An engineer and a crack dealer teamed up to sell unlicensed guns across US

(CNN) — They were an unlikely duo: An aerospace engineer with a government security clearance and a house in the suburbs, and a gun-toting crack dealer whose purported motto was “always be ready to shoot.”

But together, according to court documents, Leonard J. Laraway and Bobby Perkins, Jr. created a pipeline of illegal guns running from suburban Virginia to cities across the mid-Atlantic region.

Scores of guns linked to the men have been recovered by police in recent years, most of them from Washington, D.C., according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia. Guns sold by Perkins have been “tied to three different homicides,” including the slaying of his own cousin, federal prosecutors allege.

Other weapons were recovered from an alleged cocaine dealer, along with a bulletproof vest; from a carjacking suspect accused of committing two armed robberies in a single night; and from the glove compartment of a car — just beyond the reach of a man who lunged for it while fighting with police, according to a CNN review of court records, police reports, and interviews.

One gun, a Taurus 9 mm, ended up in the hands of 22-year-old Marcus Bryant. Bryant was convicted of using the gun to rob a Metro PCS store in northwest DC in November 2015. He can be seen wielding the weapon in a surveillance video taken from inside the store.

Unseen is the lingering trauma more than three years later for store manager Veronica Bermudez, who was two months pregnant on the day of the robbery and remains so fearful that she’s unwilling to work outside her home.

“To this day, this is a nightmare for me,” Bermudez told CNN. “I feel totally unsafe. I’ll live with that for the rest of my life.”

The prosecutions of Laraway and Perkins offer a glimpse into the world of unlicensed gun dealing, a common source of weapons used by criminals, officials say, but one that is frustratingly difficult to police. Unlicensed dealers sell weapons without conducting background checks on prospective buyers, making them a go-to source for people unable to pass those checks. The no-questions-asked nature of such sales can make the future path of the weapon difficult to predict.

Like many unlicensed dealers, Laraway seemed an unlikely suspect when he came under scrutiny by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as ATF.

He earned a six-figure salary as an engineer with the Defense Contract Management Agency and was pursuing a second master’s degree at the prestigious U.S. Naval War College.

He also ran a thriving side business as a black-market gun dealer, according to authorities.

Laraway bought guns at licensed stores, snapped pictures of them, then posted them on gun sales websites with a brief description — and an inflated price.

He told authorities he would get phone calls from prospective buyers, then meet them in person to conduct a private sale in cash — without official paperwork.

He sold dozens of guns this way before finding his most reliable customer: Perkins, a young former Marine who would later admit in court to running a drug dealing conspiracy out of an apartment complex across the street from an elementary school.

Perkins sold marijuana, crack, powder cocaine, and heroin. He was known to customers and associates as “The Plug,” slang for a major drug source. Perkins was always armed, often with more than one gun at a time, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum in which they also cited his reputed slogan about always being ready to shoot.

Laraway and Perkins first met after Perkins responded to an online ad Laraway posted for a Glock pistol.

It was the beginning of a business relationship in which he would sell Perkins an estimated 200 guns over a span of a few months in 2015, according to court records.

They met in person roughly two dozen times and Laraway eventually began “fronting” Perkins guns in anticipation of future payment. To facilitate this arrangement, Laraway provided Perkins with his checking account number. In the span of a few weeks in July and August of 2015, Perkins made eight deposits into Laraway’s account totaling $37,000.

Laraway would later tell federal agents Perkins was only interested in buying handguns and that he always paid cash. He also said he knew Perkins was reselling the weapons.

As of last March, ATF agents had traced about 130 guns recovered by police for which Laraway was found to be the original purchaser, according to an affidavit by special agent Ashleigh C. Hall. According to the affidavit, Laraway said he sold approximately 106 of those guns to Perkins before they were recovered by law enforcement.

In the summer of 2015, federal authorities observed that Laraway had purchased more than 300 guns in less than two years and opened an investigation. Laraway was indicted in February 2016 for selling more than 400 firearms without a license. He pleaded guilty two months later and began cooperating against Perkins in exchange for what he hoped would be a lighter sentence than he might otherwise get.

Laraway’s wife, Yali Yin, wrote to the judge at the time seeking leniency for her husband’s “one-time mistake.”

Laraway’s defense attorney noted his client’s “highly decorated career serving the United States of America” and his genuine remorse for his conduct.

“Since his arrest, Mr. Laraway has done everything he possibly could in order to address his wrongdoing,” the lawyer wrote.

Laraway was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and continued to cooperate against Perkins.

It would be nearly two years before Perkins was charged with drug trafficking and dealing firearms without a license.

According to prosecutors, Perkins sold more than 200 handguns, “including to people he knew were convicted felons.”

“The magnitude of Perkins’ gun running is difficult to overstate,” wrote Asst. U.S. Atty. Alexander E. Blanchard.

And the number of recovered weapons was continuing to climb, Blanchard noted at Perkins’ sentencing hearing in August. He told the judge that yet another gun had been recovered in a search executed just a day earlier, according to a transcript of the proceeding.

In court papers filed by his defense attorney, Perkins was described as a hard-working, “loving husband and father” who overcame being expelled from high school to earn his GED, join the Marines, and become a skilled electrician.

“Bobby is a good man…” his mother, a reverend, wrote in a letter to the judge. “He made some mistakes, but still he would work very hard to take care of his family.”

Perkins spoke briefly at his sentencing hearing. He told the judge he accepted responsibility for the mistakes he made, but denied being a violent person.

“I’m not a violent person,” Perkins said. “I don’t like to deal in violence.”

The judge, T.S. Ellis III, challenged that assertion before imposing his sentence. He noted the more than 200 guns he’d sold and the fact that some “were recovered in the possession of felons and were used in other crimes.”

“Maybe you didn’t shoot somebody and maybe you didn’t attack somebody, but you clearly were surrounded by instruments of violence,” Ellis said. It’s important, the judge added, “that any sentence I impose on you must stand as a beacon, as a warning to others not to engage in this conduct.”

With that, he sentenced Perkins to 12 years in federal prison.

Laraway has served his time and is already out.

In an interview with CNN, Laraway’s lawyer, Edwin Brooks, said Laraway began selling guns because he wasn’t making enough money to support his upper middle-class lifestyle. “Just like everybody else,” Brooks said, “there’s a lot of indebtedness: loans, credit cards. It was basically a financial thing.”

Though Laraway is no longer behind bars, Brooks said there is lasting damage from his conviction, including the loss of his government security clearance which prevents him from working in his chosen field. As of last fall, he was the manager of a gas station.

“The collateral consequences have been devastating,” Brooks said.

Brooks said Laraway was blindsided by the result of selling guns to Perkins.

“There’s no way for him to foresee this was going to happen,” the lawyer said.

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