ROCHESTER, N.Y. - James Thompson Jr. first bought the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in 2005 for target shooting and hunting.
years later, the rifle was used when a gang member unleashed its
firepower into a Rochester, N.Y., house party, killing a 15-year-old
On that night in June 2007, Carmella Rodgers had slipped out
of her house to go to the party. That teenage peccadillo would lead to
her death, as she was gunned down by the staccato shots from the AR-15.
the current conversation and controversy over the AR-15 - the same type
of weapon as the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used by the gunmen in
Webster, N.Y., and Newtown, Conn. - the death of a 15-year-old Rochester
girl has not been a focus.
But the death of Carmella Rodgers is telling.
rifle's pathway reveals one route - and a common one - for a legally
purchased firearm to wind its way into criminal circles.
handguns are the more common weapon in violent crime, the AR-15 used in
the Carmella Rodgers killing had an allure for the gang members who
wielded it. While many responsible gun owners have an AR-15 among their
collection - 2.1 million of the guns were produced in the U.S. between
1986 and 2009, according to the National Rifle Association - the sleek
appearance and semiautomatic capacity also appeals to a criminal
"I think the group was intrigued by the mere look of this
high-powered rifle," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Gregory, who
prosecuted the gang involved in the Carmella Rodgers slaying.
allege that among the guns used by William Spengler Jr. when he fatally
shot two Webster volunteer firefighters on Christmas Eve was an AR-15.
A little more than a week earlier, Adam Lanza carried out a massacre
at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., with the same type of
Authorities allege that a former neighbor of Spengler
bought the firearms for him, while Lanza used guns stolen from his
mother, whom he also killed.
Gun turns up
In June 2007 the upstairs apartment of a Rohr Street home was jam-packed for a house party. Carmella was among the crowd.
among the partiers were several young men embroiled in a feud with a
rival gang, which sometimes called itself the Wolfpack and other times
the Chain Gang. In the early hours of the party, they'd refused to allow
Wolfpack members to enter.
Some members of the Wolfpack went and
grabbed the AR-15 rifle they'd kept for their protection and for crimes.
They returned to the Rohr Street house and from the street began firing
into the upper-level apartment.
Two men were hit and wounded. Carmella was shot in the chest and died there.
Police found 13 bullet casings at the crime scene, but the rifle was long gone - still in the possession of Wolfpack members.
years after the killing, a tow truck driver spotted a rifle in the
back seat of an illegally parked car. Rochester police seized the gun,
and ran a ballistics test that revealed the AR-15 had been used to kill
The gun made its way into the hands of Wolfpack members when James
Thompson Jr. swapped the AR-15 for $100 and an eight-ball -- cocaine
packed into one-eighth ounces for sale.
Thompson bought the AR-15 from a Batavia, N.Y., store for $1,300 in 2005.
hunter and target shooting enthusiast, he added the gun to his
collection, which included a shotgun, an AK-47 and a .30-06 rifle.
Thompson was also a cocaine addict and a drunk.
2007 he was buying and using crack cocaine on a daily basis. He'd drive
into Rochester, visit a popular street-corner drug area, and purchase
Low on cash and behind on child support,
Thompson negotiated a transaction in the spring of 2007 with a dealer -
Jerrick Densen, a Wolfpack member known as "D."
later, Wolfpack members used the gun when they shot up the Rohr Street
party. While who specifically pulled the trigger is unclear, the federal
jury in 2011 determined that three Wolfpack members - Michael Jackson,
Russell Hampton and Dearick Smith - were responsible for the death.
who according to court records is now clean, was devastated when he
learned in 2010 how the gun had been used. He pleaded guilty to a
weapons-related crime and testified against the Wolfpack members.
death of a teenager "was not something that James ever considered when
he sold the firearm," his attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender
Mark Hosken, wrote in court papers. "Today, that event is something
James thinks about every day of his life."
At trial, Thompson wept when asked about the sale of the gun.
Guns are money
On the streets, especially in drug-dealing circles, guns are currency.
to Scott Heagney, who heads the Rochester office of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, many guns enter the pipeline
the same way as the AR-15 used to kill Carmella Rodgers: They are
exchanged for drugs.
"What's common about it is the original purchaser of record will divert that gun into illegal commerce," Heagney said.
Stolen guns are also commonly used for crime, research shows.
review of guns seized by the Rochester police showed that about 15
percent had originally been reported as stolen, according to a 2009
report from RIT's Center for Public Safety Initiatives.
things started as legal at some point in time and end up in the illegal
gun market and traded around," said John Klofas, a criminal justice
professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Once in the hands of criminals, a firearm can bounce around as easily as baseball cards were once traded by youngsters.
turn around and sell the guns for either cash or, specifically, drugs,"
said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Puscheck, who has been involved in
many federal gun prosecutions.
The semiautomatic weapons have a certain attraction for criminals, some authorities say.
an advantage to having it," Puscheck said. "No. 1, the capability of
the gun. No. 2, they look very intimidating. You flash that thing and
people know you mean business."
The AR-15 used to kill Carmella Rodgers was a "community gun," one that, Heagney said, is shared by criminals.
by addiction, Thompson apparently did not consider just how his legally
purchased semiautomatic rifle would be used when in the hands of drug
dealers. Now 36, he is free after a yearlong prison sentence.
must live with this thought of an innocent little girl with a chance for
a good life gunned down without a chance," Thompson wrote in a letter
to U.S. District Court Judge Charles Siragusa before his 2011
"This is because I gave a street thug a gun."
Gary Craig, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle