a letter in March asking for answers from the agency, saying they had been told 600 guns and parts were stolen.
“We cannot at this time characterize the scope of the thefts from the Martinsburg facility,” wrote Brandon, who retired from the agency at the end of April.
Less than two weeks after Brandon’s letter was sent, many details of the case were laid out in Yates’ plea agreement filed in federal court in West Virginia.
The agency is still not publicly saying how many guns and gun parts have been taken, only disclosing that the loss was “significant.”
On Wednesday, ATF spokeswoman April Langwell noted in an email to the Journal Sentinel that “the total number cannot be released pending the ongoing investigation & recovery operations.”
Asked why the agency did not disclose details to Congress that were in Yates’ plea agreement, Langwell wrote, “The investigation was ongoing and the timing of the release of information was a result of the regular judicial process.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, Johnson and Peters said:
“The ATF is tasked with protecting our communities and the theft of a substantial amount of weapons, parts and ammunition from ATF facilities raises significant concerns. Our committee is seeking a full accounting of this situation, and we hope the ATF will be as transparent as possible while we continue to pursue answers.”