By Daniel Silliman
Nine Riverdale men have been arrested in connection with a Fayette County firearms heist. The men, each with a street name and believed to be connected to the Southside Mafia gang, allegedly stole 86 guns from a dealer.
"Most of them were handguns," said Lt. Belinda McCastle, Fayette County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. "Semiautomatic Glocks and SIGs, and there was a Springfield, semiautomatic .308."
The burglary occurred during the early morning hours of Dec. 5, at Autrey's Armory, and was described by law enforcement as well planned and quick. Video surveillance outside the firearms store and shooting range showed men, using a Chevy pickup truck, later found to be stolen out of Clayton County, pulling the burglar bars off of the windows, smashing their way in and stealing the 86 guns. The photos didn't show the men's faces or give investigators any leads on their identities.
The weapons heist was one of the largest cases of stolen guns ever seen in Fayette County, and the thought of those guns on the black market in metro Atlanta worried the Sheriff's Office, McCastle said.
"Here we have almost 90 guns in the hands of criminals and they're going into the hands of other criminals," the sheriff's lieutenant said. "That means more crime. That was our big concern."
At the time, investigators did not know if the weapons were going to be resold or if there was some other intended purpose. They knew the burglars were organized enough to get in and out of the store quickly with a load of guns, but they did not know if they were professionals. They also did not know if the men were from Fayette County, another metro Atlanta community, or some place outside the area.
They had little to go on, but while going over the evidence, they noticed one detail that would prove to be important. "Ammunition magazines," McCastle said. "None of the guns had the magazines to load the guns, and without the magazines, the gun is actually not complete."
Working with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a notice was released to all licensed firearms dealers, including pawn shops, in the area, asking to be alerted to anyone attempting to buy a large quantity of magazines.
Without magazines, the guns were essentially inoperable, so the deputies began to pursue that angle. In order to use the guns or resell the guns, the men would have to buy 85 handgun magazines and one rifle magazine.
Dealers were asked to "red flag" multiple magazine purchases. Almost immediately, in late December, Clayton County Police received word of men looking for semiautomatic magazines for SIGs and Glocks, from pawn shops in the Riverdale area.
Clayton County Police Capt. Greg Dickens said the first call turned up nothing but the second pawn shop reporting suspicious activity looked promising.
Back in Fayette, investigators responded to the news positively, saying, "These are our suspects."
One investigator with the office, Josh Shelton, said "that was the key to the whole case," according to the Fayette Daily News.
"They had to either buy or steal magazines to make them working guns," he is reported as saying, "and that's how we got our breaks."
Fayette, Clayton and ATF agents spent two weeks in the Riverdale area, looking for the men.
"It was a lot of good old fashion police work," McCastle said. "A lot of good old hitting the pavement, knocking and talking to people. It was basically going into communities where we thought weapons were or suspects were, getting some questions answered."
Late last week, the investigation led to the arrests of nine Riverdale residents and alleged members of the Southside Mafia:
Melvin Johnson, 21, Kissan Lynch, 22, Roland Williams, 20, Demario Smith, 19, Brandon McClure, 20, Fredrick Anderson, 19, Cornelius Heard, 20, Anthony Alston, 22, and an unnamed, 16-year-old juvenile.
Two of the men, McClure and Smith, were arrested by Clayton County Police at the end of 2006, when they arrived at a house during the middle of a drug raid, driving a car stolen out of Newton County.
Though McCastle would not say what, if anything, the nine admitted to investigators when arrested, she said, "the arrests were like a domino effect -- one led to the other."
The guns have not been recovered, however, and county and federal authorities are continuing to look for the 86 guns. Authorities are offering a reward for information leading the weapons, McCastle said.
Authorities also have the serial numbers from the weapons, and will be able to connect the guns to the theft, if they find them.
The nine Riverdale suspects are being held in Fayette County to face felony burglary charges.