For Immediate Release
Three Employees of Piazza Jewelry & Pawn Charged with Federal Firearm Charges
St. Louis – Carlos Jones, 31, of St. Louis; Robert Thornton, 36, of Florissant; and Steven Johnson, 44, of Belleville, IL; were charged by federal complaint for unlawful transfer of firearm to a convicted felon and making false statements on the records required to be kept by a licensed firearms dealer.
According to the complaint, ATF agents were able to determine that a large number of the firearms that have been used in violent crimes in the St. Louis area from January 1, 2019, to August 14, 2019, were sold by Piazza Jewelry and Pawn (“Piazza”) #452, operating at the premises of 10201 Page Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63132. In fact, ATF was able to determine that, from January 1, 2019, to August 14, 2019, more than 170 firearms seized or otherwise recovered by law enforcement officers were purchased by people from Piazza. Several of the recovered firearms were linked to violent crimes, including assaults, shootings, robberies and homicides, in the City of St. Louis.
Additionally, ATF statistics established that the national average time for a firearm from the time it was purchased until the time it was used in a crime was 8.38 years for the time period January 1, 2019, to August 14, 2019. By stark contrast, the average time to crime of the 170 firearms traced back to Piazza from January 1, 2019, to August 14, 2019, was one year and one month. This short time-to-crime period strongly indicated to ATF that a large majority of those firearms were likely sourced by straw purchases (where a person falsely claims that s/he is purchasing a firearm for himself/herself, when in reality s/he is purchasing the firearm on behalf of another person) and that sales were made directly to prohibited persons.
In an undercover investigation at Piazza beginning in October 2019 and continuing through December 2019, ATF agents were able to determine that JONES, JOHNSON and THORNTON, who were employed by Piazza, had on multiple occasions sold firearms to a person knowing, or having reason to know, that the person was actually purchasing the firearm for another. Such a sale is illegal under federal firearms laws. Despite being presented with conduct that was clearly indicative of a straw purchase, none of these employees expressed any concerns about or in any way halted the sale. Further, these individuals also signed federal documents representing that they had no reason to believe that the firearm sales were unlawful. The investigation further revealed that “word on the street” was that Piazza was the place to go to acquire firearms through a straw purchaser.
Piazza employees THORNTON, JONES and JOHNSON willfully allowed numerous straw purchases to take place in Piazza, each time regularly permitting a straw purchaser to complete legally required ATF forms, knowing the straw purchaser was purchasing a firearm for the person who accompanied the straw purchaser to Piazza. In doing so, THORNTON, JONES and JOHNSON willfully allowed a third party to fill out the paperwork before ultimately transferring the firearm to another, usually a prohibited person.
As a result of this undercover investigation, a United States Magistrate Judge issued a search warrant on December 13, 2019, for the premises at Piazza. In doing so, the Court found that probable cause existed to establish that Piazza, through its employees, had the intent to sell all of the firearms on display had they been presented with a willing -- though unlawful -- buyer, and all of those firearms were thus involved in, used, or intended to be used in violation of the law in criminal activity. On December 19, 2019, ATF Agents and other law enforcement officers executed the search warrant at Piazza. Officers seized approximately 905 firearms pursuant to the search warrant. Ten of the 905 firearms seized were determined to have been stolen but, despite that fact, Piazza was in possession of them and they were available for sale to the public.
Charges set forth in the Complaint are merely accusations and do not constitute proof of guilt. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty.
“Through our Department’s participation on the ATF Task Force, this investigation resulted in the seizure of 905 firearms from Piazza Jewelry and Pawn. The investigation also revealed that Piazza routinely and illegally put guns in the hands of people, who committed numerous, violent gun crimes across our City. Our City is now safer, because of the collaborative effort between the St. Louis Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” said Chief John Hayden, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.”
“This case demonstrates the very core of ATF’s mission to protect the public. ATF and our law enforcement partners work diligently to identify and bring to justice those who illegally provide firearms to the criminals that rely on this firepower to carry out the violence that devastates our communities. We are committed to interrupting this illegal flow of firearms and making our neighborhoods safer places to live and play,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge, Marino Vidoli.
“Today’s charges are part of the Department’s Project Guardian initiative and an active, on-going operation by the joint Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department and ATF Strike Force into the illegal sale of firearms being used to commit crime in our community,” said United States Attorney Jeff Jensen after today’s charges were unsealed. “If you illegally purchased a firearm from Piazza Jewelry and Pawn, or provided a firearm to someone engaged in criminal conduct, we strongly suggest that you contact the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department or ATF before they find you.”
These charges are the result of a joint investigation by the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department, ATF Strike Force and the Overland Police Department. Assistant United States Attorney Allison Behrens is handling this case.