Unlocked and loaded: From gun shops to the streets

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The thieves were in and out of the gun shop in just 36 seconds, but some of the pistols they stole are still on the streets two years later.

The surveillance video inside Cabela’s in Grandville shows the first thief, a 16-year-old, bursting through the glass front door just after 1 a.m. Four accomplices follow, the youngest just 13. They scurry past camping gear and flannel shirts to a glass display case that is no match for their sledgehammers.

The thieves knew right where to go. The day before, surveillance footage shows them window shopping during store hours and checking for security cameras.

Exactly 36 seconds after breaking in, the last thief ducks out.

Their take: 13 semi-automatic pistols, mostly 9 mm Glocks, which they showed off on Snapchat, then quickly put to use.

Even the then-16-year-old ring leader, Herbie Brewer, called it almost too easy.

“I mean, the stores with glass, all you got to do is break the glass. If you’re quick enough, break the glass, get in and get out,” Brewer told Target 8.

The stolen guns are still turning up in West Michigan.

GUNS IN YARDS, WOODS, TATTOO ARTIST’S WAISTBAND

This spring, 20 months after the September 2017 Cabela’s heist, Mariano Arellano and his brother were clearing a spot for a new garden behind his garage in Wyoming when they found four stolen guns. One of them was a 9 mm Glock from Cabela’s.

The ditched guns weren’t far from where Arellano’s 4-year-old daughter, Ariana, likes to play.

“It’s kind of scary, you know, because we have kids, and the guns were loaded,” the brother, Roman Arellano, said. “Ready to fire.”

Thieves have hit federally licensed gun shops 14 times in Kent and Ottawa counties since September 2017, usually smashing glass doors to get in before crashing through glass display cases to get the guns.

While police have arrested the culprits in most cases, most of the guns are still out on the streets.

Of the 221 guns stolen in all, police have recovered just 60, leaving 161 unaccounted for, according to records compiled by Target 8.

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“I think absolutely it’s too easy,” Grand Rapids Police Department Lt. Kristen Rogers said. “I think gun dealers, or anybody for that matter, if you are going to carry guns you need to secure them in a well-thought-out and secured manner.”

“Criminals are arming themselves based upon some things that the gun shop owners could have prevented,” Muskegon Heights Police Chief Joseph E. Thomas Jr. said. “It’s their responsibility to make sure that their shop is safe and secure, especially in today’s society when a weapon is a great commodity and a dangerous commodity.”

TARGET 8 TRACKS GUNS

To track what’s happened to these stolen guns, Target 8 filed more than a dozen public records requests with nine police departments and dug through court records.

Target 8 narrowed its focus to the 29 guns stolen in September 2017 from Cabela’s in Grandville and Barracks 616 in Cascade Township eight days later.

All 10 of the guns recovered so far from the two shops were found in West Michigan.

“We’re worried about what is going to happen with those weapons,” Lt. Rogers said. “It’s just not a property crime. Those weapons could take somebody’s life in the future, and we don’t want that to happen.”

Within hours of the Cabela’s break-in on the morning of Sept. 16, 2017, bullets were flying in southeast Grand Rapids. Just for fun, reports show, the thieves fired their new guns into the air on Blaine Avenue and Boston Street SE. They opened fire from their car at a rival gang, the “Bemis Boys,” on Dickinson Street SE and fired shots near Baxter Street and Diamond Avenue SE.

Brewer, identified in reports as the leader of the September 2017 heists at Cabela’s and Barracks 616, sold some of his take on the streets of Grand Rapids and in Muskegon Heights. The going street price: $250 to $300 for handguns listed by Cabela’s at $500.

A READY MARKET: ‘SHOOT IT OUT OR DIE’

Brewer is 18 now, serving six to 10 years in prison for the thefts.

He said there’s a big market for stolen guns.

“The life that people living nowadays, ain’t no fighting no more,” Brewer said. “You going to shoot it out or die. So everybody want a gun ’cause don’t nobody want to fight.”

Most of the thieves, records show, are teenagers — not exactly criminal masterminds.

“There’s some young people who have understood this to be an easy thing to do, and that you get a lot of firearms if you hit one of these stores, and they have value,” said Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young.

The guns have value to the thieves who have armed themselves, have armed fellow gang members and have sold guns for easy money.

“It’s not just them,” the sheriff said. “It’s not just their immediate circle, but they’re often pooling them, almost like a community resource that can be used by whoever needs or wants a weapon.”

Within days, Grand Rapids police, working with federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and police from Grandville, recovered five of the 13 Cabela’s guns.

“If you don’t get them fairly soon after the event, once they start scattering, it becomes much harder to obtain the weapons,” Lt. Rogers said.

Police got three of the guns while arresting some of the teenaged thieves outside Buffalo Wild Wings on 28th Street SE.

>>Unlocked and Loaded: The suspects

They got one a few days later in a teenager’s backpack after shots were fired into a home in the 800 block of Oakhills Street SE, just east of Eastern Avenue.

A few minutes after that, they seized another after shots were fired at nearby Eastern Avenue and Adams Street SE. They arrested a 20-year-old tattoo artist who’d bought a Cabela’s gun from Brewer, the leader of the thieves, in exchange for a future $250 “sleeve” tattoo.

The Glock 35 Gen 4 .40-caliber handgun was loaded and in the tattoo artist’s waistband, police said.

The tattoo artist told police he had bought it at 2 a.m. the day of the break-in, less than an hour after the gun was stolen, and planned to sell it for a profit.

Grand Rapids police later found another Cabela’s gun with a 27-year-old man during a traffic stop at Madison Avenue and Oakdale Street SE. They also found a baggie of crack cocaine.

Two months after the heist, a 7-year-old boy hunting for golf balls with his dad near Indian Trails Golf Course in Grand Rapids found a Glock 9 mm from Cabela’s. It had been ditched in the woods, loaded with a bullet in the chamber.

“That is extremely disturbing and scary,” Lt. Rogers said.

VICTIM OF GUN THEFTS: ‘SOCIETY’

When police recover stolen guns, their reports often list the victim as “society,” which was the case in May 2019 in Wyoming.

Mariano Arellano and his brother found four stolen handguns, one from Cabela’s, in the weeds and brush in his back yard across from Marquette Park. They found two in an unlocked lock box, two in a plastic bag. They figure somebody had ditched them before the family moved in last year.

“Probably somebody very desperate, you know, because it looks like somebody just threw them there,” Roman Arellano said.

So now, two years after the Cabela’s heist, that leaves five of the 13 stolen guns still out there.

“None of it’s good, none of it’s good,” the sheriff said. “Anytime there’s illegal weapons, there’s absolute the possibility that it could be used to kill somebody, and that makes me very nervous, very, very nervous.”

Our investigation continues Tuesday on woodtv.com: Police say guns stolen from Barracks 616 were sold to ‘Big Homie’ in Muskegon Heights. He’s a pee-wee football coach.

Wednesday on woodtv.com: Some gun shops are reacting with beefed-up security. Some, police say, aren’t doing enough.

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