Between November 2009 and June 2010, according to an ATF agent's email to William Newell, then the special agent-in-charge in Phoenix, Avila walked away with 52 firearms after he "paid approximately $48,000 cash. The firearms consisted of FN 5.7 pistols, 1 Barrett 50 BMG rifle, AK-47 variant rifles, Ruger 9mm handguns, Colt 38 supers, etc.…"
Sometime in spring or early summer 2010 — the exact date is unknown — U.S. immigration officers reportedly stopped Avila at the Arizona border with the two semiautomatics and 30 other weapons. According to two sources close to a congressional investigation into Fast and Furious, the authorities checked with the ATF and were told to release him with the weapons because the ATF was still hoping to track the guns to cartel members.
In Washington, ATF officials declined to comment. In Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House investigating committee, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Justice Department why Avila was not jailed and the guns seized. They have yet to receive an answer.
The two semi-automatics would turn up again, this time at the scene of the Terry shooting. According to sources, they were hidden in backpacks and stashed in the desert, ready for Mexican bandits.
When weapons were recovered at the scene of the agent's slaying, ATF officials in Phoenix scrambled. "All these ATF guys were showing up," one law enforcement official recalled. "We were trying to catch suspects and rope up the crime scene, and all the ATF guys were saying they needed the serial numbers! They needed the serial numbers!"
Newell wanted an immediate trace on the semiautomatics, and that afternoon ATF agents showed up at the Lone Wolf store. Howard had heard of Terry's death. "I was scared to death," he said. They asked for his paperwork and matched the serial numbers. "Both of them were in shock, too," he said. "You could tell they were sick."
A little before 8 that night, the Phoenix ATF field office sent out an agency-wide bulletin: The suspect guns were Fast and Furious weapons. In Washington the next morning, then-ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson prepared to notify the Border Patrol.
Avila was arrested, and initially held just for using a bad address on the purchase form. "This way," Voth emailed the ATF field office, "we do not divulge our current case [Fast and Furious] or the Border Patrol shooting case."
In a subsequent report for Fast and Furious classified "Law Enforcement Sensitive," agents said Avila was buying for a Phoenix-based gun trafficking group that hid the weapons in vehicle compartments and drove them over the border from Arizona and Texas. The trafficking group used cash from drug sales to buy the weapons. The AK-47 was their weapon of choice, bought after cocaine and methamphetamines warehoused in Baja California were shipped north and sold in this country.
Other Avila weapons from Howard's store wound up at a Glendale home and a Phoenix automotive business, both "firearm drop locations," according to the ATF report. Still more were recovered in Sonora, Mexico, not far from Rio Rico.
In January, Avila and 19 others were charged in the straw purchasing. It was the one and only indictment to come out of 15 months of Fast and Furious. Asked at the press conference touting the charges whether the ATF allowed guns to "walk," Newell, the ATF field supervisor, responded, "Hell no!"
His denial and the agent's death provoked a small group of ATF whistle-blowers. They contacted Congress, and investigators asked the agency whether Terry was shot by Fast and Furious weapons.
The ATF replied that neither semiautomatic fired the fatal bullet. In truth, an FBI ballistics report could not determine whether one of the semiautomatics or a third weapon killed Terry.
Avila pleaded not guilty to the firearms charges, was released on bail and has yet to stand trial. Osorio-Arellanes was charged in the Terry slaying in May. No other suspects in the slaying have been arrested.
In Glendale, after two decades in business, Howard is thinking about closing his Lone Wolf gun store. He also has second thoughts about helping law enforcement.
"Was I betrayed?" he said. "Absolutely yes."