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The bullets that killed Melissa Virasith’s boyfriend and left her paralyzed weren’t fired from a high-powered assault rifle. And they weren’t loaded in a big ammo clip.
They came from a .38-caliber revolver that her estranged husband legally purchased about a month before the 2008 midnight confrontation outside her apartment in Lexington Park. A protective order she had once gotten to keep him away had expired long before then, she said this week, and a judge wouldn’t issue a new one after Koummane Virasith was charged with slashing her tires. She said neither the judge nor police would believe she was in danger.
“Things like this happen” as a result, she said, but even she didn’t foresee the extent of her husband’s wrath. “He told my oldest son that he was going to shoot me and kill me. I told him, ‘Your dad’s just mad.’ I didn’t believe he was going to do something like this.”
Melissa Virasith remains in a wheelchair in her family’s home in a Pennsylvania town as federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland’s legislators wrangle over proposed changes in gun control laws that critics contend would further threaten the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment. A massacre of elementary school students and teachers by gunfire in Connecticut last December has reopened the debate.
But a review of St. Mary’s cases involving guns and deaths in the last 10 years suggests that the problem extends beyond the size and legal availability of firearms, and circumvents gun-ownership restrictions.
“If a criminal wants to go out and buy a gun on the street, that’s no problem for them,” St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz said Monday at his office in the county courthouse.
Convicted criminals also can get their girlfriends to pose as a “straw party” to make a gun purchase from a shop, Fritz said, but the street offers an economy fueled with cheap weapons.
The prosecutor said drug addicts sell their belongings — including guns. They steal their family’s possessions — including guns. They commit burglaries to get property — including guns — that they can trade for drugs from dealers, the prosecutor said. The drug dealers expand their trade, as gun runners.
“What they want is money, jewelry and guns,” Fritz said. “That’s the currency in the drug world. That’s the currency in the streets.”
Stewart A. Gough was accused of providing the gun in one St. Mary’s murder, and being the driver for the shooter in another. He was sent to jail on his guilty plea to a handgun charge related to the 2001 slaying of John L. “Fats” Butler along Pegg Road in Lexington Park, but a judge dismissed a murder charge against Gough on grounds that there was insufficient evidence that he knew a gun he provided to two other suspects was used or would be used to commit a crime.
Gough, described by another judge as “the chief thug of Lexington Park,” eventually was sentenced to 30 years in prison, on his acknowledgment that prosecutors had evidence that he conspired to commit second-degree murder from a 2003 shooting outside a Great Mills bar that killed Keith C. Bonds, a 38-year-old Army veteran.
Fritz said this week that “a lot of homicides are committed with guns that were lawfully purchased.” And they’re often small caliber pistols, sometimes held for protection until they wind up in the wrong hands.
In 2010, Jeremiah J. Watson was sentenced to 35 years in prison after jurors convicted him of offenses including second-degree murder from a break-in two years earlier at his former girlfriend’s home in Dameron. She testified that she took out a .22-caliber revolver that her father had given her, and that Watson got control of the gun and fatally shot her new boyfriend, 34-year-old Christopher Michael Patty of Charles County.
Other domestic disputes resulting in death in St. Mary’s include John Otha Dickens Sr.’s execution of Darlene Michelle Dowsey with a .38-caliber revolver in 2004 as she knelt on the floor of her mother’s home in Lexington Park’s Westbury neighborhood. Dickens was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
A pair of murder-suicides in the county in the past decade included a California man’s shooting of his pregnant former girlfriend with a 9mm handgun in 2004 at her Hermanville area home, before he turned the gun on himself. A Prince George’s County man came to St. Mary’s in 2006 and broke into his estranged wife’s home off Pegg Road, where he killed her male guest, wounded her as she ran outdoors and shot himself in the chest with a .45-caliber pistol as police neared the scene.
Melissa Virasith was outside her home in 2008 when her estranged husband arrived, after refereeing a county recreation soccer match, and started shooting her and Thomas J. Saunders, who died from his wounds.
Fritz said that Koummane Virasith “clearly purchased that handgun for the purpose of having it for some confrontation with his wife or his wife’s new lover.”
Other homicides in St. Mary’s have been carried out with weapons ranging from a hammer to a crossbow, and Fritz noted that a bank robber who sprayed its tellers with flammable liquid easily could have set them on fire. “He didn’t light the match,” the prosecutor said.
“People have been killing other people on the face of this earth with every kind of weapon they can find,” he said. “The best thing we can do is try to prevent firearms from being a weapon of convenience, [by] maintaining them in a safe manner.”
Safes suggested for guns at home and stores
In 2005, a 13-year-old boy was holding a .22-caliber pistol at its owner’s Golden Beach area home when it fired, killing a 20-year-old visitor in the kitchen. The gun’s owner had entrusted the gun to his 16-year-old son, because of a previous burglary, and the owner was out getting a lock for the gun when the shooting occurred.
Fritz, describing himself as “a very strong proponent of the 2nd Amendment,” said this week that the government should consider giving private gun owners a tax incentive to buy gun safes for their homes.
“I’m not saying they can’t sleep with the gun under their pillow,” he said, but if a gun owner’s home is burglarized, the culprit likely will forego the time and effort needed to get inside a good safe.
In 2005, 39-year-old Janet Reginato was found shot dead in the office of the Lone Star steakhouse where she worked in Lexington Park. Richard Russell Moore Jr., a former employee at the restaurant who had been staying at the woman’s home, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, while Gary Dean Hosterman, who was 16 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on his guilty plea to second-degree murder. Police and prosecutors said a .38-caliber revolver used to carry out the crime earlier was stolen from the Great Mills area home of Hosterman’s grandparents.
“A gun safe may have prevented that,” Fritz said this week.
The prosecutor said that businesses selling guns should buy the safes at their own expense.
“That is a little bit more sophisticated [challenge to a burglar] than backing a pickup truck up to a cinder block wall, and putting a hole in it with the vehicle or a sledgehammer,” the prosecutor said. “There [also] are certainly ways that their display cases can be made a little more safe. I don’t want to be focusing on any particular business.”
In 2007, Johntonna Euron Young took part in a robbery at The Tackle Box sporting goods business in Lexington Park and used a 9mm pistol stolen during the heist to shoot and kill Kenneth J. Walter outside his St. Mary’s Landing home. Young is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
More recently, two men were charged in June 2009 with breaking into The Tackle Box, where detectives reported that culprits broke through a rear wall and took two high-powered rifles and a pellet gun, all recovered through the investigation. In June of 2011, another man was arrested on charges from another burglary at the business, carried out by breaking a hole through the store’s exterior wall and prying open a display cabinet to steal three Walther handguns. Last October, detectives report, two masked culprits put a hole in a cinder block wall at the store and stole more than 20 firearms.
“Some have been recovered in other jurisdictions” during police raids, Capt. Terry Black of the St. Mary’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations said Thursday at his office in Leonardtown, and there are no indications that any of the guns stolen during the burglary have been used to commit a crime. “None that we know of,” the captain said.
Ken Lamb, the owner of the business started by his father in 1960, said this week that he sells gun safes for home use, but that it would take him and his employees eight hours each day to unpack, set up, take down and store their guns in a safe. He said his business recently has taken additional safeguards to prevent losses.
“We’re alarmed and locked ... and we do everything that we can. I think we have adequate safety measures,” Lamb said. “We have had a burglary or two. We’re victims just like everybody else.”
Lamb said the push for more gun control laws is ill advised, and compounds the problems from redundant federal and state regulations already in place. “It makes them feel good,” he said, “and doesn’t do anything to make us safer.”
A thousand guns in police custody
At a presentation last week of the sheriff’s office draft budget for the next fiscal year, Black said the agency currently has 1,243 seized firearms in its custody.
Guns that are found, turned in by citizens or seized and forfeited as a result of drug raids eventually are destroyed, Black said this week, while the ones that were evidence in a crime generally are “retained forever.” A gun confiscated when a protective order is issued is returned when the order expires, he said, if the firearm is registered and the person it was taken from can show proof of ownership and is not disqualified from having it.
“If they can legally possess them, they’re returned to the rightful owner. They could be family heirlooms that have been passed down through generations,” Black said. “Extensive backgrounds are done on those [firearms] before they’re returned, regardless of how they came into our possession.”
Keeping guns out of the hands of people who are not authorized to have them is part of the existing law, the captain said.
“There are substantial laws on the books now that govern those weapons, ... firearms in general that are regulated,” he said. “The laws that are currently on the books need to be enforced. I’m all for anything that makes a community safer. The courts need to take up their responsibilities, as well as law enforcement, the whole judicial system.”
Fritz said countless guns used in crimes and not recovered could be at the bottom of the Patuxent River, under the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge.
After a criminal commits his armed offense, “the first thing he’s going to do is chuck his gun somewhere,” the prosecutor said, and the river’s deep channel safely holds the evidence. “I’m sure there’s more than its fair share,” the prosecutor said, “as tributaries go.”