Handful Arrested In Straw Purchasing Scheme

Federal authorities arrested and charged five Vermont residents last week for their involvement in a straw purchasing scheme with ties to gang activity in Boston.

Tyson Wells, Dara Bessette, Sierra Lacoste, Laci Baker, and Megan West — all of St. Albans City, Vermont, a small town near the Canadian border — face charges for lying on gun background check forms last year, pretending to buy more than 30 firearms for themselves they later traded to two drug dealers in exchange for cocaine and heroin.

According to a criminal complaint filed last week, two drug dealers with connections to the Latin Kings in south Boston moved in with Wells and Bassette in August 2017. Bassette told investigators she and Wells acted as middlemen, arranging for drug sales between local residents and the dealers, who wanted to shield themselves from any possible police probe.

The dealers supplied Wells and Bassette with “free” cocaine in exchange for their help, eventually encouraging them and three others — Lacoste, Baker and West — to buy firearms from two different local stores for transport back to south Boston. The women reported watching the dealers obliterate serial numbers from the weapons — mostly handguns — before returning to Boston to sell the firearms to fellow gang members.

Law enforcement in Boston recovered five of the guns during sweeps of the same neighborhood in January and managed to restore some of the obliterated serial numbers, according to the complaint.

“This case highlights the commitment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prioritize firearms offenses,” said U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan. “Those who violate gun laws by diverting weapons to the black market endanger innocent citizens and empower dangerous criminals. Federal, state, and local law enforcement will work as a team to bring consequences for such conduct, and will target such individuals for federal prosecution.”

Federal data suggests 2018 could be the Department of Justice’s busiest year ever in more than a decade for weapons prosecutions.

Should authorities keep up at the current pace, total annual prosecutions will exceed more than 10,000 this year — a 22.5 percent increase over 2017 and up by nearly half over the last five years, according to the Transactional Records Clearing House.

Weapons prosecutions peaked at 11,000 in 2004 and dropped to less than 7,000 a decade later. Since 2014, however, TRAC data shows a gradual uptick in prosecutions, punctuated by a steep increase this year as the DOJ cracks down on gun-related crimes.

“The straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms is a serious criminal activity and often puts firearms in the hands of individuals who can’t legally purchase or possess them,” said Lawrence Panetta, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Boston Field Division. “ATF remains dedicated to identifying, investigating and arresting these individuals and making our streets and communities safer from violent firearm related acts.”

St. Albans Chief of Police Gary Taylor added: “This case is an excellent example of municipal law enforcement working with our federal law enforcement partners to make our community and our neighbors’ community in Boston safer.”

If convicted, each defendant faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the DOJ.