'Gun squad' targeting York City's illegal gun trade and its straw buyers

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A multi-agency "focused attack" on people who buy firearms for those who can't legally possess them has removed 19 illegal guns from the streets of York City and identified 18 alleged straw buyers in less than two months — and the work is far from finished, York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow vowed.

Plus, city patrol officers seized more than 40 illegal guns as part of regular duties in the past few months, according to the commissioner, increasing the total number of illegal firearms taken off the streets to more than 59 in three months.

"Somebody's watching you now and the well has run dry," Muldrow warned other straw buyers. The ATF defines straw buyers as people who purchase firearms legally, then knowingly give or sell them to those who can't possess them.

Members of York City Police, the York County District Attorney's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Harrisburg and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives participated in "Operation Scarecrow" to stop the pipeline of illegal guns going to felons, juveniles and others who can't purchase firearms.

Muldrow said the task force will remain active and is simply called York City's gun squad. Its members include longtime York City Police Detective Paul DeHart III and ATF Special Agent Ryan Anderson, who used to be a York City police officer.

The York County Sheriff's Office and the county's adult and juvenile probation departments are also part of Operation Scarecrow, the commissioner said, and a number of other agencies are assisting where needed, including the York City School District.

Acting U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler said on Friday that the last big federal/York City partnership was about four years ago, for Operation Gun Grabber.

A display of 19 guns recovered thus far resulting from Operation Scarecrow, a multi-agency initiative that focuses on individuals who illegally purchase and possess firearms, are seen during a press conference addressing recent shootings in the city is held outside the York City Police Department in York City, Friday, April, 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

'Ground zero': Prior to that, a collaboration by his office, York City Police, the DA's office and others dismantled the Southside gang. A number of Southsiders are serving lengthy federal prison terms, including life sentences.

Brandler called illegal guns the scourge of the community.

"The City of York is ground zero for gun crime in Central Pennsylvania," he said, and noted that the U.S. Attorney's Office pledges to do all it can to change that.

"We know there are still a lot of guns out there in the community," Muldrow said, but there is hope.

"We're coming to take these streets back," he said. "Hold on, 'cause we're coming."

Money will be available to reward tipsters who supply the gun squad with information about illegal guns and straw buyers, he said.

"Everywhere I go, the people want to know: 'What are we doing about gun violence?'" Muldrow said at a news conference Friday morning in front of the York City police station.

Actin U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler speaks to media about Operation Scarecrow, a multi-agency initiative that focuses on individuals who illegally purchase and possess firearms, during a press conference held outside the York City Police Department in York City, Friday, April, 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

'Just getting started': He said it's a question he's been losing sleep over since before he was named the city's top cop. The gun squad, he said, is the answer to people's question.

"And this is only the beginning," Muldrow said. "We are just getting started."

Mayor Michael Helfrich noted that there are no gun shops or gun shows in York City, so the illegal guns flooding the city are coming from outside of it.

"We are all coming together to defend our children here in the City of York," Helfrich said.

All 18 alleged straw buyers either have or will be charged in federal court or York County court, according to Lt. Daniel Lentz, York City Police spokesperson. He said some already charged in York County Court could have their cases moved to federal court.

Multiple agencies are represented as York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow addresses recent shootings and introduces Operation Scarecrow, a multi-agency initiative that focuses on individuals who illegally purchase and possess firearms, during a press conference outside the police station in York City, Friday, April, 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Between them, the 18 are responsible for putting 53 illegal guns on the streets of York, according to Muldrow.

At this point, the names of four of them have been released. Lentz said the other 14 names will also be made public in the near future.

Publicly named so far: Charged in federal court so far are:

  • Jahzaire Gilliam, 19, of York, with conspiring to make a false statement during a firearm purchase; two counts of receipt of a firearm by a person under indictment; possession of a firearm by an unlawful user of a controlled substance; marijuana distribution; marijuana possession with the intent to distribute; and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking
  • Hannah Lapham, 22, of York, with conspiring to make and making a false statement during a firearm purchase
  • Donte Christian, 45, of Baltimore, with four counts of making a false statement during a firearm purchase
  • Nijee Baskins, 21, of York, with two counts of making a false statement during a firearm purchase.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow addresses recent shootings as he introduces Operation Scarecrow, a multi-agency initiative that focuses on individuals who illegally purchase and possess firearms, during a press conference at the police station in York City, Friday, April, 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo