FOX 29 Investigates: Stolen Guns Case Moves Slowly

- A Sullivan County, Pennsylvania man with deep ties to Philadelphia says he lives with the fear an innocent victim will be shot with his stolen firearms.

He claims investigators dropped the ball in the case. FOX 29 Investigate Reporter Jeff Cole is on the story.

For nearly three decades, Philadelphia native Michael Hoffman has owned what he calls two acres of ground in the rolling hills and running water of Hillsgrove.

Hoffman, 60, a carpenter by trade and battling cancer, lives by a stream in a small home where the wildlife he and his sons have taken hang in the front room.

"If you were out on a ranch, you'd just carry a little rifle like this," Hoffman said.

He's an avid hunter and a gun collector. By midyear 2010, his collection had grown to 44 firearms.

He described some of them as "old Winchesters, old revolvers, .45 revolvers from the cowboy days."

And then, one day, he returned from a medical appointment.

"When we got home we realized we were robbed," Hoffman said. Asked what he saw when he got home, he said, "A disaster."

His back door had been kicked in and all his rifles and revolvers were gone from the gun cabinets and safes he had used to secure them.

"The one door was peeled all of the open. And the other one, it was peeled down at the top, and they took the guns out of it," Hoffman said.

He says he quickly called the state police, who patrol the tiny community, and he posted a $5,000 reward. A trooper came out to investigate the break in.

But from that day to this one, Hoffman believes law enforcement dropped the ball in tracking the case and securing his stolen arsenal.

He says that's why he came to FOX 29 Investigates.

"I thought that maybe, if they would have got on the ball a little quicker, we might have got them all back and got them off the street," he said. "I thought that all along, but they just never done a nothing."

Hoffman says the toughest part of having all his weapons stolen is the fear of a late-night phone call when law enforcement would tell him someone had been shot with one of his guns.

We traveled over three hours to Sullivan County to tell his story.

Hoffman says six months passed before he met with a state police investigator who would track the guns. Police say the delay was due, in part, to missing serial numbers for the guns.

He says when the numbers were entered into a national tracking system, it was learned soon after the burglary police in Hagerstown, Maryland, arrested suspects with his rifles in their trunk.

Eleven of the weapons were returned to Hoffman; 33 are still out there.

Hoffman says he waited to hear anything new and was stunned to be called to Baltimore by prosecutors when – according to court records – police arrested Dwayne Morton and Thomas Wright on narcotics and gun charges.

Hoffman says prosecutors said they were carrying his revolvers and pressed him for answers.

Charges against Morton were dropped. Wright pled guilty and went to jail.

Hoffman: "I was more or less treated I guess like I was straw buying guns."
Cole: "So, they thought maybe you were the guy who put the guns on the street?"
Hoffman: "I didn't put the guns on the street."
Cole: "But they were thinking that."
Hoffman: "I would imagine so, or I wouldn't have been called all the way down there."

Meanwhile, a state police investigator, Trooper Vincent Schreffler – who met with us in the Sullivan County barracks, but refused to speak on camera – says he struggled to get enough evidence to build a burglary case for Hoffman's gun theft.

Schreffler told FOX 29 Investigates federal gun investigators passed on the case.

Police documents from Hagerstown, Md., obtained by FOX 29 quote Schreffler as telling them: "...He did not get the help from the Feds, ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives] and that he was "not" going to be following up on the investigation..."

A spokesperson for the ATF says the agency was contacted a year after Hoffman's guns were stolen and adds cases sometimes are not right for federal prosecution.

Schreffler says he decided to file charges against suspect James Anthony Reese Jr. – arrested back in Hagerstown in June of 2010 – just last year, before the five-year window to file charges was about to close.

In February, Reese pled guilty in a deal to "receiving stolen property" and was given six months to two years in jail.

The part-time county district attorney says that was the charge all sides agreed on, and it was the judge who imposed the sentence.

Michael Hoffman says it's too little, too late, and worries about all his guns floating in the underground.

"What are your thoughts about all this?" Cole asked.

"I don't know. You wonder how many times this has happened, how many guns really are on the street," Hoffman said.

Schreffler says there are three other suspects in Hoffman's gun case, but they remain in Maryland.  He says he believes state police actions helped in getting Hoffman's 11 weapons off the street.

But, overall, Hoffman thinks the case was bungled, Cole reported.

FOX 29 Investigates has been digging into the numbers. People holding federal firearms licenses must report lost or stolen weapons within 48 hours.

Since the deadly school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the feds have been publishing those numbers.

In 2012, Pennsylvania topped the list with 1,500 weapons lost or stolen from licensees. Last year, that number dropped. But nationally, nearly 15,000 firearms a year go missing.

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