The FBI is investigating whether members of the Los Angeles Police Department's elite SWAT and Special Investigations Section units violated the law by purchasing large numbers of custom-made handguns and reselling them for profit, according to interviews.
Federal authorities opened the inquiry into the alleged gun sales in recent weeks after LAPD officials alerted them to possible gun violations, multiple sources told The Times.
The move comes after an earlier LAPD investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of officers. But on Friday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck acknowledged that that probe was "clearly lacking" and said the department has opened a second investigation of the weapons transactions that is still ongoing.
Suspicion over the guns first arose in May 2010, when a lieutenant in the LAPD's Metropolitan Division, which includes SWAT, attempted to inventory the division's weapons, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by the lieutenant and a report last year by the LAPD's inspector general, Alex Bustamante.
While accounting for the weapons, Lt. Armando Perez discovered that SWAT members had purchased an unknown number of pistols from the gun maker Kimber Manufacturing and were "possibly reselling these Kimber firearms for large profits to people outside of Metro SWAT," according to the lawsuit and Bustamante's report.
Sales records indicated that as many as 324 pistols had been purchased from Kimber, Bustamante reported. There are only about 60 officers in SWAT, and the guns were intended to be used by the officers while on duty.
Investigators have been trying to determine how many of those guns were resold and to whom. There are some indications the guns were sold to other LAPD officers outside the unit as well as others outside of law enforcement.
The FBI is expected to look as well into the possibility that officers from the LAPD's Special Investigations Section, which conducts surveillance in major, high-risk cases, were also improperly reselling Kimber guns, the sources said.
Federal and state gun laws restrict gun sales by people not registered as weapons dealers.
Kimber's dealings with the LAPD date back to at least 2002, when the department contracted with the company to buy a relatively small number of pistols, Bustamante reported.
Then, in 2007, the company unveiled a new edition of its model 1911 pistol that had been designed for officers in the Special Investigations Section. The weapons were emblazoned with the SIS insignia, and the company made the .45-caliber handgun to address specific requests made by SIS officers. The guns, for example, were lighter than those typically carried by LAPD officers and could be cocked and fired with one hand, in case the other was injured or otherwise unavailable.
Kimber appears to no longer sell the SIS gun. However, it continues to sell another version of the pistol that it says on its website is "identical to the pistol carried by LAPD® SWAT."
For years, the company and the LAPD have had a formal agreement that allows Kimber to use the department's badge, uniform, motto and other LAPD trademarks in its promotional materials, according to department records.
In his report, Bustamante said that Kimber sold the SWAT guns, which bore a special "LAPD SWAT" insignia, to members of the unit for about $600 each — a sharp discount from their resale value of between $1,600 and $3,500. It is not known how much the SIS officers paid.
Details of how the gun sales were done — and how many officers were involved — have remained murky. The confusion is due largely to what the inspector general's report found was the "deficient" and "limited" investigation the department conducted in 2010. That inquiry was closed without investigators interviewing Perez or any of the SWAT officers he found were involved in the gun dealings, Bustamante said in his August report.
Bustamante noted that "the purchase of firearms with the intent to immediately transfer the weapon to a third party may violate city ethics regulations and federal firearm laws." The report did not specify which regulations and laws may have been violated.
The department opened its second investigation last summer only after Bustamante drew attention to the unanswered questions. The current probe has dragged on far longer than expected. Asked to explain the delay, Cmdr. Stuart Maislin, who is overseeing the investigation, wrote in an email only that it was "very complex and there really is a lot left to do."
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.
Perez, the SWAT lieutenant, filed his lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that he has endured harassment and threats from other LAPD officers since drawing attention to the gun dealings. Through his attorney, Matthew McNicholas, Perez declined to be interviewed because of an order from police officials not to comment while the LAPD investigation continues.
McNicholas said that there is evidence that shows the LAPD had formal contracts with Kimber to buy a certain number of the custom SWAT and SIS guns but that the gun company sold more weapons directly to officers through informal "gentleman agreements." One or more SWAT officers collected money from others in the unit who wanted to purchase the guns and then contacted Kimber when they had gathered orders from about 20 officers, McNicholas said. In his lawsuit, Perez said an officer working in the Metropolitan Division's armory, James Quinlan, facilitated the sales between Kimber and the SWAT officers but did not provide details of Quinlan's role.
Quinlan, who is now retired, declined to comment, as did Capt. John Incontro, who commands the Metropolitan Division. A spokesperson for Kimber did not return repeated calls.
At times, a private company named Cinema Weaponry would also purchase guns, Perez said in the lawsuit. Cinema Weaponry is owned by Michael Papac, according to the state's business registry, and appears to rent weapons to film productions out of a small, run-down building in Glendale. Papac is not an LAPD officer and did not return calls seeking comment.
Perez also found that a Lucas Ranch Gun Sales, a registered gun dealer not affiliated with the LAPD, was involved in the gun transactions, according to his lawsuit and Bustamante's report. Jim Manhire, who owns Lucas Ranch, said in an interview with The Times in August that Kimber sent guns purchased by SWAT officers to him and that he completed the state and federal registration process that must be done for all weapons. After he had registered the .45-caliber weapons in the officers' names, the officers would pick them up, Manhire said.
Andrea Ordin, president of the L.A. Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, declined to discuss the specifics of the investigation but said the decision to alert federal authorities was probably made because they would be better qualified than LAPD investigators to assess whether any of the country's often arcane, complicated gun laws had been violated.
Beck echoed Ordin, saying, "In every internal investigation we always consider reaching out to outside entities, such as the district attorney, the United States attorney or the Federal Bureau of Investigation as appropriate."