Sunday, December 30, 2012

Family seeks millions in Fast and Furious lawsuit

The family of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), claiming the failure of officials within the agency to properly oversee the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation led to the agent's death. The lawsuit seeks $25 million in compensation.

Terry was fatally wounded on the night of Dec. 14, 2010, during a firefight with Mexican bandits in an isolated canyon just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, about 60 miles south of Tucson. He was shot in the back by one of five men who had sneaked across the border with the intent to rob marijuana smugglers.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday and made publicly available on Friday, also accused a federal prosecutor who previously handled the case and the owner of a Phoenix-area gun store where the weapons were purchased by "straw buyers" with the knowledge of the ATF. Two AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle variants were found at the scene of the Terry killing.

According to the lawsuit, ATF officials and the federal prosecutor oversaw an operation that put law enforcement personnel at risk. It said they should have known their actions and lack of oversight would prove dangerous to law enforcement officers and could have resulted in the injury and death of police officials as well as civilians.

The lawsuit also alleges that when the Fast and Furious operation became publicly known because of the investigations in Congress, efforts were made to cover up the ties between the Terry killing and the operation.

"ATF's failures were not only negligent but in violation of ATF's own policies and procedures," the lawsuit says.

The man who bought the semi-automatic assault rifles found at the site of the Terry killing was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Phoenix to 57 months in prison. Jaime Avila Jr., who was among 20 people targeted as "straw buyers" in the ATF investigation, pleaded guilty in April to two felony charges of purchasing hundreds of weapons at Phoenix-area gun shops that then were smuggled, or "walked," to drug cartels in Mexico.

He pleaded guilty to dealing guns without a federal license, conspiracy to deal guns without a license, making false statements in a gun purchase and smuggling goods out of the U.S.

Prosecutors have said Avila spent nearly $60,000 in buying 52 weapons as a straw buyer.

"I´m sorry about the Terry family — what happened — and that if I had the power to change everything, I would," Avila told U.S. District Judge James Teilborg during his sentencing hearing. "I am just trying to change my life — just trying — to be a good father to my son, that that´s it, your honor."
Terry's cousin, Robert Heyer, who runs the Brian Terry Foundation, had asked the judge to impose the maximum 10-year sentence.

By the time of the Terry shooting, Avila had been under surveillance for more than two months. It took ATF less than 24 hours to confirm that he had purchased the weapons found at the site of the Terry killing. The operation was then shut down, and Avila was arrested along with the 19 others named in a federal grand-jury indictment.

Straw buyers in the Fast and Furious operation purchased hundreds of high-powered weapons and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to government records, they spent an average of $648 for each AK-47-type assault rifle they bought. Some Barrett sniper rifles went for more than $6,000 each, and FN 5.7mm pistols cost an average of $1,130 each.

Uriel Patino, a food-stamps recipient, proved to be the most prolific straw buyer, an indictment in the case said, buying 316 weapons, although congressional investigators said the number might be twice as high. Included were 246 AK-47 assault rifles purchased during 24 visits to two Phoenix-area gun shops over nine months. He and Avila, the indictment said, shopped together at the Lone Wolf Trading Co.

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