TRENTON – Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck today announced the indictment of three men for allegedly trafficking untraceable “ghost guns” from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. The organizer allegedly transported partially assembled firearms from Pennsylvania and then the defendants 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.
The Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau obtained a state grand jury indictment on Friday, Nov. 12, charging all three men with second-degree Conspiracy, second-degree Transporting Weapons into the State for Unlawful Sale or Transfer, second-degree Unlawful Possession of an Assault Firearm, third-degree Unlawful Possession of a Firearm without a Serial Number, third-degree Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of an Assault Firearm, third-degree Transporting a Manufactured Firearm without a Serial Number, and other weapons charges.
“Indictments like this are one part of our comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence and dismantle the criminal networks that funnel illegal firearms into New Jersey,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “We are committed to keeping New Jerseyans safe by prosecuting criminals contributing to the flow of these dangerous weapons into our communities.”
The charges stem from 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.
“The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General works closely with our law enforcement partners in New Jersey to shut down gun traffickers and stop the flow of ghost guns between our two states,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “This work is getting results, and we will keep fighting to get the guns off our streets and stop the violence that too often tears apart families and communities.”
“Ghost gun traffickers are fueling the violence and death associated with gun crimes while equipping criminals with the means to get away with it. These weapons are virtually impossible to trace by law enforcement after the commission of a crime,” said Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “Today’s indictment demonstrates our commitment, along with our federal, state, county, and local law enforcement partners, to dismantle 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.”
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.
“Let this indictment serve as a warning for those looking to capitalize on the illegal gun trade,” said Director Lyndsay V. Ruotolo of the Division of Criminal Justice. “You will be held accountable, and face serious criminal charges. We will continue to collaborate across all of our local, state, and federal partners in order to aggressively prosecute those who traffic illegal assault rifles and untraceable weapons into our communities.”
The following defendants were indicted by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau on Friday, Nov. 12:
- Eduardo T. Lazo Jr., 26, of Camden, N.J., who allegedly organized the weapons trafficking conspiracy and sold the illegal guns in Camden.
- 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, 31, of Philadelphia, Pa., who allegedly assisted Lazo and Fernandez in the weapons trafficking conspiracy.
Lazo, Fernandez, and Rivera-Mercado are each charged with various counts of Conspiracy (2nd degree), Transporting Weapons into the State for Unlawful Sale or Transfer (2nd Degree), Unlawful Possession of an Assault Firearm (Five Counts, 2nd Degree), Unlawful Possession of a Firearm without a Serial Number (Eight Counts, 3rd Degree), Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of an Assault Firearm (Five Counts, 3rd Degree), and Transporting a Manufactured Firearm without a Serial Number (Eight Counts, 3rd Degree).
In addition, Lazo and Fernandez are charged with Unlawful Possession of a Weapon (Five Counts, 2nd Degree), Unlawful Possession of Large Capacity Ammunition Magazines (Eight Counts, 4th Degree), Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of a Weapon (Four Counts, 4th Degree), and Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of Large Capacity Ammunition Magazines (Seven Counts, 4th Degree).
Lazo is also charged with Purchasing Firearm Parts to Manufacture a Firearm Without a Serial Number (3rd Degree), Unlawful Possession of a Sawed-Off Shotgun (3rd Degree), Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of a Sawed-Off Shotgun (3rd Degree), and Certain Persons Not to Have Weapons (2nd Degree).
Lazo and Rivera-Mercado are charged with Unlawful Possession of a Sawed-Off Shotgun (3rd Degree), Unlawful Possession of a Firearm Silencer (4th Degree), Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of a Sawed-Off Shotgun (3rd Degree), and Manufacture, Transport, Disposition of a Firearm Silencer (4th Degree).
The indictment is posted online here.
“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 (October 20, 2020 to October 20, 2021), law enforcement agencies recovered over 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.
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.
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 establishing a statewide gun violence task force, 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: Andrew Butchko, Esq., Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A., Haddon Heights, N.J.
For Fernandez: Robert Gamburg, Esq., Gamburg & Benedetto, Philadelphia, P.A.
For Rivera-Mercado: Michael Diamondstein, Esq., Philadelphia, P.A.