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Operation targets weapons, violence

Repeat offenders focus of crackdown

Monday, January 24, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One hundred and fifty - that's roughly how many bad guys with guns are responsible for the bulk of the shootings in the Pittsburgh region, with its population of more than 2 million people.

And those are the people - the "bad actors," in cop-speak - that a federal, state and local gun task force has identified as the violent repeat offenders authorities want to curtail, one way or another, under Operation Target.

Operation Target, cited by President Clinton as one of four model anti-gun programs nationwide, is a broad-based effort by the U.S. attorney's office and a dozen law enforcement agencies to crack down on illegal gun trafficking and gun violence. One aspect of the program is to make it clear to the shooters out there that they're being watched, and if they're caught with a gun, they're going to prison - in some cases federal prison.

"We're trying to influence behavior," said U.S. Attorney Harry Litman. "For me, our success will be measured in terms of a decrease in shootings in the community. If we have significantly fewer shootings a year from now, then [Operation] Target will have been a success."

Since it began in October, Operation Target investigations have resulted in federal indictments of 18 people on charges ranging from illegal possession of a firearm by a felon to making a "straw purchase," or buying a gun legally for someone who isn't allowed to have one.

Another 13 people have been charged at the state level, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, including five young men arrested this week in connection with a handgun that was stolen from a temporary evidence locker in the Stowe Police Department.

At least 20 other state and federal gun cases are in the "pipeline," federal prosecutors say.

Operation Target is gaining momentum locally just as anti-gun efforts are gearing up nationally.

On Tuesday, the same day ATF agents and police made the arrests in the Stowe case, Clinton appeared in Boston to unveil a sweeping $280 million plan aimed at gun violence, the largest firearms initiative in U.S. history.

It calls for the hiring of 500 new ATF agents and 1,000 state prosecutors dedicated to handling gun cases, in addition to another 100 federal prosecutors. The program would also finance new efforts to trace guns and bullets used in crimes and provide funds to develop "smart guns" that can only be operated by their owners.

Clinton's measure would have to be passed by Congress, which failed to pass another large gun package last year despite public outrage over the April 20 deaths of 14 high school students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. Clinton is continuing to push for that legislation as well. It calls for background checks on all buyers at gun shows, denial of gun ownership to juveniles convicted of crimes and mandatory childproof "trigger locks" on all guns.

The new Clinton program would likely beef up the local ATF office, which has been operating at less than full staff, according to Brandt Schenken, agent in charge of the firearms trafficking unit. The Pittsburgh office, which handles all of the Western District including Erie, is considered fully staffed at 30, including 20 agents and 10 inspectors. Currently, ATF has 10 inspectors and 11 agents.

Litman said because Operation Target is selective about which cases to pursue federally, his office likely won't need any new prosecutors. He probably will, however, dedicate a couple of current prosecutors to handle gun cases.

Unlike other gun programs, such as Project Exile in Richmond, Va., Operation Target is not seeking federal indictments and sentences in every gun case, an approach that flooded federal court in Richmond. Instead, Litman said, his office will work closely with that of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to determine which staff should handle each gun offense.

In addition, Litman and Schenken said, Operation Target will continue to work with legitimate firearms dealers while cracking down on straw purchases.

In December 1999, for example, ATF and local police arrested five men on charges of illegally selling a total of 40 guns. According to the indictments, one of the men, Herman Michael Deveauxbray, 23, of Pittsburgh, sold 11 guns, including two that were used in shootings in May and one that was recovered during a drug investigation. Agents said Deveauxbray falsely certified on federal firearms forms that he was buying weapons from Braverman Arms Co. for himself when he was in fact buying them for criminals.

Police used to believe that most guns used in crimes were stolen, but according to Justice Department figures, about 75 percent of crime guns are obtained through illegal dealing.

Still, plenty of guns on the street can be traced to theft - and end up passing through many hands.

In the latest case investigated by Operation Target task force members, agents said Lawrence Tabella, 20, of McKees Rocks, a part-time dispatcher for Stowe police, stole a handgun that was being stored in a temporary evidence locker. An investigation showed Tabella passed the gun to Joseph Bauer, 22, of McKees Rocks. From there, according to ATF, it was passed to two brothers, Ryan Giovengo, 19, and Matthew Giovengo, 20, and then to Jack Brady, 19, all of Pittsburgh.

The investigation started in November when Baldwin Borough police recovered the gun in an unrelated case.

All five men are now facing state charges related to the stolen gun.

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