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NORFOLK — Hasaan Radee had it all lined up: A man in Philadelphia who wanted to buy guns from him.
But Radee, of Norfolk, had a problem: With domestic assault convictions on his criminal record, he couldn’t pass a federal background check to buy the firearms himself.
So he enlisted Omar Lawrence — also of Norfolk and a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves with no criminal record — to be his “straw purchaser.”
Lawrence agreed. According to court documents, he went to federally licensed gun shops in Hampton Roads, falsely attesting on the background forms that he was the actual buyer of the guns.
He walked out with the weapons, turning them over to Radee.
Then the men drove to Philadelphia several times to sell the firearms, said Charles Bowman, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in that city.
“Omar was primarily the straw, and Radee was what we would call a middleman, who had connections with somebody in Philadelphia — a buyer in Philadelphia,” Bowman said.
Federal law enforcement officials in Norfolk and Philly touted the case Thursday as a prime example of their cooperation across state lines — and between federal and local law enforcement agencies — to combat rising gun violence.
The Norfolk FBI Office also showed off 18 weapons they seized in the case — most of them semi-automatic handguns, but also a few shotguns, a few semi-automatic rifles and a revolver — on a table outside an evidence room.
“By working together, we can and will bring to justice gun traffickers and others who enable this tragic cycle of violence,” said Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who attended the meeting by way of a teleconference hookup from his Alexandria office.
“We don’t want this violence to exist in our community, and we don’t want the violence to be shifted to another community,” he said.
Parekh said that Omar Lawrence bought 51 guns in recent years — with at least 43 of them believed to have been illegal “straw purchases” for other people.
Of those 43 firearms, he said, six have been tied to crimes — four in Philadelphia and one each in Baltimore and Virginia Beach.
The Philadelphia cases include two shootings and another two incidents that resulted in federal gun charges, Parekh said.
The gun used in one of the Philly cases — a drive-by shooting — was found in a stolen car in New Jersey, he said. The Baltimore and Virginia Beach cases involve gun and drug charges, Parekh added.
It’s unclear whether straw gun purchases are on the increase in recent years — and there’s no ready statistic on how often they are used in crimes. But federal law enforcement officials say it’s clearly a problem that’s allowing violence to spread from place to place.
“Although straw purchasers often do not know where the firearms they illegally purchase will end up or how they will be used, that’s what makes this crime so dangerous,” Parekh said in the exclusive interview with the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot. “By illegally obtaining firearms for others, they are putting lives at risk by placing guns in the hands of those who should not have them.”
The Lawrence and Radee case began when ATF agents in Philadelphia investigated three guns that were recovered by Philadelphia police.
The police had uploaded information about the weapons, such as their serial numbers, into an ATF database. The ATF agents soon learned that Lawrence bought the guns at federally licensed gun dealerships in Hampton Roads.
Matthew Varisco, special agent in charge of ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division, said the Philadelphia Police Department has a comprehensive program in place to track the origins of seized guns.
“Then through that piece of intelligence, investigators are then able to put the cases case together,” Varisco said by way of a teleconference hookup from Philadelphia.
The case was referred to the Norfolk Joint Terrorism Task Force, an interagency partnership led by the local FBI office.
Brian Dugan, the special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office, declined to say why the case was referred to a terrorism task force, saying only that “there were some connections there that we can’t talk about right now.”
“But regardless of whether it’s a national security case or a criminal case, we run cases down to their logical end,” Dugan said. “If we have the opportunity to go after criminal charges, which include going after guns, we’re going to take that opportunity.”
While several weapons were seized in the Philadelphia area, officials said, the Joint Terrorism Task Force executed search warrants in Hampton Roads — seizing another 31 weapons here, including Lawrence’s and Radee’s residences.
A federal indictment that opened the case last September said that the two men conspired to sell guns for a five-year period ending in 2020.
In June 2019, the indictment said, Radee sent a message to Lawrence asking that if he sees a Ruger subcompact handgun, he should “pick it up for me.”
“Ok,” Lawrence said, with Radee then telling him that “Bob’s got it around $315.”
A month later, Radee sent a picture of a SAR USA semi-automatic pistol to Lawrence.
”If you see one, I will send you the money, pick it up.” Or, he said, another Ruger model would do.
“Gotcha,” Lawrence replied.
“Money sent,” Radee wrote, with Lawrence responding with a “thumbs up” emoji.
And so it went, with various purchases made from Superior Pawn in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake Pawn and Gun in Chesapeake and the Marine Corps Exchange in Norfolk, the indictment said.
“Literally the last one,” Lawrence wrote in July 2020, referring to a semi-automatic handgun on display at a shop. He wanted to see if another conspirator wanted to buy it.
“Get it,” the man replied, and Lawrence did.
When FBI agents were grilling Lawrence in August 2020 about his purchases, the indictment said, he falsely told agents he was “soon to be deployed overseas” with the U.S. Army Reserves — not mentioning that he had actually left the Army a month earlier.
Lawrence, 43, and Radee, 59, were arrested in October 2020, on charges of conspiracy, making false statements during gun purchases, and charges pertaining to illegally transferring guns. Radee was charged with six counts and Lawrence with seven, to include the alleged false statement to the FBI agent.
Lawrence pleaded guilty to two counts a month later, with the other five charges dropped as part of a plea agreement. Radee pleaded guilty to one count in a May plea agreement, with the other five charges dropped.
Federal prosecutors asked a federal judge for some leniency, to credit the men for “acceptance of responsibility” by pleading guilty, thereby avoiding the need for a trial during the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. District Judge Roderick Young agreed to credit the men’s cooperation.
Lawrence was sentenced March 25 to 6 1/2 years in prison, and is at a federal prison in Petersburg, while Radee was sentenced July 21 to four years and nine months, and has to surrender to U.S. Marshals by Sept. 1.
Those sentences, Parekh said, “should serve as a significant deterrence not only to them, but to others in the community who may be considering similar gun trafficking crimes.”
“This is a perfect example of the (investigative) collaboration where you have a crime that’s being committed in our jurisdiction, but another jurisdiction is suffering the consequences of that crime,” added Jason Kusheba, the ATF’s resident agent in charge of that agency’s Norfolk Field Office.
Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone said his department began a program about five years ago to trace firearms, similar to what Philadelphia is doing.
But he said a renewed focus on going after straw purchasing in the federal partnership is welcome.
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“This partnership is inspiring to me, because I’ve always believed that there is far more straw purchasing going on than we know,” Boone said. “We typically in law enforcement focus on the end user. But I think now is the perfect time to start focusing on the illegal flow.”
Hampton Assistant Police Chief Orrin Gallop agreed, saying a federal partnership looking into the source of the gun purchasers can allow agencies like Hampton to keep an intense focus on the trigger pullers.
“We’re trying to focus in Hampton on the actual shooter — the ones who are doing the shooting — and concentrating our efforts to take that shooter out of the system,” Gallop said.
But, he said, “there are a lot of weapons that are floating around in Hampton Roads ... and our goal is to get them completely off the street.”
Gallop joked that the Hampton Police had hoped that the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel construction project “would keep the guns in Norfolk.” But alas, he said, “that isn’t going to happen.”
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, [email protected]
- for the record
Peter Dujardin has been a reporter at the Daily Press for 24 years. He has mostly covered courts and criminal justice issues for the past 14 years. That includes policing issues, and criminal and civil cases in both state and federal courts.
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