Sunday, 14 April 2024

EXCLUSIVE: Former correctional officer under investigation for weapons charges

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN CLARIFIED REGARDING A REFERENCE TO BARRETT RIFLES.

 

LAKEPORT – A former Lake County correctional officer is the focus of an investigation by local and federal officials regarding machine gun and assault weapon parts and ammunition found in his home earlier this month.


During the Jan. 16 service of a search warrant at his ranch on Wight Way in Kelseyville, Russell “Rusty” Wright, 37, was alleged to have been found in possession of hundreds of rounds of machine gun ammunition as well as parts of what appeared to be assault weapons, according to documents obtained by Lake County News.


“No, I don't have anything to say right now,” Wright said when contacted by Lake County News on Monday.


On Monday Sheriff Rod Mitchell said his department's investigation into the matter is still under way, and that they are coordinating with federal agencies – including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – because Wright is alleged to have transported across state lines unregistered weapons that are illegal in California except when possessed by peace officers in the course of their duty.


“The rules apply to everybody,” Mitchell said.


Nina Delgadillo, a senior special agent with the ATF's San Francisco Field Division, confirmed late Monday that they were working with the sheriff's office “and currently reviewing the case for potential federal prosecution.”


She said that the ATF investigates violations or potential violations of federal firearms and explosives laws. When such a case comes across their radar screen or if a local agency asks them to investigate, they become involved.


“That's, in general terms, how it would work,” she said.


Although the local investigation remains “dynamic,” Mitchell added, “I can confirm that some aspects of what we found have been turned over to the district attorney for review.”


Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff, who signed the search warrants in the case on behalf of the District Attorney's Office, said on Monday that he couldn't comment on the case at that time.


Any person found manufacturing or transferring into the state any assault weapon or .50 caliber machine gun can be convicted of a felony and face as much as eight years in state prison, according to California's Dangerous Weapons Control Law.


Mitchell, who said he has not seen any similar situation in his time in the department, said he and his command staff are implementing new policies to prevent similar occurrences in the future.


According to county documents, Wright – who started with the county as a correctional officer at the Lake County Jail in October 1995 – was terminated on Jan. 8, eight days before the search warrant service, following the conclusion of an internal affairs investigation that began Oct. 9.


Wright, was one of six rangemasters for the sheriff's office. Correctional officers who serve in that capacity receive 2.5 percent above their base pay, according to the memorandum of understanding between the Lake County Correctional Officer's Association and the county of Lake.


He also was a member of the California National Guard and deployed several times to active duty around the United States and overseas, according to documents supporting the investigation.


Wright was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which focused on “serious misconduct.”


Search warrant documents prepared by Sgt. Brian Martin of the sheriff's office explained that Wright “was terminated for conduct that will certainly prevent him from obtaining employment in law enforcement if it is discovered during a hiring process.”


The nature of the conduct for which Wright was fired was not specified and Mitchell could not address it because of personnel privacy rules.


However, he said that the search warrant service and the internal affairs were unconnected, and the investigation into the weapons allegations arose because of a separate audit of assault weapons conducted by the sheriff's office on Jan. 11.


On that day, Senior Rangemaster Sgt. Don McPherson conducted an audit of 10 M16-A1 rifles the sheriff's office obtained about two years ago from the US military through a program that allows local law enforcement agencies to obtain surplus military firearms.


Based on the requirements of the weapons grant program, the weapons must be inspected every 24 months, Mitchell said.


Rather than just looking at the serial numbers, McPherson went further and checked out each rifle more closely, and discovered that the trigger of one of them had been replaced with one from an AR-15, a weapon similar to an M16-A1.


“This was good, thorough work,” said Mitchell. “We interviewed everybody who has access to our armory.”


None of the other rangemasters, when questioned, said they knew anything about the replaced parts, according to Martin's search warrant narrative.


“I'm just very pleased that the audit was as detailed as it was so that we could get started toward assuring that all of the things that we're responsible for are in our proper care,” Mitchell said.


On Jan. 12, sheriff's officials discovered that when Wright had returned his keys to the sheriff's office when he was placed on administrative leave in October, the key to the armory – which he had held as part of his rangemaster duties – was missing. On that same day, the armory was rekeyed.


“We're committed to tracking our resources, protecting the things that we own,” said Mitchell. “I think it's going to hold accountable the person responsible.”


Questions and the search warrant service


Deputy Lucas Bingham, a sheriff's detective, told Capt. Cecil Brown, who was leading the investigation, that he believed Wright owned several assault weapons.


Bingham told investigators that he had seen Wright at the sheriff's firing range with a a .50-caliber BMG rifle in 2005 or 2006, shortly after Wright returned from a National Guard deployment in Utah. He said he believed Wright purchased the rifle while on deployment and brought it back to California.


One of the kinds of rifles referenced in the search warrant was the Barrett .50 caliber rifle, which ranges up to 57 inches in length, use large 6-inch rounds and have a firing range of up to 6,800 meters – or just over four miles, with a suggested safety range of five miles, according to specifications offered by the manufacturer, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc. of Mufreesboro, Tenn.


On Jan. 14, another correctional officer, Chad Holland – also one of the department's rangemasters – disclosed that he had several assault weapons that were not legally registered, which he then turned over to the sheriff's office.


Mitchell said Holland's case was investigated and he faces no criminal allegations.


On Jan. 14 Brown and Capt. Rob Howe went to Wright's horse ranch and offered him the opportunity to surrender any unregistered assault weapons. Investigative documents said that Wright stated, “I don't have 'em any more.”


Wright told them that in October – the same month he had been placed on administrative leave – he had taken the weapons to Utah, where he gave them to a friend. At the same time, he denied knowing anything about the changes to the M16-A1 rifle.


At that point Brown also demanded back the armory key, which Wright said he thought he had returned earlier. He then went into his home and returned with a ring of keys for the armory and the sheriff's firing range at Highland Springs, according to the search warrant's supporting documents.


During previous encounters, Wright reportedly had to be admonished to return other department belongings, including other firearms and his badge.


The search warrant affidavit explained that Wright did not provide the sheriff's office with a dealer record of sale for the assault weapons and a search of the Automated Firearms System for firearms registered to Wright found only two weapons – both handguns.


Believing Wright might have a .50-caliber machine gun and a Bushmaster Model SX-15 .223 caliber assault rifle in his possession – both of which he could have lawfully purchased out of state – investigators filed an affidavit for a search warrant signed Jan. 16 by Judge Stephen Hedstrom and executed the same day.


Items seized during the search included 125 live .50 caliber rounds; 225 spent .50 caliber rounds; a box of what appeared to be assault rifle parts, including triggers, hammers, grips, barrels, pistol cylinders and more; 55 rounds of 7.62 millimeter by 39 millimeter live ammunition; 12 long AK-47 style magazines; seven shorter 7.62 mm by 39 mm magazines; three drum-shaped magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of 7.62 mm by 39 mm ammunition; one drum-shaped magazine that can hold up to 75 rounds of 7.62 mm by 39 mm ammunition; other items including staff sergeant military insignia and pins; six high capacity Glock handgun magazines, including two .40 caliber magazines that each have a 15-round capacity, and four .45 caliber magazines that each can hold up to 13 rounds and were stamped “Restricted LE/Govt only.”


Mitchell said his department issues .40 caliber magazines, but not .45 caliber magazines, so it's not believed the item marked “Restricted LE/Govt only” came from the sheriff's office.


The items were taken and stored in sheriff's evidence facilities, according to search warrant return documents.


The law and machine guns


California, which has more restrictive gun laws than some other states, prohibits the ownership of machine guns and assault weapons, including the .50-caliber Barrett rifle, for which Wright was found to have had hundreds of ammunition rounds, according to investigative documents. Those laws also prohibit possession of parts meant to convert a regular weapon into a machine gun.


Under the California Dangerous Weapons Control Law, peace officers may possess the weapons but they are not exempted from following registration requirements, which include written permission from their department head, in this case Mitchell. The investigation documents stated that Mitchell didn't authorize Wright's purchase of such weapons.


Mitchell said his department's interpretation is that such an exemption only applies to individuals employed as peace officers, who are certified under the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), and not correctional officers.


“Although they are listed as peace officers, the way the law is written, they do not quality for that,” he said.


The memoranda of understanding for the county's correctional officers and peace officers also differentiates between the two classifications.


In the investigation so far, the missing trigger mechanism from the county's M16-A1 rifle hasn't been accounted for, said Mitchell. Nor have they located the weapons Wright is believed to have had.


Investigators haven't yet disclosed where Wright got most of the materials found at his home, although they've stated in the search warrant affidavit that they believed he purchased them lawfully in other states.


The new policies the department is implementing in the wake of the investigation will include new signing procedures, and tightened restrictions on who can access the items and when, he said.


In addition, Mitchell said the frequency of inventories will be increased and spot audits will be conducted regularly.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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