Most of guns stolen from LAPD may have hit black market
Just three of about 30 weapons taken from a SWAT building have been
found. Police had altered the guns to fire only plastic pellets, but
it's possible to convert them back to lethal use.
By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
October 29, 2011
All but three guns in a cache of weapons stolen earlier this month
from an unguarded building used by the Los Angeles Police
Department's SWAT unit remain missing and may have been sold or
traded on the black market, police said Friday.
Police arrested two men on suspicion of committing the heist and
three others for allegedly possessing the recovered weapons, said
Cmdr. Andrew Smith. Much to police officials' dismay, however, the
rest of the roughly 30 weapons stolen were not found in the suspects'
Although the weapons, which included MP-5 submachine guns and large-
caliber handguns, had been altered by police to fire only plastic
pellets for training exercises, it is possible for them to be
converted back to lethal use. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other
police officials have downplayed that possibility, although gun
experts and online tutorials suggest that the process is relatively
easy and requires only a few parts.
The company that manufactures the conversion kits used by the LAPD
has an instructional video on its website that walks a viewer through
the steps of returning an MP-5 to its original form in about five
The apparent sloppiness of the involved SWAT officers seemed to
worsen Friday, when police acknowledged that one of the three guns
recovered was an AR-15 assault rifle, which also had been converted
for training, that officers either did not know had been stolen or
failed to report as missing.
The two men who allegedly broke into the building were "low-level
burglars" who were looking to strip the building of copper wiring to
sell to support their drug habits, Smith said. "They just happened to
get lucky with the guns…and got rid of them as quickly as they
could," he said.
Police are continuing to try to find the weapons, but don't know how
many people may have bought guns from the men or any of their
identities, Smith said. It is also possible the suspects have stashed
the guns, police officials said.
While investigators pursued leads in the days after the incident,
police officials opted not to announce word of the stolen weapons;
they acknowledged the theft only after receiving inquiries from The
At the time, Deputy Chief Michael Downing said officers on Oct. 12
left the weapons in locked carrying cases on the first floor of a
vacant downtown building. The building, once home to garment
manufacturing companies, had been donated to the LAPD for SWAT
training exercises. Members of the elite unit, which is called on to
handle hostage situations and other high-risk crises, were scheduled
to train at the facility the following morning.
Although the thieves had to cut through bolt locks on three doors and
force their way through a metal roll gate to get to the guns, the
theft nonetheless was embarrassing for the SWAT unit. Serving in the
unit is one of the most prestigious assignments in the department,
and members are entrusted with specialized weaponry and trained to
methodically think through the possible outcomes of situations before
The decision to leave the guns in the building overnight violated
department safety procedures, Downing said. "Appropriate measures"
had been taken in response to the gaffe, he said, although he
declined to say if any officers were facing discipline.
In light of the discovery of the AR-15 assault rifle, SWAT is
conducting a thorough count of its weapons to confirm which ones were
stolen, Smith said. Police officials, however, said last week that
SWAT had already undertaken such a count to resolve confusion over
the type and number of guns missing. Police initially reported that
21 of the submachine guns and 12 .45-caliber handguns had been taken.
They later revised that to 15 of each, but made no mention of the rifle.
Anxious to recover the weapons, senior LAPD officials assigned
several of the department's top detectives from the Major Crimes and
Commercial Crimes divisions to the case. Their break came when
detectives received a tip from an acquaintance of one of the
suspects, said police sources with knowledge of the investigation who
requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss
details of the probe.
Thursday morning police raided houses where the suspects were thought
to have stashed the weapons. At one point police were led to believe
the guns had been buried in a backyard, but they found nothing when
they dug, Smith said. It was not immediately clear where the three
guns were discovered.
The two men arrested on suspicion of burglary are Richard Velasco,
29, and Gilbert Salcedo, 41. Gerardo Vasquez, 24, William Vasquez,
28, and Mauricio Hernandez, 31, were arrested on suspicion of
possessing an assault weapon.
It was not known whether the burglars were aware they were breaking
into an LAPD building. Police, however, made no secret of the fact
that the facility was used by SWAT for training. The officers could
be seen coming and going and sometimes put on public demonstrations