Inside police headquarters in London, Ont., the Taurus PT-740 Slim rests inside an evidence box.
Black and silver, the subcompact handgun is light and easy to shoot. It fires a .40 calibre bullet and holds six shots in the magazine, plus one more in the chamber.
Before being smuggled into Canada, the Brazilian-made semi-automatic pistol was sold in June 2014 to a man at a gun show at the former Gibraltar Trade Centre in Taylor, Mich., roughly 20 mins south of Detroit.
The buyer swore in writing on a federal application that the gun was for him and that he was a U.S. citizen, according to court records and law enforcement.
He lied on both counts.
Jermaine M. Welsh, a Canadian citizen, purchased over 30 handguns from March to August 2014, a U.S. prosecutor said in a court file.
Welsh, along with several co-defendants, including Stephen Durrant — also a Canadian — were alleged to have purchased more than 100 guns in a five-month span, according to a U.S. indictment. Two family members said Welsh and Durrant are, in fact, brothers, who were living in Michigan at the time.
Authorities say one of those guns – the Taurus PT-740 Slim – would be smuggled across the Windsor border, and would take part in two killings in the summer of 2015: the death of Jeremy Cook, 18, in London, and Lecent Ross, 14, in a townhouse on Jamestown Crescent in Toronto.
“Time to crime: 385 days,” the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said in a tracing report, obtained exclusively by Global News.
The Taurus PT-740 Slim was one of hundreds of firearms taken off the streets in 2015.
In 2020, Toronto Police say they seized 663 crime guns, according to the latest figures. The police definition of a crime gun is “any firearm that is illegally possessed, used in crime or suspected to have been used in a crime, or has an obliterated serial number.”
Around 318 were classified as prohibited, meaning they were illegal to buy or possess in Canada and were likely smuggled into the country. Another 144 were restricted, and 67 non-restricted, the report said.
Using court documents and interviews with U.S. and Canadian law enforcement, Global News traced the path of the Taurus PT-740 to better understand how just one gun can cause so much loss and devastation.
The investigation showed that many underlying factors such as U.S. gun show sales, straw purchasing, and soaring black market prices for guns, continue to fuel gun violence. The reporting also shows Canada isn’t adequately tracing the source of seized firearms, which could help stanch the flow of illegal weapons at the border.
Melissa Cook, Jeremy’s mother, remembers being awoken at 6:30 a.m. by a frantic phone call from her daughter. Something had happened to Jeremy and she was told to come down to the London police station.
“An officer said, ‘Just get here safely.’ I asked where Jeremy was,” Cook said. “All the officer would say was that he was gravely injured.”
Jeremy, an 18-year-old carpenter’s apprentice, died after being shot twice while confronting three men inside a car in a parking lot about a lost iPhone on June 14, 2015. He had tracked it there using an online app.
“We just couldn’t even believe it,” his mother said. “Things like this don’t happen to good people. That’s what you think. And clearly, we were wrong.”
Jeremy’s murder shattered the Cook family. Passionate about carpentry and golf, he was a young man on the cusp of starting a career. His smile, sense of humour, and kindness would no longer be felt at holidays or family dinners.
“There’s always that piece missing,” she said. “There’s just always that empty spot at the table.”
An increase in handgun killings
According to Statistics Canada, Cook’s death was one of 155 homicides by a firearm that year — 103 involving a handgun. In 2021, that number skyrocketed to 277 firearm killings, with handguns accounting for nearly half of all firearm-related homicides.
Toronto police Det. Scott Ferguson, who heads Ontario’s firearms analysis and tracing enforcement (FATE) program, said the circumstances for smuggling handguns are straightforward: an abundance of guns in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of border crossings daily, and a massive financial incentive.
“You can buy a brand new handgun in Florida, in the box for $199, and — in these COVID times and sell for $7,000 on the streets of Toronto,” Ferguson said referring to what police are calling “COVID pricing.”
Ferguson, whose program is part of the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario, said roughly 85 per cent of Toronto’s crime guns are sourced back to the U.S. There are no national figures for where Canada’s crime guns are coming from.
“If you don’t get inspected or if there’s no reason for CBSA to target a specific vehicle or person, then chances are they’re going to get into the country with those firearms,” he said.
Experts who study illegal-gun trafficking say that weapons can change hands rapidly from the point of sale, crossing over state and international borders before arriving in the hands of criminals in Ontario, who in turn distribute them.
In June 2014, Jermaine Welsh purchased The Taurus PT-740 Slim from a federal firearms dealer at the Gibraltar Trade Center gun show in Taylor, Mich. A local landmark, known for its towering sign of a man dressed in a bowler hat, the trade center was shut down in 2017 and demolished to make way for a Menard’s, a home improvement store.
The Taurus handgun then switched hands to a second party and was smuggled into Ontario via the Windsor border crossing, according to interviews with ATF and U.S. court files. Both Welsh and Durrant were not accused of smuggling the gun.
In 2016, Welsh pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to making a false statement during the acquisition of a firearm.
“Some of the firearms that were purchased by the defendants … have ended up in Canada, and have been involved in violent shootings and crime,” reads a U.S. sentencing document filed by prosecutors. It said the guns were allegedly being smuggled into Canada in exchange for drugs, which were then sent back to the U.S.
Another handgun that Welsh purchased, a Smith & Wesson SD40 VE semi-automatic, was recovered in July 2015 after a “shoot-out with police during a homicide investigation,” the document said.
“He acted out of greed and with deceit,” a U.S. prosecutor said in the sentencing document.
From Windsor to London to Toronto
Police say the Taurus handgun moved from Windsor to London where it ended up in a car occupied by Mohamed Sail and Muhab Sultan.
Sail was charged with second-degree murder in Cook’s killing but was found not guilty.
Sultan died during a police chase in Ottawa on June 30, 2015. Sail had argued in court that Sultan shot Cook.
After passing through an unknown number of hands, an ATF tracing document indicates the gun was recovered at a home on Rexdale’s Jamestown Crescent — where 14-year-old Lecent Ross was killed in a fatal shooting on July 9, 2015.
Using the Canadian Integrated Ballistics Identification Network (CIBIN), a database maintained by the RCMP, police linked the gun to the two crimes using shell casing markings.
A 15-year-old pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death and received a three-year sentence. The teen, who was 13 at the time of the shooting and cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, was initially charged with manslaughter.
A spokesperson for the Ross family declined to comment on this story, saying it was too painful to discuss.
Lecent Ross was remembered as a good student, who was happy and was known for “her smile and her contagious laughter.”
“The loss of my daughter has had a huge impact on my life and on the lives of Lecent’s whole family,” her mother, Alicia Jasquith, said in an impact statement to the court in 2017.
“Every day, I am filled with sadness, anger, grief, and many other overwhelming emotions. I have lost the ability to be who I was when she was here.”
When Melissa Cook first heard about Ross’s death, she felt an immediate connection with the mother.
“At first, I thought it was just because another mother had lost their child,” she said, adding that police later told her it was the same weapon.
“I was just happy that the gun was off the street and it couldn’t hurt anybody again.”
Straw purchasing in the U.S.
Working behind a desk at the ATF offices at Brewery Park in Detroit, Special Agent in Charge Paul Vanderplow has been working closely with Canadian authorities to crack down on firearms getting through the four land-border crossings that Michigan shares with Ontario.
Vanderplow said there are few qualifiers to purchasing a long gun, like being 18 or older, not being convicted of a felony, and being a U.S. citizen. You have to be older than 21 to buy a handgun and it has to be registered with the state.
“But if you’re OK to buy it, you can walk into a gun store, present your driver’s licence, fill out and you can purchase that firearm,” Vanderplow said.
It’s impossible to say how many guns are smuggled into Canada each year.
Data from the Canada Border Services Agency shows the number of guns seized by border officials rose from over 700 in 2019 to over 1,100 in 2021. There was a brief dip in seizures in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions at the border, both U.S. and Canadian law enforcement officers said.
The purchase of the handgun that would kill two teenagers in Ontario is a case of what the ATF calls “lying and buying,” a form of straw purchasing in which someone with a clean record buys a number of guns for someone else.
Vanderplow said he’s seen a wide range of people buying handguns for criminals, from college students paying off tuition to people feeding their addictions.
Few ever realize the “carnage” they help fuel when illegally buying handguns, Vanderplow said.
“If they would see the scenes that are left over — the carnage, the death, the destruction — you would think anybody who has any type of humanity wouldn’t want to be any part of that, he said.
“Unfortunately, in the end, the money talks.”
Special Agent Vanderplow said the tracing of firearms is key to stopping guns at the border.
If a gun is found at the scene of a crime in Toronto, for example, Ontario’s FATE program can submit a request with the serial number to the ATF’s National Tracing Center, located in Martinsburg, W. Va.
After receiving the serial number, ATF agents begin by contacting the manufacturer or importer, which leads them to a wholesaler or distributor, then to the retail dealer where it was first sold and, they hope, ultimately to the person who bought it.
“Once we hit that retail shop, then we can ask for the purchase documents to see who actually purchased it when and all that pertinent information,” Vanderplow said.
This can help identify people who are buying dozens of handguns in a short period of time and look at whether they are crossing the border.
The Ontario FATE program consists of a small team— which includes agents from the Canada Border Service Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Ferguson, who heads the program, said it’s the “good intelligence that comes from firearms tracing” that can lead to the identity of a suspected firearms trafficker.
“It’s critical to stopping the flow of illegal guns,” Ferguson said.
Of the some 26,351 guns seized by law enforcement across Canada in 2019, just 1,768 guns were traced. The RCMP’s number include firearms seized, turned in, or found by police.
In 2020, that number of firearms traced rose slightly to 2,143, according to the RCMP.
Criminal negligence causing death
Ferguson has also been advocating for charging traffickers with criminal negligence causing death, an idea that came in the wake of the Cook and Ross killings in 2015.
“Every person that smuggles a firearm from the United States into criminal hands in Ontario, I think should be responsible for what those guns do,” he said.
In January 2021, a convicted firearms trafficker, Jeffrey Gilmour, was charged with criminal negligence causing death after a handgun he allegedly smuggled into Canada was tied to the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old man in Toronto. Peter Petrov Simov died of a gunshot wound to the head in 2019 while guarding a vehicle impound lot.
Global News attempts to reach Gilmour were not successful.
Believed to be unprecedented in Canada, investigators hope the charge is a new deterrent to stop the flow of illegal guns into Canada, the same way those who traffic fentanyl have been charged with manslaughter.
“I’m not going to get a crime gun out of the hand of every kid who decides that they want a gun. But I can make life miserable for the people that are moving them illegally,” Ferguson said.
Knia Singh, a lawyer at Ma’at Legal Services in Toronto who has defended people charged with firearms offences, said it will be interesting to follow the case law if more prosecutors get on board with charging gun smugglers with criminal negligence.
“If there’s evidence that the person was intending to traffic knowing that the firearm will be used to commit harm, that should attract a much heavier sentence than someone who may have transferred a firearm unknowingly or transferred it out of desperation,” he said.
Additional charges though, Singh said, don’t attack the fundamental “roots” of gun violence and could continue to perpetuate a vicious cycle.
“I haven’t seen any sufficient effort to get to the roots,” he said. “It really has to do with poverty and despair and low self-esteem when you see a lot of the young people involved.”
Phone calls and visits to several addresses to reach Durant and Welsh were unsuccessful.
Welsh was sentenced to 36 months probation for one count of making a false statement while buying a firearm, according to a U.S. sentencing document. Durrant was sentenced to 60 months in jail to be served concurrently, for one count of conspiracy to import controlled substances and five counts of making a false statement during the acquisition of firearms.
It’s unclear how much time they served.
At home in the Greater Toronto Area that was associated with both Durrant and Welsh, a woman identifying herself as an aunt said she was “devastated” to hear the link between the handguns and the deaths of two teens.
“My condolences go out to them,” she said. “I feel really, really sad for them.”
In response to the rising gun violence in Canada, the federal government announced in March $312 million in funding to help curb shootings, with a significant amount of money going to the border.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said the funding will increase the RCMP’s capacity to trace firearms and build a national system that allows for the flagging of bulk purchasing and straw purchasing.
The RCMP did not respond to questions about how many officers currently work in tracing firearms or how many additional officers would be hired with the new funding.
For Melissa Cook, she wants to see more resources go into holding everyone accountable: including the buyers who purchase guns illegally, the traffickers who resell them, and the criminals who ultimately pull the trigger.
“If the government was doing enough, then we wouldn’t have the numbers that we have out there right now,” she said. “How many children are being taken? How many families are being pulled apart? For what reason? There’s no good reason.”
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