Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)
Man gets prison for role in gun trafficking
A Plymouth Township man will spend at least 18 years behind bars for his lead role in operating a multicounty gun trafficking organization that relied heavily on straw purchase schemes.
Alexander Aaron Smith, 22, of the 3000 block of Jolly Road, was sentenced in Montgomery County Court to 18 to 36 years in a state correctional facility after he pleaded guilty to charges of corrupt organizations, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities, selling firearms to ineligible transferees, possession of a prohibited firearm, criminal use of a communication facility and conspiracy in connection with the gun trafficking network that operated in Montgomery, Berks, Bucks, Lancaster and Philadelphia counties between June 2019 and February 2021.
“Straw purchases lead to more violent crimes, lead to deaths. You recruited people to act as straw purchasers. This was planned and premeditated. This conduct poses a major threat to the community,” Judge Wendy G. Rothstein said as she addressed Smith and imposed the sentence, adding Smith operated a business that dealt in the illegal sale or purchase of firearms.
A straw purchase occurs when someone who is legally allowed to purchase a firearm purchases one and then gives it illegally to someone who is not permitted to purchase that firearm.
Assistant District Attorney Samantha Arena sought a significant prison term against Smith, including several mandatory terms for the straw purchase crimes.
With the charges, prosecutors alleged Smith, who couldn’t legally purchase firearms, recruited Quinn O’Donnell Whisted, 24, of the 3000 block of Runnymede Drive, Plymouth Township, to purchase 17 firearms for the organization, 10 of which are still unaccounted for and in the hands of others on the streets.
“He’s somebody who is fascinated by firearms. He’s arming others who can’t have guns. He was the one directing Quinn Whisted to purchase these guns. He was the mastermind behind the purchase of these 17 guns,” said Arena, adding that the guns that are still out on the streets pose “a huge risk.”
Whisted, who had no prior record and could legally purchase guns, purchased the most guns for the organization, at Smith’s behest, and detectives and prosecutors said the fact many of those guns still remain on the streets creates a dangerous situation as illegal guns are passed around and often are used in other crimes.
Whisted previously was sentenced to 11 to 25 years in state prison for his role in purchasing the 17 guns.
Prosecutors said Whisted suffered from a substance use disorder and previous testimony revealed Whisted sold guns in order to get cash to support his drug habit.
“He took advantage of a drug addicted, drug dependent person to buy him these 17 guns,” argued Arena, referring to Smith.
Smith and Whisted were two of 14 people charged in February 2021 for roles in the gun trafficking organization. Prosecutors alleged the network illegally obtained and resold a total of 43 firearms using straw purchase schemes in the five-county area, putting guns in the hands of people who are not allowed by law to buy their own guns. Only 13 of the 43 guns have been recovered to date.
Before learning his fate, Smith apologized for his conduct.
“I own responsibility for my actions. I didn’t value myself as a human being,” said Smith, adding he has suffered from anxiety and depression. “I’m working so very hard to correct my wrongs.”
Relatives of Smith testified Smith struggled with mental health issues and educational challenges and had a troubled childhood. They said Smith was never violent and is remorseful for his conduct.
Defense lawyer Gregg David Shore asked the judge to recognize Smith’s psychological and emotional needs and to not warehouse him in prison.
“He’s accepted full responsibility. He can still do good. He can still be productive,” Shore argued.
The judge recommended that Smith be evaluated for mental health treatment by state prison officials while he serves the sentence.
Several others involved in the organization previously pleaded guilty, admitting to their roles as leaders of the organization or as straw purchasers, and are awaiting sentencing.
Daveese Smith, 23, formerly of the 800 block of Smith Street, Norristown, who prosecutors described as another “mastermind” behind the organization, previously was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in state prison after pleading guilty to corrupt organizations and weapons-related offenses.
The investigation began in 2020 when detectives with the county’s Violent Crime Unit began tracking the multiple purchases of firearms by some of the conspirators through the state’s Electronic Record of Sale (EROS) system and by reviewing state and federal gun purchase paperwork at gun stores. Detectives also used surveillance, information from law enforcement agencies, cellphone data and social media analysis to identify the suspects.
“One illegal purchasing spree conducted by members of this organization yielded nine handguns in eight days,” according to a criminal complaint filed by county Detective Jeffrey Koch, Montgomery Township Detective Todd Walter and state police Trooper Brian Kedra. “The purpose of this corrupt organization was to illegally obtain and distribute numerous firearms to others.”
The investigation was led by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Violent Crime Unit, Montgomery Township Police Department, Pennsylvania State Police and the Plymouth Township Police Department, along with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Norristown Police Department, FBI, Bucks and Montgomery County Safe Streets Task Force, Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General’s Gun Violence Task Force, Pottstown Police Department, Hatfield Township Police Department and Berks County Detectives.