Traffickers Allegedly Sold 15 Ghost Assault Rifles and Handguns
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CAMDEN, N.J. – Acting New Jersey Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced criminal charges against three men for allegedly trafficking untraceable “ghost guns” from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. The defendants allegedly purchased partially assembled firearms in Pennsylvania and then sold them fully assembled in New Jersey, without the serial numbers mandated by state and federal law to allow law enforcement to trace the weapons.
During the investigation, the defendants allegedly sold a total of six AR-style ghost assault rifles, nine ghost 9mm handguns, nine illegal large-capacity magazines, and one silencer. When arrests were made on Aug. 16 and search warrants were executed at locations in Camden and Philadelphia where the ring allegedly assembled the guns, additional weapons were seized. Authorities seized a total of four more fully assembled ghost handguns (one of which was fully automatic), a fully assembled ghost assault rifle, parts for another ghost handgun, parts for five ghost assault rifles, many rounds of ammunition, and nine large-capacity magazines, including 50- and 60-round drum magazines.
The arrests are the result of a collaborative investigation led by the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Crime Suppression South Unit, New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau, Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office Gun Violence Task Force and Bureau of Narcotics Investigation, and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The NJSP Gangs & Organized Crime South Unit, NJSP Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit, NJSP Trafficking South Unit, and Philadelphia Police Department assisted in the investigation.
In 2020, the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Offices of Attorney General announced a partnership— the “PA/NJ Gun Trafficking Initiative”—to interdict interstate gun trafficking and solve gun crimes. The initiative built on intelligence-sharing efforts by the Camden Violent Crime Initiative and the Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force, which continue in full force in their respective cities.
“Every day, we’re working to dismantle the criminal networks that funnel illegal firearms into New Jersey,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “We’re especially concerned about the growth of untraceable ‘ghost guns’ and we’ve devoted our full investigative resources to stopping the flow of these dangerous weapons. These cases wouldn’t be possible without the close collaboration of our neighboring states, and we couldn’t ask for a better partner in these efforts than Pennsylvania Attorney General Shapiro.”
“Ghost guns have become the weapon of choice for criminals fueling the gun violence epidemic, and thanks to the trust and collaboration between my office, Acting Attorney General Bruck, the NJ State Police and ATF — this gun trafficking operation has been shut down for good,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “We’re seeing an increase in gun violence on both sides of the river, and getting these untraceable ghost guns off the streets will save lives and make our communities safer.”
“Ghost gun traffickers are literally in the business of helping violent criminals get away with murder. Their sole objective is to assemble weapons that are virtually impossible to trace by law enforcement after the commission of a crime, attempting to shield both purchasers and traffickers from law enforcement,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “Today’s announcement demonstrates our commitment, along with our federal, state, local, and county law enforcement partners, to dismantling trafficking rings that are supplying ghost guns to dangerous criminals, and it sends a strong message that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions.”
“We are sending a clear message that anyone who seeks to capitalize on the illegal gun trade will be held accountable with serious criminal charges,” said Director Lyndsay V. Ruotolo of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We are fully committed with our law enforcement partners to pursuing these intelligence-driven investigations to stop those who traffic illegal assault rifles and untraceable weapons into our communities.”
“One of ATF’s primary missions is to remove the most egregious offenders responsible for violent crime from wreaking havoc in our neighborhoods”, said ATF Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey L. Matthews. “As such, the ATF Newark Field Division will continue to partner with the ATF Philadelphia Field Division, and with our local, state, and federal partners on both sides of the Delaware River. We will continue to focus not only on those who illegally possess or utilize firearms to commit violent crimes, but also those who engage in the unlawful trafficking of firearms.”
“This investigation is the product of a concerted, collaborative effort by multiple law enforcement agencies to identify and thwart a significant firearm trafficking operation,” said Matthew Varisco, Special Agent in charge of ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division. “ATF pledges to remain united with all of our local, state, and federal partners to aggressively investigate firearms traffickers and to keep our communities safe.”
Acting Attorney General Bruck and Attorney General Shapiro announced the arrests at the Office of the Camden County Prosecutor with Lt. Colonel Geoffrey Noble of the New Jersey State Police, Director Lyndsay V. Ruotolo of the Division of Criminal Justice, Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey L. Matthews of the ATF Newark Field Division, Special Agent in Charge Matthew Varisco of the ATF Philadelphia Field Division, and Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill Mayer.
The following defendants were arrested on Monday, Aug. 16:
- Eduardo T. Lazo Jr., 26, of Camden, N.J., who allegedly led the weapons trafficking conspiracy and sold the illegal guns at or near his residence on North 33rd Street. Investigators seized a ghost handgun when a search warrant was executed at his residence.
- Juan Enrique Fernandez, 29, of Philadelphia, Pa., who allegedly transported guns from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in his vehicle with Lazo. Fernandez allegedly had a ghost handgun on his person when arrested, and execution of a search warrant at his home led to seizure of a ghost assault rifle, two more ghost handguns, parts to build a ghost handgun, parts to build five ghost assault rifles, nine large-capacity magazines, and numerous rounds of ammunition.
- Ericknell Rivera-Mercado, 30, of Philadelphia, Pa., who allegedly assisted Lazo and Fernandez in the weapons trafficking conspiracy.
“Ghost guns” or “privately made firearms” are not imprinted with a serial number registered with a federally licensed manufacturer and therefore are difficult for law enforcement to trace to their purchaser. In 2018, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that makes it a crime to buy, manufacture, possess, or sell ghost guns in New Jersey. In the past year alone (August 11, 2020 to August 11, 2021), law enforcement agencies recovered nearly 200 illegal ghost guns in New Jersey. In March 2021, New Jersey announced a first-of-its-kind settlement with a ghost gun company that the Attorney General and New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs sued over the company’s advertising and marketing of ghost guns to New Jersey residents and delivery of an assault firearms kit to a New Jersey buyer. The March 2019 lawsuit against James Tromblee Jr., d/b/a U.S. Patriot Armory, also was the country’s first such lawsuit against a ghost gun distributor.
Lazo, Fernandez, and Rivera-Mercado are each charged with various counts of Conspiracy (2nd Degree), Transporting Firearms Into The State For Sale Or Transfer (2nd Degree), Unlawful Possession Of An Assault Rifle (2nd Degree), Manufacture, Transport, Shipment, Sale, Disposition Of An Assault Rifle (3rd Degree), Unlawful Possession Of Firearms Without A Serial Number (3rd Degree), and Transporting A Manufactured Firearm Without A Serial Number (3rd Degree).
In addition, Lazo and Fernandez are charged with Purchase Of Firearm Parts To Manufacture An Untraceable Firearm (3rd Degree) and Unlawful Possession Of Large-Capacity Magazines (4th Degree). Lazo is also charged with Unlawful Possession Of A Handgun (2nd Degree), Possession Of A Weapon As A Convicted Felon (2nd Degree), and Manufacture, Transport, Shipment, Sale, Disposition Of A Firearm (4th Degree). Lazo and Rivera-Mercado are charged with Unlawful Possession Of A Silencer (4th Degree).
In addition to the above charges filed in New Jersey, Fernandez faces the following charges filed in Pennsylvania: Fugitive from Justice, Violation Of Uniform Firearms Act (Carrying A Firearm Without A License), Violation Of Uniform Firearms Act (Carrying A Firearm On Public Streets).
Lazo waived his detention hearing and consented to be detained in jail pending trial in New Jersey. Fernandez and Rivera-Mercado, who were arrested in Philadelphia, were released on bail.
Deputy Attorney General Aaron Witherspoon is lead prosecutor on this case for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Cassandra Montalto, Bureau Chief Lauren Scarpa Yfantis, and DCJ Deputy Director Annmarie Taggart.
Supervisory Special Agent Christopher Marano is the case agent for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
Detective Sergio Molina is the case agent for the New Jersey State Police, under the supervision of Detective Sgt. Garrett Cullen, Detective Sgt. 1st Class David DeRosa, and Lt. Dean Carnival.
Acting Attorney General Bruck thanked the following partners for their work on the investigation:
- New Jersey State Police Crime Suppression South Unit, Gangs and Organized Crime South Unit, Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit, and Trafficking South Unit;
- Division of Criminal Justice Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau;
- Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office Gun Violence Task Force;
- Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office Bureau of Narcotics Investigation;
- U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Newark and Philadelphia Field Divisions; and
- Philadelphia Police Department.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. Unlawful possession of a handgun carries a mandatory period of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed or 3 ½ years, whichever is greater. Possession of a weapon as a convicted felon carries a mandatory period of parole ineligibility of five years. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
This investigation is another step towards reducing gun violence in New Jersey, one of Acting Attorney General Bruck’s key priority areas. In addition to long-term enforcement actions, the Attorney General’s Office and local, state, and federal law enforcement partners are holding a series of gun buyback programs around the state, as well as performing targeted sweeps of fugitives with outstanding arrest warrants for violent offenses, as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence.
For Lazo: James Conley, Esq., Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A., Haddon Heights, N.J.
For Others: Undetermined.