Federal authorities say they've charged 29 people as part of an effort to crack down on violent crime in North Alabama. The Department of Justice and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced during a news conference Thursday they had made the arrests working in conjunction with authorities in Madison, Marshall, DeKalb and Jackson counties.
Agents say they recovered unregistered machine guns like a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun, smoke grenades, a converted AK-47 machine gun, and other firearms, along with drugs of immense value in investigations that spanned all of north Alabama.
"This violent crime reduction initiative has been very successful in getting numerous offenders off the street," said Luke Iverson, Resident Agent In Charge at the ATF.
Iverson said that the 29 defendants they announced on Thursday have been arrested a collective 358 times, with more than 60 felony convictions between them.
"Not only for law enforcement, but for the criminal justice system as a whole, that has huge implications," he stated.
Jay Town, U.S. Attorney, said the effort does not stop just because these arrests have been made.
"Our priority continues to be in the Department of Justice and certainly here in the northern district of Alabama, it continues to be getting our worst offenders off the street. Our most violent offenders off the street. Our habitual offenders off the street," Town said. "The men and women of the agencies represented [here], we are all working together like never before."
He added, "We are continuing to take guns off the street, but we are also continuing to take our trigger-pullers off the street so we can return our neighborhoods to those law abiding citizens."
Law enforcement says their cooperation with one another, especially federal partners, is crucial here because these crimes aren't confined to just one city.
"It's not a Huntsville problem, it's not a Madison or Madison County problem," said Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. "These criminals have no jurisdictional lines. In fact, they use the system against us. They will jump jurisdictions. They will use the state laws so we can not keep them in jail. They will use parole, probation against us so they can get back out of jail."
Authorities said the cooperation is what sets this initiative apart from the rest.
"What you are seeing here today is a great example of every agency in this jurisdiction working together," said Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner. "For 25 years I have been working the streets of Huntsville and I have never seen the cooperation that we are seeing right now, with what you are seeing in front of you."
U.S. Attorney Jay Town said the federal charges ensure that anyone convicted will not be in local or state jails but out-of-state prisons, disrupting the connections they have and their potential for parole. He said these charges mean the people accused could earn major federal prison time if convicted.
"At the federal level, if you get just even 2-3 years, you're going to do at least 85% of that time day for day," Town said, "and you're not going to do it across the river. You're not going to do it just an hour away with cell phones and dope and everything else that's in our prisons right now. You're going to do it in a federal prison in Montana, and you're not going to have that surrouding network of support so you can continue in your criminal activities, stay in touch with your criminal elements."
We should note that the ATF says the guns at their news conference are not the actual weapons seized, but ones similar to those in the active investigations.
Among those indicted were:
- Roger Johnson, who was arrested in February after Jackson County authorities said he tried to blow up his mother.
- Victor Ortiz-Castillo, who was arrested in October 2018 for shooting into a mobile home in Huntsville.
- Rex Tidmore, who was indicted on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm, being a felon with a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and drug possession with intent to distribute. Tidmore had numerous firearms and was running a marijuana growing operation in DeKalb County, according to authorities.
- Daniel Steele, who authorities said had numerous unregistered machine guns, including a 50-caliber machine gun, smoke grenades and handgun conversion devices. Authorities said Steele had no prior criminal history.
- Barry Williams, Melvin Rolin, Marcus Kyle and Britney Black, who were arrested for meth trafficking. Authorities said they were members of a group called the Froggy Drug Trafficking Organization. According to agents, Rolin said in an ATF interview he distributed at least 200 kilograms of meth in north Alabama over a two-year period.
The ATF said there are ways you can help them keep guns out of the wrong hands.
David Hyche, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the A.T.F., urged, "Please secure your firearms and write down your make, model and serial number on all your guns and Keep that stored separately from where you keep your guns. This is an enormous problem."
"If you are selling dope, if you've got weapons, if you're a violent offender, you probably need to find another place to live. Because we are definitely going to do our job," said Sheriff Kevin Turner of Madison County.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Alabama said in a news release that its office prosecuted 286 illegal firearms cases in fiscal year 2018, which was a record.