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11.12.10

Inside the Marines-Gang Weapons Deal

A federal sting uncovered a weapons ring in Southern California—run by former U.S. Marines. Christine Pelisek on what the investigative documents reveal about their operations and how they were caught.

In early June, a confidential federal informant began buying drugs and firearms from a California man named Christopher Thomas. Trying to help authorities unravel the illicit weapons ring, he asked to be introduced to the dealer’s dealer, and Thomas agreed.

A few weeks later, a plan was in place.

Wearing a hidden wire, the informant and Thomas drove together to a post office in the picturesque old town of Pasadena. What Thomas didn’t know was that federal agents were following close behind.

At the post office, Thomas and the informant were joined by two men—Edwin Cano and Miguel Ortiz—a gangbanger and a postal employee. A few minutes later, two other men arrived—Adam Gitschlag and Jose Pacheco—the weapon seller and his accomplice. Except for Cano, the men who had come to meet Thomas and the agent were former Marines who had served in Iraq and had been stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

Ortiz, who as an employee of the post office possessed a key to a hidden parking lot, opened the gates, and the men drove inside, passing a sign that said: “Possession of Firearms and Other Dangerous Weapons on Postal Property Is Prohibited by Law.” 

“Gang members like those kind of weapons… it’s an image thing. They think they look cool when they hold them up and show them to their other partners in crime. ‘Look at the size of my gun.’”

The handover was quick but the haul significant. Gitschlag’s trunk contained five semiautomatic rifles and boxes of ammunition that were given to the informant in exchange for $6,000.

The informant then asked 28-year-old Gitschlag if he could buy more guns for members of his gang. Gitschlag told the informant that another shipment of weapons would be coming soon.

Unknown to Gitschlag, the entire transaction was being transmitted to agents working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who were hovering nearby, listening to the deal go down, according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed this week in Los Angeles. Under California law, it is illegal to own or sell unregistered assault weapons, which are banned in the state of California under the assault-weapon ban.

ATF agent Christian Hoffman noted the unusual nature of the case. “It is not common for Marines to sell guns to gang members,” he said.

The men were all arrested on Nov. 2—only a week after a U.S. Navy Seal smuggled 80 AK-47 weapons from Iraq or Afghanistan, including factory-made 7.62 mm Iraqi machine-guns and sold them to undercover agents in Colorado and Nevada.

Beyond the unusual suspects, the haul was significant.

According to the affidavit, Gitschlag kept more than 200 guns in his home—there were stashes of weapons in his bedroom, in safes and in gun racks, among them assault rifles, AK-47-type assault rifles, sawed off shotguns, pistols, and at least one semi-automatic shotgun with a high-capacity magazine. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were kept in cardboard boxes that were stacked around his garage.

In a black nylon bag, which he described as his “Go Bag” and stored in the master bedroom, Gitschlag kept 10 assault rifles and around $20,000 in cash. As if preparing for an assault on his fortress, he was also in the process of setting up a surveillance system.

Investigators are trying to figure out where Gitschlag, who moonlighted as a bouncer at a bar called Goody’s Tavern, purchased his large cache of weapons. Gitschlag reportedly defended himself against the charges, saying he is a private collector and a patriot who fought hard for his country.

Gitschlag and the other four men are charged with five counts each of having unlawful assault weapons, including four AK-47 assault rifles and an AR-15 assault weapon. Cano faces three additional counts, including two counts of possession of a firearm by a felon.

“We are pleased with the outcome of this case,” said John A. Torres, special agent in charge of the ATF's Los Angeles field division, in a statement. “These arrests show that there are people still illegally trafficking in firearms to gang members for profit.”

In terms of the buyers, Hoffman said the weapons were the kinds of weapons preferred by gangbangers.

“Gang members like those kind of weapons,” Hoffman said. “I think it’s an image thing. They think they look cool when they hold them up and show them to their other partners in crime. ‘Look at the size of my gun.’”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.