NEWARK, N.J. — Donna Mack knew something was wrong when she heard a car roaring toward the Newark street corner where she had just left her younger sister. But there was no time to react.
She saw a hand come out of the passenger's side window. A flash of gunfire, two pops. Then she watched from across the street as her sister, Cynthia Mack, fell to the sidewalk, a stray bullet in her head. The 39-year-old single mother of two died immediately, blood pooling around her body at dusk on a March 2005 night as the gunman sped away.
"She never opened her eyes," Donna Mack said.
Six days earlier, the 9 mm pistol that killed Cynthia Mack had been picked from the shelves of a suburban Atlanta firearms store by a 29-year-old home-electronics installer lured into a smuggling operation by the promise of easy cash and a trip to New Jersey. He was one of six people recruited by an ex-con forklift operator from Newark looking to supplement his income by selling guns on the street.
The trafficking ring, a loose partnership of low-rung criminals and their hard-up friends, was broken up in 2007 by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Newark police. The case culminated this year, when the Newark ringleader went to trial and his gun buyers explained how they got involved in the plot. From the witness stand, they offered a rare glimpse inside the hidden world of inner-city gun smuggling, how easy it is to buy guns in bulk elsewhere, and how astonishingly cheap they can be.
Federal investigators found these "straw buyers" both mundane and shocking – people with no criminal records who were willing to work for little more than pocket money, and could not care less how the guns were used.
The ringleader, a twice-convicted Newark drug dealer named Clovis Reeves, cooked up the scheme at a house party four years ago at a single-family rental house in Lawrenceville, Ga., just outside Atlanta, authorities say. The hosts that night were Reeves' cousin, Bany Sy Smith, also an ex-con, and his roommate, Kwame Walker, a 29-year-old ailing diabetic who worked for his father's home-electronics business, according to federal agents and court documents.
Reeves, who called himself "C," approached Walker and asked him "to find some people to put guns in their names for him," Walker testified at trial. When a prosecutor asked what kind of people Reeves wanted him to find, Walker replied, "people that was in the need, that needed money, that had a clean record."
He had come to Georgia for guns because it was easier to get them there. In New Jersey, prospective gun buyers must go to their local police department for a permit, undergo a lengthy background check, and then may only use the permit to buy one handgun. In Georgia, by contrast, a resident can go to a gun store, show valid state identification, pass an instant background check and buy as many handguns as they want.
As in most such smuggling operations, the goal was to find people willing to overlook how the guns would be used, federal authorities say.
"I honestly don't think they realize the seriousness of what these guns could do," said Michael Mohr, a New Jersey-based ATF agent who investigated the Reeves ring. "They're all about making $50 to buy diapers or something. They don't think what's going to happen."
Reeves' plan was simple: The recruiters would drive the buyers to a gun store, give them cash and coach them on which weapons to purchase – mostly cheap and dependable HiPoint pistols. When the time came to fill out paperwork, the buyers were instructed to indicate that they were buying the guns for themselves. That lie was a violation of federal law that would be their undoing. Later, when they were outside the store or back at someone's house, they would hand the guns over to Reeves or his point men: Smith and a friend, Richard Washington, another ex-con.
Such an intimate look at straw buying is rare because the vast majority of cases never go to trial; defendants usually plead guilty. Though Reeves went to trial in Atlanta in April, transcripts did not become available until months afterward.
Walker told Reeves he could find recruits. Then, enticed by the promise of $50 per weapon and a trip to New Jersey, he joined the plot. On March 12, 2005, he rented a car, bought 15 guns from a nearby firearms dealer, and drove with Smith and Washington to Newark.
From the start, Walker apparently understood why the guns were needed up north. When a federal prosecutor asked him that question at Reeves' trial, he replied, "The way I heard it was, it's a lot of corners and they need to protect their corners to make their money." In other words, the guns were headed to drug dealers and gang members who might need them to defend their turf.
But Walker, laid back and overweight, seemed unfazed, according to federal agents who got to know him. He testified that he took the road trip to Newark "just to go, because I never been."
On the way, he asked Smith and Washington how they were going to keep the guns from being traced back to him. They promised to file off the serial numbers. Reeves said the same thing when they delivered him the weapons. Before heading back to Georgia, they drove around Newark, and Walker watched from the car as Reeves sold some of the guns outside housing projects.
After he returned to Lawrenceville, Walker got nervous, so he falsely reported the guns stolen. But he continued recruiting.
One of his first calls was to Latovia Cunningham, an old friend from the neighborhood. At the time, Cunningham was not yet 21, the legal gun-buying age, so she pitched the idea to her best friend, Sakinah Toms, who had just had a baby and was unemployed.
"How much do you want to pay me?" Toms, testifying at Reeves' trial, recalled asking her friend.
She bought four guns at The Gun Store in Norcross, Ga., and made $300.
Later, Toms admitted that she'd noticed a pamphlet inside the store that was part of a public education campaign to discourage illegal gun buying. "Don't Lie for the Other Guy," it said. She paid it no mind.
"She didn't care," said Atlanta ATF agent Ben Southall, who interviewed most of the people involved in the ring. "She needed the money."
Walker also enlisted Craig Birdsong, with whom he'd worked and played pickup basketball. In two trips on consecutive days to The Gun Store, Birdsong bought the smugglers 11 guns, earning about $200, according to the ATF.
Weeks later, after Cunningham had celebrated her 21st birthday, Walker called her again and put her in touch with Reeves. She agreed, and Toms, eager to make more cash, offered to go with her.
The two women visited The Gun Store together, buying 22 guns and pocketing $300 each.
At the start of the gun-buying, Reeves remained in Newark, wiring money to his accomplices and then having them drive the weapons to him. But as the scheme progressed, he traveled to Georgia to oversee the purchases, coaching the straw buyers and handling the cash, according to court records. Once, his partners drove him to an Amtrak station and put him on a train to New Jersey with a cache of weapons.
Over eight months in 2005, they delivered about 60 guns to New Jersey, authorities say. Marked up by more than triple their approximate $150 purchase price, many of the firearms landed in the hands of drug dealers, robbers and gang members, including a Blood and a Crip.
"These men and women may not have been the perpetrators of violent crime, but they certainly exacerbated it," Atlanta ATF spokesman Marc Jackson said.
A few of the guns were used in nonfatal shootings. And one became a homicide weapon.
On March 18, 2005, Cynthia Mack stepped out of her Newark apartment for a pack of cigarettes. At the corner of Clinton and Chadwick avenues, she ran into her sister, Donna. They talked for a few minutes, then someone called Donna across the street.
As Donna Mack turned back across Clinton Avenue toward her younger sister, a silver car barreled through the intersection, a gunman blasting bullets onto the corner. Cynthia Mack was hit, along with two others, who survived.
A few months later, Irvington police arrested a man with a 9 mm HiPoint pistol in his waistband. The Essex County Sheriff's Department test-fired the gun and determined that it was the same weapon used to kill Cynthia Mack. That information was passed along to homicide detectives, but they found no evidence that the man was the killer. The gun had apparently passed through other people's hands before reaching his.
The pistol was one of several recovered by police that, a year later, caught the attention of ATF agents in New Jersey, who noticed a suspicious pattern: All had originally been purchased at gun stores in the Atlanta area around the same time. The agents called their colleagues in Georgia, who, by coincidence, were investigating the same people who had bought those guns.
In August 2007, a federal grand jury in Atlanta indicted Reeves, his recruiters and the straw buyers. With the exception of Smith, who was killed in an unrelated shooting, all of the accomplices pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Reeves, who refused plea deals and went to trial. He was convicted and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
At Reeves' trial, prosecutors asked Walker what he stood to gain by helping the smugglers. He said Reeves and Smith promised him $50 a weapon. But after all his work, Walker was never paid.
"They lied to me," Walker said. He is now serving an 18-month prison sentence.
Cynthia Mack's family moved from the apartment they shared near the shooting scene. Donna Mack has never returned the spot where her sister died. The emotional trauma is too much, and the shooting remains unsolved. She says she does not understand how someone can buy a gun for someone and fail to consider the consequences.
"I can't imagine they thought of the ripple effect it has," Donna Mack said. "It took a mother from her twin 6-year-old daughters, a daughter from her mother, an aunt from her nephews. All this time has passed, people are in jail, and we're still trying to get through this."
Southall, a 17-year ATF agent who has investigated hundreds of trafficking operations, knows that even after smugglers are busted, guns continue to circulate. The same will happen in this case.
"I expect these guns to keep turning up for years," he said.