Indictment, reward revealed in guns operation
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WASHINGTON -- The FBI offered a $1 million reward Monday for information leading to arrests of four fugitives in the killing of a border agent whose death is the focus of a Washington showdown over a botched gun-trafficking operation.
The announcement came as the Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging the four men -- along with a suspect in custody -- in the killing of agent Brian Terry, who was shot while on patrol in an Arizona canyon in December 2010.
The indictment did not mention "Fast and Furious," the controversial gun-trafficking operation run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But it was Terry's death that led to a congressional inquiry into the operation and, more recently, a House vote to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress.
During the two-year operation, ATF agents watched as hundreds of weapons were purchased by gun-trafficking suspects. Some agents testified that they were ordered to let the guns "walk," so the agency could trace the weapons to a firearms-trafficking ring. But several of their supervisors have said they never allowed gun-walking, but were told by the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix that they did not have enough evidence to seize the guns.
About 2,000 guns tied to the suspects hit the streets in the United States and Mexico. Two of the guns were found at the scene of Terry's death.
In the indictment unsealed Monday and handed up in Tucson, the five charged were identified as Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, Ivan Soto-Barraza, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes and Lionel Portiollo-Meza. Manuel Osorio-Arellanes was arrested the night of the shooting, but the other four remain at large. Authorities say the suspects entered the United States illegally from Mexico for the purpose of robbing drug traffickers.
The bullet that killed Terry, 40, was so damaged that the FBI was unable to definitively link either of the two firearms at the scene to his death, said a law enforcement official involved in the investigation. But lawmakers tied Terry's death to the botched Phoenix gun operation after it was discovered that the serial numbers on the semiautomatic rifles matched guns bought by a suspect charged in the Fast and Furious case, Jaime Avila.
Law enforcement officials say the ATF never actually "watched" those particular guns being bought and could never have seized them. They say a gun store employee did not notify the ATF until after they were bought and in the trafficking pipeline.
On Jan. 16, Mr. Avila legally bought three guns at Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix. After the buy, an employee suspicious of the sale faxed the paperwork to the ATF. But because it was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, agents did not receive the fax until Jan. 19, according to several law enforcement officials and a recent Fortune magazine article.
By that time, because it had been three days since the buy, ATF officials say they never saw the guns or had the opportunity to seize them. But they logged the rifles' serial numbers into a "suspect gun data base."
"You tell me how the ATF caused the death of Brian Terry under any rational view of the uncontroverted facts," said Paul Pelletier, attorney for William D. Newell, the ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, who oversaw Fast and Furious.
But Jason Foster, chief investigator for Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said the ATF for months had suspected Mr. Avila of trafficking, and that agents could have questioned him or searched his residence for the guns after he bought them.
Last month, the House voted to cite Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide certain case documents.
First Published July 10, 2012 12:00 am