Theft of guns from Texas sheriff's vehicle raises questions
There's no public tracking of gun thefts from law enforcement officers
By Cindy Horswell
HOUSTON — Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith says he prays every day that investigators catch the thieves who broke into his marked vehicle in the parking lot of a Katy-area restaurant and made off with his official sheriff's jacket and an arsenal of weapons, including a submachine gun.
"I've not enjoyed having it spread over all God's creation that the sheriff lost his guns," Smith acknowledged days after his black sheriff's truck was burglarized in broad daylight in the parking lot of a Saltgrass Steakhouse, where he was attending a holiday banquet.
"But I'd rather have the information out there so we can find some witnesses. I am concerned about who got their hands on those guns, and that someone could use my jacket to dress up like law enforcement."
Smith — who has been under the spotlight since Sandra Bland hung herself in his jail after a controversial traffic stop last July — said investigators from his office, the Harris County sheriff and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are tracking down every possible lead. "But I would not call any of these leads hot," he said, adding that video surveillance cameras in the restaurant's parking lot were broken.
Meanwhile, some criticize what they're calling the sheriff's "lack of judgment" for not immediately alerting authorities when he first discovered his burglarized truck in the parking lot off the Katy Freeway in Harris County. He failed to inform anyone in the restaurant about the missing guns or alert the Harris County Sheriff's Office, but instead drove 30 minutes back to his Hempstead office to report it there.
'A Lot Of Explaining To Do'
Questions have also been raised about why Smith was driving with so many firearms and whether he properly secured them.
Larry Karson, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, called allowing a thief to make off with a fully automatic weapon "gross negligence."
Karson also said it was "questionable" that the sheriff did not immediately report the crime to local law enforcement so they could canvas the scene for evidence. "It's the idea that some in law enforcement truly believe they are exempt from being a victim of these kind of crimes, thinking that no one would dare break into a police vehicle," Karson said.
Communications consultant Wayne Dolcefino, a former television investigative reporter who has been a longtime critic of the sheriff, asked, "Why in the world did he have eight unsecured weapons in his car? Another good question is why the sheriff didn't call the cops that very second, just in case some unsuspecting fellow lawmen pulled over a carload of burglars down the street? Smith has a lot of explaining to do."
Smith, who has been sheriff since 2009, said he felt it was more important to retrieve the serial numbers for the stolen weapons and upload them to the National Crime Information Center's computer network promptly, in case someone was caught with the guns or tried to hock them.
The thieves absconded with a lethal cache of weapons, including an HK UMP 45 submachine gun that is fully automatic and can fire 600 rounds a minute. They also snared a 300 Blackout rifle, another version of the AR-15 semi-automatic used in last week's San Bernardino, Calif., massacre, and six other handguns.
After filing the serial numbers, Smith said, he initiated an investigation at his office. The lead investigator alerted federal ATF agents and a Harris County constable that same afternoon, but not the Harris County Sheriff's Office until two days later.
William King, an associate dean at Sam Houston State's criminal justice college, believes the sheriff's decision to prioritize uploading the guns' serial numbers was "reasonable."
"He could have been stuck in that parking lot for hours with local investigators and achieving potentially very limited results," he said. "It's a 50-50 choice. He did not do anything illegal."
Federal law requires that licensed gun owners report the theft or loss of firearms from their inventory "within 48 hours of discovery to the ATF and to the local law enforcement agency."
The thieves also broke into Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff's truck, parked in the same lot. Both officials had been attending a holiday luncheon for Waller County's child advocacy group.
"I never realized my truck was burglarized until the next day," said Beckendorff, who had two handguns stolen from concealed pouches in the truck. "The thieves made an effort to do as little damage to my truck as possible, so that it was almost unnoticeable."
Thieves entered both vehicles by using a small tool to pop out the door locks, remove the weapons, and then neatly replace those locks, authorities said.
Smith said he used his key fob to enter his truck as usual but did not become suspicious until he was sitting in the driver's seat, looked behind and noticed a backpack had been moved. He then discovered the weapons missing.
Smith said the guns were "secured" and "not laid out in the open for someone to snatch and grab."
"Some were hidden under the seat and others secured in different bags," he said.
Half of the eight guns taken from the truck belonged to the sheriff personally while the other half — including the two most powerful ones — are owned by the sheriff's office. "This is the first time that this has ever happened to me," said the sheriff, who has been in law enforcement since 1978.
It's been a tough year for Smith. After Bland committed suicide last July, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the jail for not complying with state standards regarding staff training and observation of potentially suicidal inmates. Protesters upset over the Bland case converged outside his office for several weeks last summer, and he was captured on video in August telling a local pastor leading the protest rallies to return to her "church of Satan."
A video posted on YouTube in 2012 also shows Smith berating Harris County deputies over jurisdictional issues at an apparent accident scene in Waller County.
There's no public tracking of gun thefts from law enforcement officers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last summer.
But according to a 2003 audit by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the FBI and 14 other federal agencies reported more than 1,000 guns lost or stolen between September 1998 to July 2002. The report alarmed the GAO, which said reforms were needed.
The Houston Chronicle requested a copy of Waller County's policies for controlling its weapons, but neither Smith nor sheriff's office personnel could be reached for comment.
Gary Orchowski, assistant special agent for the ATF in Houston, said possessing or knowingly selling a stolen firearm is a felony. If the thief was a convicted felon, he could face up to 10 years in prison on each count. Anyone illegally possessing the strictly regulated submachine gun also faces up to 10 years in prison. Not just anyone can buy such a weapon, as the ATF says they must receive approval from the highest-ranking law enforcement agent in their county.
Investigators say they are working hard to solve the case. "Trust me, we are dedicating numerous hours to recover these items," Orchowski said.
Copyright 2015 the Houston Chronicle