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Collector Misses Seized Missile Launcher

July 01, 1990|RAY TESSLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Gaines is a happy-go-lucky ex-cop who savors exotic military artifacts and can't quite understand why the federal government won't give him back his little green combat rocket launcher.

"It was a neat looking thing, it would have made a great wall display," lamented the mustachioed Gaines, whose prized possessions include a brass clock from an American ship sunk in World War II and a rare Nazi dagger.

But the U.S. Naval Investigative Service at Camp Pendleton doesn't share his zeal for things that go zoom, and two agents visited Gaines' automotive machine shop in Oceanside, flashed their badges, and took his Redeye guided missile system away.

"I mean, I don't want the damn thing," bluntly admitted Vincent Giaime, the special agent in charge.

It's just that the Department of Defense is real fussy about ordinary citizens owning things that were designed to blast low-flying aircraft to smithereens.

And, when it comes to federal regulations, it really doesn't matter that Gaines' 3 1/2-foot long, shoulder-fired Vietnam-era weapon--sort of a super bazooka--is apparently neutered and inoperable.

"We're going to do our thing and sell it as scrap material," said Jim Kottke of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office at Camp Pendleton.

That's the place where Kottke and his colleagues, heavily armed with Defense Demilitarization Manual 4160.21M-1, are preparing to trash Gaines' estranged Redeye as soon as Navy investigators turn it over.

Gaines, a 44-year-old former Escondido cop, doesn't intend to see his military curio go to the rocket graveyard without some fireworks.

He's hiring a lawyer to sue for damages, claiming the agents violated his rights. And he's contacted the office of Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) seeking help.

Now, some folks might think it's a little much to duke it out with the United States Navy over an erstwhile wall hanging. But such things excite his imagination.

"I collect the unusual," said Gaines, who is planning a trip to Germany for his next military conquest: "I want a suit of armor for the hallway. I always wanted a suit of armor. I didn't know I was going to have to go to Germany to find one."

The other thing Gaines wants is to win back his rocket launcher.

When it began, all Gaines wanted was a simple, shoulder-fired anti-tank launcher called a LAW.

He spread the word around he was looking for a LAW, and on June 4, he said, a mysterious United Parcel Service package with no return address arrived at his shop. Inside, the gleeful Gaines found a Redeye, the gift, he supposes, of one of his many Marine customers.

"First thing I did was call the police," said Gaines. However, he said the watch commander, "a real nice guy," couldn't tell him whether the device was legal to possess.

Next, Gaines called the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "Talked to a real nice agent, name is Bob Lowry. He said, 'as long as there's no rocket, (and) it's not loaded, you can keep it. Hang it on your wall. Have a nice day,' " according to Gaines.

Things seemed to be going splendidly for Gaines as he happily pondered a place of honor for his Redeye missile launcher. Then, on June 19, the two agents from the Naval Investigative Service paid a call.

"They pulled out badge cases and held it in front of my nose and said 'Naval intelligence,' " said Gaines. "I was badly intimidated by that."

The agents asked to see his tube, explained they'd have to take it with them to check out, and left Gaines with a receipt noting they'd taken possession of one "green military launcher."

Gaines, angrily insisting his weapon is impossible to use and legal to own, has been campaigning with Giaime and Kottke to get it back.

He has told them, paraphrasing his chat with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, that the device basically isn't harmful to children and other living things. Or low-flying aircraft, for that matter.

The bureau clearly agrees with Gaines--up to a point.

"It's just a peace of junk to us, we don't even consider it a firearm," said Jim Stathes, the resident agent in charge.

He described the rocket tube as "a one-shot deal, it's a throwaway" once it's been fired.

However, in words that may spell doom for the rocket launcher, Stathes said, "we don't cover stolen government property issues."

Giaime's office does, and he said the tube "is not something the government normally releases to the public." He fears that somebody with fairly sophisticated skills might be able to make the Redeye lethal again.

But to Giaime, the matter is cut-and-dried. The Department of Defense doesn't sanction making such devices available to the public, and regulations require the items to be destroyed.

He said the Navy probably never would have known about the bootleg rocket launcher, except somebody saw Gaines displaying it outside his machine shop and tipped off authorities.

"We got a call from an individual who was very uncomfortable and thought it was a weapon," he said. Gaines said he showed the Redeye to a few people, but vehemently denied he ever took it outside the back room of his shop.

At any rate, Kottke over at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office is waiting for the tube to arrive for its date with destiny. Under regulations, "they are required to be mutilated," he said.

Rocket launchers, Kottke added, "lend themselves to destruction by crushing."

All of which leaves Gaines mad and sad.

"To be honest, I think that tube is a goner," he said.

That might not be the end of things, though.

There's the matter of the threatened law suit.

And Kottke said the Naval Investigative Service might fire a missile of its own. "NIS is going to trace that item back and take care of that problem, if there is one," he said.

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