Kevin Sweat

Booking photo of Kevin Sweat, 25, accused of murdering 13-year-old Taylor Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker in 2008. (December 17, 2011)

The wanted poster portrays a .40-caliber Glock Model 22 semiautomatic pistol, serial number EKG463US, that resembles thousands of standard-issue guns owned by the Baltimore Police Department.

But this particular weapon found its way out of the hands of law enforcement and into the hands of a suspected killer — an above-board but nightmarish scenario for city police. Authorities say the gun was used three years ago to shoot two young girls on a dirt road outside a rural Oklahoma town.

"I was shocked when I found out the gun came from Baltimore," said Wanda Mankin, the elementary principal of the Graham School, where the victims, Taylor Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11, shared a classroom for fifth- and sixth-graders. "How did that gun get here from so far away?"

Baltimore police — whose commissioner coined the crime-fighting strategy of targeting "bad guys with guns" — are very sensitive to the fate of their old weapons. The department refuses to sell guns back to manufacturers, and has barred officers from buying their guns when they retire.

In 2001, city police refused to sell thousands of 9 mm handguns back to Glock when the agency switched over to .40-caliber because officials were concerned about adding to the proliferation of weapons on the streets. The principled stand cost the city more than $500,000 in rebates.

Even with such precautions, though, guns can get into the wrong hands, so police still worry about the ramifications of the most innocent transfer. The gun pictured on the poster, for example, had been returned to Glock because it was broken, and now Oklahoma authorities are trying to find it as part of the double-murder case. They're offering a $5,000 reward.

"If we put guns back on the street and they're used in a crime, do we bear some responsibility for putting them back into circulation?" retired Deputy Police Commissioner Bert F. Shirey, who led the 2001 discussion about the gun changeover, said last week.

"There are plenty of guns rolling off the assembly lines," said Shirey, who retired in 2002 after 37 years on the force. "But do we want to put more out there? We see so much carnage already. If one of our guns is used in a crime — or to kill a child, as in this case — we don't want that on our conscience."

Baltimore police returned the Glock to the company about six years ago, along with a batch of weapons with defective firing pins and other problems.

Glock refurbished the guns, and the one from the Police Department ended up in an Oklahoma gun store, where authorities said it was bought by Kevin Joe Sweat in the fall of 2007.

About a week ago, police charged Sweat with using a .40-caliber Glock and a .22-caliber pistol to shoot Taylor and her best friend, Skyla, both members of the cheerleading squad, as they walked to Bad Creek Bridge after a slumber party in the summer of 2008.

Court documents say the suspect confessed to shooting Taylor and Skyla in the head and chest — five bullets into one, eight into the other — thinking the two girls were "monsters" coming at him. At the time he was charged in those killings, Sweat, now 24, was already in jail in connection with the death of his fiancee; her burned body was found in August.

Prosecutors in Oklahoma, who are seeking the death penalty for Sweat, revealed the gun's history and its ties to Baltimore when they announced his arrest. That ended a three-year investigation that involved chasing more than 900 leads and testing nearly 20,000 pieces of forensic evidence.

But the weapon itself is still missing; police believe it was sold at a Tulsa gun show after the killings.

The slayings were the first in two decades in or near Weleetka, a once-thriving western railroad town located in Okfuskee County, birthplace of Woody Guthrie. It's situated between old coal mines and fits into less than a square mile of flat, dusty land settled with slightly more than 900 people.

Authorities linked the double killings to the gun through five bullet casings found near the bodies; others found at Sweat's father's house, where they said Sweat did practice shooting; and a casing kept on file at the Baltimore Police Department, where it had been test-fired.

No one is criticizing city police or Glock — whose representatives did not return repeated phone calls — for the gun ending up in Oklahoma.

Okfuskee County District Attorney Max Cook praised Baltimore for keeping a single shell casing from the gun — that helped authorities draw a link to the weapon used in the slayings.

All city police weapons are test-fired, and casings matching each one are filed away before the weapons are distributed to officers. When a semiautomatic is fired, unique grooves are left in the sides of the ejected metal casings, and those can be traced like fingerprints.