INDIANAPOLIS - Three military rifles have been stolen from an Indiana National Guard unit, and the Call 6 Investigators have learned they were stolen from a soldier who was barred by law from being around weapons due to a felony conviction.
Police have launched a criminal investigation into the stolen M-14 7.62mm rifles, while the surprise discovery of a convicted felon with access to those weapons has resulted in three separate investigations within the Indiana National Guard.
"While no practice is perfect, the Indiana National Guard does take excessive strides to be able to verify the background of the individual that is trying to enlist," said the guard’s Lt. Col. Cathleen Van Bree.
She said National Guard leaders had no idea that a convicted felon had access to weapons as part of his duties because his recruiter kept quiet about the crimes, and because military background checks were not shared with guard commanders.
The Gun Control Act, passed by Congress in 1968, spells out that anyone convicted of a felony cannot possess or own a firearm. The Department of Defense has long enforced a policy that keeps weapons away from anyone who is allowed into the service with a known felony conviction.
Van Bree said National Guard leaders only learned about a 46-year-old guardsman's felony criminal record when police alerted them as part of their investigation into the stolen military weapons.
Weapons Stolen From Indiana National Guard Unit
The guardsman was serving on a ceremonial unit known as the "firing team," which performs the 21-gun salute at military funerals and other events throughout Indiana, when he told Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers that the three M-14 7.62 rifles were stolen as his unit was eating lunch.
The guardsman told police that his personal vehicle, as well as a National Guard passenger van, were broken into as his unit was eating lunch at the Tappanyaki Grill restaurant in the 9700 block of East Washington Street on Nov. 18, 2013.
Members of the guard unit had eight military rifles in their vehicles, but they said only three of the M-14 7.62 rifles were stolen along with other items, like a smartphone and military backpack full of clothes.
The IMPD detective assigned to look into the stolen rifles immediately became suspicious with the story provided by the guardsmen, he wrote in a search warrant reviewed by the Call 6 Investigators.
The detective started checking the criminal backgrounds of the guard members who were present when the guns were reported stolen, leading him to find a felony record.
He wrote in his search warrant that despite federal law banning anyone with a felony conviction from getting access to weapons, the 46-year-old guardsman who reported the theft had a felony arson conviction from 1990.
Court records show the service member had also been arrested for felony theft in 1988, but that charge was dropped. As part of the same incident, records show he was convicted on a misdemeanor count of failing to display a gun dealer's license while selling a gun.
"A local background check is conducted. However, when service members or enlistees come from other states, it's not a federal background check all the time," said the National Guard's Van Bree, explaining that the convictions in question did not show up on a local background check because they happened elsewhere.
Not only did the local background check miss his convictions, Van Bree said an internal National Guard investigation revealed the guardsman had disclosed his crimes to his recruiter, and had disclosed the crimes again to the military years later as he was being checked out for the issuance of a security clearance.
The Call 6 Investigators asked guard leaders how an admitted felon could be assigned to a unit with weapons, despite having informed the military twice about his convictions.
"The chain of command was not aware of that," Van Bree answered. "The chain of command does not get to see the information put on background checks because it includes HIPAA-type (private medical) information, service members' families, whether or not they were in counseling and that type of thing, and that is something that the chain of command is not privy to," said Van Bree.
She said the guard only receives "yes or no answers" when it asks the Pentagon whether someone is eligible for an assignment, and the answer came back that this member was eligible to serve with a gun.
The Pentagon did not reply to emails and phone calls that spanned several weeks with questions from the Call 6 Investigators about the breakdown or military background check procedures in general.
Just last month, the Justice Department filed suit against a contractor tasked with military and other government background checks. The legal action against United States Investigations Services Inc. accuses the company of taking millions of dollars in payments and bonuses for hundreds of thousands of background checks that weren’t actually conducted at all.
Van Bree said guard investigators haven't found why the guardsman's original recruiter also kept quiet about the convictions. That recruiter did not include any of the required notations about the crimes in the service member's file, but guard leaders said that recruiter had not been questioned because he has left the service.
"We don't find this to be a usual situation. We don't find this to be something that we have found as a systematic problem throughout the Indiana National Guard. This a one service member issue at this time," said Van Bree, adding that there were no plans to check for other felons who may have slipped through the cracks as well.
"We have 14,000-plus service members, that to go any deeper into their backgrounds would not be appropriate at this time unless, of course, something was brought to light," she said.
"It doesn't sound like it's being taken seriously," said Larry Korb in Washington, a nationally published military expert who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.
"It would be best to do more screening now and find out if, in fact, you've got people in there who shouldn't be there before you have another incident like this," said Korb.
Felons Known to the Military
While military guidelines have generally barred people from entering the military with serious criminal records, tens of thousands of criminals have been allowed to join the military over the years through a process known as a "moral waiver."
When a moral waiver process is started, it requires several layers of the command ranks to rule that a potential soldier is a good risk despite a felony conviction. That decision comes only after a special version of a background check is completed.
The moral waiver process was never started in the case of the guardsman and the stolen rifles in east Indianapolis.
"It should have, it should have," admitted Lt. Col. Van Bree.
She said an internal investigation is still under way to determine why the guardsman's disclosure of a felony record did not start the ball rolling for a moral waiver process.
Korb, the former assistant defense secretary, told the Call 6 Investigators, "During this period, the Army and Marines gave 100,000 moral waivers, including people with felony convictions. And so what happened here is they should have checked this and then decided whether this young man was worthy of getting a waiver."
The Navy made headlines last year when 60 service members were removed from service as part of the military's crackdown on sexual assault in its ranks. The Pentagon told reporters all of those removed had been serving despite past criminal records.
A 2007 New York Times article documented a rising number of moral waivers allowing criminals into the service. Some service members have been documented committing additional crimes in uniform after they were allowed to serve in spite of significant criminal records.
Korb said standards were lowered while trying to staff two unpopular wars, and he said the military is now having to clean up what has been left behind by those lower standards.
Korb cited the case of Pvt. Steven Green, who sparked worldwide outrage by raping an Iraqi girl and killing her family. He was ushered into combat despite a number of warning signs in his past that were documented by his superiors.
In another case cited by Korb, Pvt. Bradley Manning is now serving a prison term for releasing classified material to WikiLeaks. Testimony revealed he was placed in a sensitive position despite a background that included his flunking out of basic training and previously attacking his stepmother.
"You got to look at the pressure on the people to meet their quota because if I'm a recruiter, I've got to get X-amount of people in," said Korb. "The recruiter doesn't have to live with this, the people in the units do."
Military officials and one Indiana congressional office said those moral waivers have now tapered off since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have effectively finished.
The Call 6 Investigators checked several addresses and phone numbers, but the guardsman with the felony record could not be located, nor did he respond to an email sent to his military account seeking comment. He is not being named in this report since the military has not accused him of any wrongdoing, and police have not named him as a suspect in the missing gun case.
Action Taken By National Guard
While the Indiana National Guard is not planning to double check any backgrounds of other service members as a result of this case, commanders did report they have taken other actions.
Van Bree said an internal investigation found the rifles were not being handled or stored properly on the day they were stolen.
"There was a deficiency," she said.
She said weapons handling procedures were evaluated at all guard units statewide, and all of those policies were found to be sufficient.
Since the "firing team" was not handling weapons properly on the day the rifle thefts were reported, Van Bree said, "The ceremonial unit, specifically, has already been retrained in how to properly handle, store and transport those weapons. So retraining did occur."
She said an adjudication process is now under way to determine whether the guardsman with the felony record will remain in uniform.
"Right now, this service member … is prohibited from being able to access weapons at this time," she said, adding that he has been cooperative with the various military investigations.
She said if the guardsman is allowed to remain in the service, he may be allowed to return to duties that do not involve weapons on the "firing team." She did not elaborate.
The National Guard said the weapons remain unaccounted for, as guard commanders work with IMPD detectives assigned to the missing gun case.
Police said all three rifles are now listed on a national law enforcement database of all stolen guns, which is tallied each year by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The latest figures from that database list 4,774 weapons lost or stolen overall in Indiana from 2012, and 190,342 weapons lost or stolen nationwide during that same period.
A spokesman at the ATF headquarters in Washington told the Call 6 Investigators that no records were kept to separate the number of military weapons included in that database.
A 1995 report from what was then called the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, found a relatively small number of weapons stolen from the military. That report found 250 military guns being listed as missing or stolen between 1990 and 1993, a miniscule number since the military had 3.4 million small arms in its inventory. A different GAO report found some stolen military weaponry being sold on the Internet.
The IMPD detective assigned to the case declined to answer questions, saying it was a pending investigation.
The Call 6 Investigators attempted to gauge congressional reaction to the missing weapons and the background check breakdown, but Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, an Army veteran, declined to answer questions. Congressman André Carson, D-Indianapolis, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, also declined to answer questions.
Several combat veterans expressed surprise at the flaw in the background checks exposed in this case. One Vietnam veteran living in east Indianapolis asked, "How in the hell?"
Another veteran was surprised to learn the prestigious firing team had a convicted felon in uniform, saying several safeguards in the recruiting and background check processes should have prevented it.