Authorities allege suspects ordered nearly completed AR-15 kits and the parts to finish them, and shipped them to nearby Pennsylvania to circumvent New Jersey laws.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 18, 2019
A dozen New Jersey men have been arrested in an alleged multistate conspiracy to traffic in drugs and untraceable rifles assembled from kits purchased online.
The yearlong sting, codenamed “Operation Stone Wall,” resulted in the first charges under New Jersey’s “ghost gun law,” signed in November 2018 by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The bill closed loopholes that had allowed New Jersey gun buyers to purchase nearly-completed weapons and the parts for finishing them from out-of-state manufacturers.
Because they are assembled outside of the manufacturer’s controls, such weapons do not have serial numbers, nor are they registered with any law enforcement agency; neither are any background checks required for their purchase.
On Monday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the arrests at Camden County Police headquarters in Camden City.
“Ghost guns are a real and dangerous menace,” Grewal said. “They offer criminals, convicted felons, terrorists, domestic abusers—people who we all agree shouldn’t own firearms—the ability to access them.
“At the time we sought the law, we knew that criminals were actively seeking and using these guns, and that ghost gun manufacturers were exploiting loopholes in laws to gain access to them,” he said.
The attorney general said his office has issued cease-and-desist letters to gun makers who produce the weapon kits, and alluded to a separate, ongoing investigation into those entities.
“When you have responsible manufacturers, they know their customers,” Grewal said.
“When you see the same address and the same individuals at the same location continuing to order parts and parts and parts, some red flags have to go up.”
In connection with the case, officers seized six untraceable AR-15 rifles assembled from kits purchased online, plus the parts for two others, as well as illicit drugs and drug packaging materials, handguns, shotguns, and cash.
They represent more than a third of the 15-plus such weapons recovered statewide in the past year, Grewal said.
“We are starting to see them at crime scenes, starting to see them at our investigations,” he said.
The attorney general also described how straw purchasers—people who falsify documents to buy a gun for a person banned from owning one, or who buy a gun out of state and bring it into New Jersey—and other trafficking rings remain the largest source of firearms traffic into the state.
“Eighty percent of our firearms in New Jersey come from out-of-state,” Grewal said, with the majority of those originating in nearby Pennsylvania.
The haul underscores the clear connection between gun violence and the drug trade, said Jill Mayer, Deputy Director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
“Drugs and illegal guns are the dual catalyst driving violence on the streets of our cities, and we allege that this criminal gang was driving both,” Mayer said.
“It’s neighborhood gangs protecting their own space to engage in criminal activity, which in most cases is the drug trade,” Grewal said.
The case was begun as an investigation into an alleged cocaine distribution ring organized by Lindenwold resident Lamont White, his son Tyriek Bradford, and their friend John Rayford.
White was allegedly supplied by Christopher Stoner, also of Lindenwold, and his alleged associates: Nicholas Cilien of Mt. Ephraim, Bryheem Belcher of Magnolia, Michael Smith of Woodbury Heights, Fabian Sapp of Sicklerville, Devon Davis of Chesilhurst, and Monroe Gadson of Camden City.
As the investigation unfolded, authorities came to believe Stoner was also illegally trafficking in firearms, including ghost guns. Police allege that he and Cilien conspired with Paul Corum and Mark Freeman, both of Lindenwold, to buy and assemble AR-15 kits, which they flipped for $1,100 to $1,300 apiece—twice their market value.
On March 13, investigators intercepted a shipment of gun parts headed to an address in Bensalem, Pennsylvania and which had allegedly been ordered by Corum and Freeman. Grewal said that investigators captured audio evidence of the men discussing the need to ship the weapon kits to Pennsylvania to circumvent the newly enacted ghost gun bill.
“The men specifically discussed the fact that they could no longer ship these ghost guns to New Jersey,” Grewal said, quoting a conversation between Cilien and Corum in which the men talked about how, “They changed some laws, so we gotta go over to Philly and pick it up.”
“The threat to public safety and to law enforcement safety is not abstract, it’s real,” Grewal said.
“[The weapons] are 80 percent finished when they are shipped, and buyers finish them using parts sold by the same manufacturers, following simple instructions that are sometimes posted online.
“We will aggressively investigate and prosecute all those who illegally traffic ghost guns into New Jersey,” Grewal said.
“I think that’s what public safety and law enforcement safety in this state requires.”
Authorities spoke about the cooperation among a dozen different law enforcement agencies that helped investigators make the connections that solidified the case.
“The weapons and drug manufacturers would bank on us not communicating and not streamlining our efforts,” said New Jersey State Police Col. Patrick Callahan.
“When we collaborate and we work together, it results in investigations like this.”
Asked whether interstate collaborative efforts could help close the enforcement loopholes that allow weapons to be imported into New Jersey, Grewal said the groundwork for such connections are underway.
“We have had conversations with our partners in other states… to share that information and go back to the point of sale to hold a bad-faith dealer or other straw purchasers accountable,” the attorney general said.
At the same time, law enforcement will proceed with separate investigations into the manufacturers of the gun kits while tracing any other weapons that may be circulating as a result of Operation Stone Wall.
Those charged in the instance are:
- Christopher Stoner, 41, of Lindenwold
- Nicholas Cilien, 38, of Mt. Ephraim
- Paul Corum, 43, of Lindenwold
- Lamont White, 43, of Lindenwold
- Bryheem Belcher, 33, of Magnolia
- Michael Smith, 48, of Woodbury Heights
- Fabian Sapp, 45, Sicklerville
- Devon Davis, 31, Chesilhurst
- Monroe Gadson, 28, of Camden
- Tyriek Bradford, 20, Lindenwold
- John Rayford, 41, Lindenwold
- Marc Freeman, 53, of Lindenwold
All persons charged with a crime are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. An arrest is not a conviction.
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