Three former U.S. Marines and two others were arrested on suspicion of selling illegal assault weapons to Los Angeles gang members, federal officials announced Tuesday.
The arrests capped a yearlong investigation into an elaborate scheme to transfer heavy weapons, including AK-47s, to San Fernando Valley-based gang members. Earlier this month, officials from several law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, raided the San Clemente home of former Marine Adam Andrew Gitschlag, 28. He was arrested, and authorities confiscated boxes of automatic weapons and rifles.
Authorities allege that on June 23 the suspects sold $6,000 worth of weapons to a person they thought was connected to the street gang. The sale took place at an L.A.-area post office parking lot, where one of the suspects worked. One of those involved in the sale was a law-enforcement informant.
The five men are charged with five counts each of having unlawful assault weapons, including four AK-47s and an AR-15 assault rifle.
Officials have not said where the Marines had been based or how many weapons they allegedly sold. They said the investigation is continuing and that more arrests may be made.
"We are pleased with the outcome of this case," said John A. Torres, special agent in charge of the ATF's Los Angeles field division, in a statement. "These arrests show that there are people still illegally trafficking in firearms to gang members for profit. ATF will continue with our mission in keeping the public safe by investigating all firearm-related violent crimes and arresting those that place the public in danger."
In addition to Gitschlag, officials on Monday arrested two other ex-Marines, Jose Smith Pacheco, 31, of Montebello and Miguel A. Ortiz, 49, of Northridge. Two other suspects were also arrested: Edwin Cano, 33, of Northridge and Christopher John Thomas, 32, of Van Nuys. Cano faces two counts of possession of a firearm by a felon. Prosecutors say Thomas, Ortiz and Pacheco have pleaded not guilty. Gitschlag and Cano are expected to be arraigned at a later date.
If convicted, each defendant could get up to 20 years in state prison.
The arrests come a week after a Navy SEAL from Coronado and two other men were charged with selling prohibited firearms, including AK-47 assault rifles from Iraq and Afghanistan, to undercover federal agents.
The three suspects allegedly sold 18 AK-47s and 14 other firearms to undercover ATF agents. The Russian-designed AK-47 can fetch a high price on the illicit market, officials said. The weapons were smuggled into the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. military personnel, according to federal documents.
It is illegal to possess an AK-47 without a permit from the U.S. government. It is also illegal to engage in firearms dealing without a license.
In the case of the Marines, it's unclear exactly how the suspects obtained the cache of firearms. A photo taken by the San Clemente Times on Nov. 2, when officials served search warrants at Gitschlag's home, shows ATF officials hauling out loads of weapons and placing them in boxes.
Most of the defendants could not be reached for comment. In an interview with the Associated Press, Gitschlag denied any wrongdoing and said the weapons were part of his private collection.
"I did not sell any gang members any weapons," he said. "I love my country with all my heart. I would never expect my government to do this."