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The Gunrunner and the Peacemakers

Oakland's gun violence epidemic seems impossible to stop. But the story of a local firearms trafficker illustrates how laws that make it tougher to buy guns can help reduce violence.



On July 10, 2013, an armed carjacker kidnapped Rolando Lucas' youngest child. It happened in the blink of an eye. Lucas had pulled into a gas station at the corner of High Street and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. He parked his Honda Odyssey minivan beside a pump and walked with his eleven-year-old son to the station's store to pay. His wife, Modesta Ramirez, waited in the front passenger seat as his six-year-old son sat in the rear seat of the van. Lucas' twenty-month-old boy was sleeping in a child seat secured in the minivan's middle row. Lucas paid for the gas, and as his oldest son worked the pump, he got back into the driver's seat.

Court records describe what happened next: A man flung the driver's side door open. Lucas turned and found himself staring down the barrel of a semi-automatic pistol. The gunman was eighteen-year-old Adriell Williams. Williams ordered Lucas out of the van at gunpoint. Ramirez screamed and reached behind the seats to rescue her baby. But Williams quickly jumped into the driver's seat, pushing her out of the vehicle with the butt of his gun. Lucas' six-year-old son scrambled out of the back passenger door as Williams turned the ignition. Lucas frantically yanked on the back passenger door handle to reach his youngest child, but the van's doors automatically locked when the engine started. The baby was trapped inside as Williams sped away.

Thirty minutes later, an Oakland police officer found the baby, still in his child passenger seat, which was sitting on a sidewalk three blocks away. A jacket was covering the kid. Surprisingly, he was asleep and unharmed.

The next evening, Jose Perez was sitting in his parked car on 70th Avenue in East Oakland. Something moving in the rearview mirror caught his eye. He looked back and saw a man approaching, menacingly, gripping a pistol. Before he could react, the gunman, identified later in court as Adriell Williams — the teen who carjacked Lucas' family the day before — pointed the weapon at Perez's temple and yanked him from the driver's seat. Williams swung the butt of the gun down into Perez's scalp. As Perez stumbled backward from the blow, Williams jumped in the car and drove away.

Three weeks later, Oakland police officers Joel Ruiz and Billy Matthews responded to a call concerning three men who appeared to be casing an East Oakland taco truck and preparing to rob it. The caller saw handguns tucked into their pants. When Ruiz and Matthews got to the 5800 block of Bancroft Avenue, they spotted Adriell Williams and his associates. And Williams spotted the cops. All three took off running.

"I immediately noticed that the subject matching the description provided by dispatch began to hold his right hand into his right vest pocket," Ruiz later wrote in a police incident report. "It was consistent with him holding a firearm." According to Ruiz's narrative: "A second subject was also holding his front waistband as if he was trying to hold an object in place. This action is consistent with a person holding a firearm in place while running. He was later identified as Adriell Williams."

Ruiz chased the men on foot. Matthews followed in their police cruiser. When they captured Williams several blocks away, they found a Glock handgun that Williams had hastily discarded in a yard nearby. Twelve rounds were in the clip and one in the chamber. Officer Matthews said he recognized Williams as a suspect in the carjackings from earlier that month. Williams later pleaded guilty.

In the context of a city with a high-crime rate like Oakland, the offenses committed by Williams were not unusual. In the same week, there were six other carjackings in addition to the two committed by Williams. There were also 49 total robberies at gunpoint and nine assaults in which a firearm was discharged. Oakland's streets are saturated with guns, and gun violence is a regular occurrence. There were 2,737 robberies at gunpoint and 469 shootings in 2013. In 2014 and 2015, firearms crimes have remained stubbornly common.

The fact that Williams used a gun to carry out the carjackings and robberies was also unremarkable. But there was one aspect to Williams' crime spree that is worthy of closer attention: The Glock .40-caliber pistol that police officers recovered when they arrested Williams had recently been trafficked from Nevada through Oakland's underground weapons market.

An Oakland gun trafficker had purchased the Glock from a licensed dealer outside of Las Vegas, and then illegally smuggled the weapon to Oakland, before selling it to Williams just a few weeks before his arrest. And around the same time that Williams was casing taco trucks, stealing minivans, and pistol-whipping his victims, a joint investigation by federal agents and the Oakland Police Department was zeroing in on the source of dozens of firearms that were turning up in shootings, robberies, and mayhem across the Bay Area — including the gun that Williams used in his crime spree. And the guns all led back to one gunrunner.

The story of how these weapons ended up in Oakland provides a window into the East Bay's underground market for "hot" guns that are used frequently in robberies, assaults, and murders. But it's also a tale that illustrates how California's uniquely strong firearms regulations not only helped nail the gunrunner whose weapon was used to kidnap Rolando Lucas' twenty-month-old boy, but also have succeeded in making it harder for felons to get their hands on guns.

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