Former police chiefs in North Dakota and North Carolina are facing charges in Maryland in connection with a conspiracy to acquire machine guns and other firearms illegally, and court records indicate the case could reach into other states as well. The charges are similar to those faced by Frederick County, Md., Sheriff Chuck Jenkins who sought during a hearing in U.S. District Court on Thursday to have the case against him dismissed, News From The States reports. “A top priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office remains holding accountable those who illegally possess or traffic firearms,” said a spokesperson for Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron. At issue in both cases are the use of “law letters” sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to obtain firearms that are generally prohibited from sale in the U.S., such as fully automatic machine guns and short-barreled rifles. An exception to federal firearms restrictions allows licensed gun dealers, in some cases, to buy machine guns as a sample for demonstration to potential law enforcement or military purchasers if the agency sends a law letter, which is also known as a “demo letter.”
The indictment unsealed Thursday charges five defendants — including the police chiefs in Coats, N.C., and Ray, N.D., of improperly using the letters. Federal prosecutors allege that the defendants conspired to get machine guns by falsely representing that the guns would be used for demonstration to law enforcement agencies, though there was no expectation the guns would ever be demonstrated. The Coats and Ray police departments operate in small towns and didn’t have heavily armed units like SWAT teams. James Sawyer, 50, who was charged, was the only member of the North Dakota department. According to the indictment, he signed and submitted 32 law letters that requested the demonstration of more than 70 firearms. Matthew Jeremy Hall, 53, was the Coats Police Department chief, in a town of about 2,000 residents, when he submitted 53 letters, which requested demonstration of 92 firearms, according to prosecutors. The indictment also includes details about two law enforcement officers from New Mexico, who are not charged.