LAPD SWAT team members in April as they monitor a gunman in Sylmar. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
All but three guns in a cache of weapons stolen earlier this month from an unguarded building used by the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT unit remain missing and may have been sold or traded on the black market, police said Friday.
Police arrested two men on suspicion of committing the heist and three others for allegedly possessing the recovered weapons, said Cmdr. Andrew Smith. Much to police officials' dismay, however, the rest of the roughly 30 weapons stolen were not found in the suspects' possession.
Although the weapons, which included MP-5 submachine guns and large-caliber handguns, had been altered by police to fire only plastic pellets for training exercises, it is possible for them to be converted back to lethal use. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other police officials have downplayed that possibility, although gun experts and online tutorials suggest that the process is relatively easy and requires only a few parts.
The company that manufactures the conversion kits used by the LAPD has an instructional video on its website that walks a viewer through the steps of returning an MP-5 to its original form in about five minutes.
The apparent sloppiness of the involved SWAT officers seemed to worsen Friday, when police acknowledged that one of the three guns recovered was an AR-15 assault rifle, which also had been converted for training, that officers either did not know had been stolen or failed to report as missing.
The two men who allegedly broke into the building were "low-level burglars" who were looking to strip the building of copper wiring to sell to support their drug habits, Smith said. "They just happened to get lucky with the guns…and got rid of them as quickly as they could," he said.
Police are continuing to try to find the weapons, but don't know how many people may have bought guns from the men or any of their identities, Smith said. It is also possible the suspects have stashed the guns, police officials said.
While investigators pursued leads in the days after the incident, police officials opted not to announce word of the stolen weapons; they acknowledged the theft only after receiving inquiries from The Times.
At the time, Deputy Chief Michael Downing said officers on Oct. 12 left the weapons in locked carrying cases on the first floor of a vacant downtown building. The building, once home to garment manufacturing companies, had been donated to the LAPD for SWAT training exercises. Members of the elite unit, which is called on to handle hostage situations and other high-risk crises, were scheduled to train at the facility the following morning.
Although the thieves had to cut through bolt locks on three doors and force their way through a metal roll gate to get to the guns, the theft nonetheless was embarrassing for the SWAT unit. Serving in the unit is one of the most prestigious assignments in the department, and members are entrusted with specialized weaponry and trained to methodically think through the possible outcomes of situations before acting.
The decision to leave the guns in the building overnight violated department safety procedures, Downing said. "Appropriate measures" had been taken in response to the gaffe, he said, although he declined to say if any officers were facing discipline.
In light of the discovery of the AR-15 assault rifle, SWAT is conducting a thorough count of its weapons to confirm which ones were stolen, Smith said. Police officials, however, said last week that SWAT had already undertaken such a count to resolve confusion over the type and number of guns missing. Police initially reported that 21 of the submachine guns and 12 .45-caliber handguns had been taken. They later revised that to 15 of each, but made no mention of the rifle.
Anxious to recover the weapons, senior LAPD officials assigned several of the department's top detectives from the Major Crimes and Commercial Crimes divisions to the case. Their break came when detectives received a tip from an acquaintance of one of the suspects, said police sources with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the probe.
Thursday morning police raided houses where the suspects were thought to have stashed the weapons. At one point police were led to believe the guns had been buried in a backyard, but they found nothing when they dug, Smith said. It was not immediately clear where the three guns were discovered.
The two men arrested on suspicion of burglary are Richard Velasco, 29, and Gilbert Salcedo, 41. Gerardo Vasquez, 24, William Vasquez, 28, and Mauricio Hernandez, 31, were arrested on suspicion of possessing an assault weapon.
It was not known whether the burglars were aware they were breaking into an LAPD building. Police, however, made no secret of the fact that the facility was used by SWAT for training. The officers could be seen coming and going and sometimes put on public demonstrations there.