Thursday, July 30, 2009

Piecing Together a Revolver’s Fuzzy History

From the NY Times by Christine Hauser:

It was forged out of steel and given a walnut handle 60 years ago. It made its way to New York City, where it was sold by a well-known gun shop in Little Italy, and eventually passed through the hands of a law enforcement officer, who reported it lost in 1976.

The .32-caliber revolver involved in a shooting on Sunday was shipped to the John Jovino Gun Shop in Little Italy in 1949.

More than three decades would go by before the weapon, a .32-caliber revolver, resurfaced on Sunday on a Queens street, where it fell from the waistband of a man under arrest and discharged a bullet that hit Police Officer Rodney Lewis.

As they do with most weapons confiscated in New York City, investigators are now trying to piece together the tale of the postwar six-shot revolver as it takes a central role in the city’s latest shooting of a police officer. So far, it has been a laborious task for the police, leaving as many questions unanswered as raised.

The revolver was traced to the Smith & Wesson plant in Springfield, Mass., according to law enforcement sources. It was manufactured in 1949, and the model, known by gun experts as a long caliber, hand-ejector postwar model, was popular at that time with police forces, until they went to bigger-caliber guns.

But, when a .32-caliber revolver is fired, it keeps the casings inside its rotating chamber instead of spitting them out like a semiautomatic pistol, making it hard for forensic investigators to determine whether it had a criminal past.

“With this revolver it is difficult to do that because the shell casings would not be left behind at a crime scene,” said Inspector William Aubry, the commanding officer of the Police Department’s forensic investigations unit.

On Oct. 18, 1949, the revolver was shipped, most likely in its typical cardboard box, from Massachusetts to the John Jovino Gun Shop in Manhattan, which has been in continuous operation since 1911.

At the time, there were about a half-dozen gun dealers in the area; the old police headquarters and firing range were nearby. But now it stands alone, a relic surrounded by the markets and restaurants of Little Italy and Chinatown. Retired and plainclothes police officers come to peer into the glass cases, examining survival knives, or to buy personal off-duty weapons. Plastic models of guns are behind the counter. The real things are kept in cabinets.

The store has an oversize revolver hanging above its entrance, but it no longer carries old revolvers. It also no longer has records of sales at the store from the 1940s, said Anthony Imperato, whose family owns the shop and who worked there from 1978 until 1994. Records before 1997, reflecting “hundreds of thousands” of shipments and sales by the shop, were sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he said.

From those records, the Police Department learned this week that a former city correction officer filled out a police report on March 12, 1976, declaring the revolver lost. The report gives no other details, said a police spokesman, Paul J. Browne. The officer, John Eckert, retired in July that year and has since died, according to union records.

“The one thing the police do know so far is that its last legal owner was in the 1970s,” Mr. Browne said.

Drew Wade, a spokesman for the firearms bureau in Washington, said it was not surprising that the trail ran dry after the gun shop’s record-keeping.

A gun’s original purchaser can legally sell it to a friend or relative, he said. “And the next person can do the same thing. It could have changed hands a dozen times between 1949 and 1976 when the possessor of that gun reports it missing,” Mr. Wade said.

The ballistics investigation dropped no hints, turning up no remarkable wear and tear.

“It showed the usual evidence of discharge,” said Inspector Aubry.

Detective Joseph Cummings, who works in the New York Police Department’s firearms analysis section, said that after 1976, “we really could not give you much of a history. Which might be a good thing — that this gun was not used.”

Yet more than 30 years after Officer Eckert reported his gun lost, the old revolver quietly reappeared, bullets in the chamber, on that Queens street.

Officer Lewis and his partner frisked a suspect, Edwin V. Santana, 33, and found the revolver. As Officer Lewis’s partner tried to remove the gun from Mr. Santana’s waistband, he dropped it, according to the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown. The revolver hit the ground and discharged a bullet that lodged in Officer Lewis’s chest near the armpit. The officer was released from the hospital on Monday.

At Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, where Officer Lewis was initially taken, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly spoke about the need to get illegal guns off the streets, a central platform in the administration. But they also commented on the gun itself, an anachronism in an era in which the semiautomatic pistol has become the weapon of preference. Commissioner Kelly said that revolvers, even when old, are virtually indestructible, with a long “shelf life.”

The revolver will be used as evidence in the criminal case against Mr. Santana, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and illegally possessing the weapon.

Mr. Santana’s statements to the authorities have shed no further light. Mr. Santana said the revolver was in his possession just briefly. According to court papers, Mr. Santana said he had gone to Menahan Street in Ridgewood to help his former companion, who was involved in a domestic dispute with a man named Carlos. Mr. Santana said he took the revolver from Carlos just before the police frisked him.

Carlos, identified as Carlos Berrios, was arrested on Tuesday on charges of domestic assault, the police said.

And after the revolver is used as evidence in court, its future will be assured, even as some of its past remains a mystery: Like other guns seized by the police, it will be melted down and reincarnated as wire clothes hangers.

No comments:

Post a Comment