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Tucson firearms dealer gets 6.5 years for trafficking guns to Mexican cartels

Plot also included former TPD officer who stole identities to cover up gun-running

A Tucson man was sentenced last week to 78 months in federal prison for his role in a gun-running operation that included a former Tucson police officer. Timothy Alan Veninga, holder of a Federal Firearms License, worked to send at least 31 guns to Mexican drug cartels, officials said.

Co-conspirator Joe Santiago Valles, the ex-TPD cop, was sentenced last year, also to 6.5 years.

Nearly three dozen weapons were involved in the conspiracy including two Barrett .50-caliber rifles, an AK-47-type rifle, and a series of .38 and 9mm pistols. One gun was intercepted at the border and a .50-caliber rifle was seized in Mexico, authorities said.

Veninga, 48, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge James A. Soto to 78 months' imprisonment and a judgment of forfeiture of more than $61,000. Veninga previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, aiding and abetting false statements in firearms transactions, false statements to government agency, tampering, and identity theft.

Valles, 34, was sentenced last July to 78 months in prison after pleading guilty to a variety of charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, aiding and abetting false statements in firearms transactions, tampering, tampering with a witness, and identity theft.

Veninga, owner of Ballistic Firearms in Tucson and Valles, a business partner who operated a firearm painting business on the premises of Ballistic Firearms, were involved in a scheme in which they paid individuals who were not the actual purchasers of firearms to complete and sign federal transfer forms while leaving the date and firearm information section blank. The pair also used the identities of two other people (which had been obtained while Valles was a TPD officer) who were not the actual purchasers of firearms  on the ATF forms.

"Evidence from the investigation established that these firearms were sold to members from Mexico drug cartels and that the firearms were intended for Mexico," authorities said.

According to court documents and statements by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Valles "stole the identities of two individuals he had contact with through his official duties" in his former work as a TPD officer.

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Valles, who joined TPD in July 2012, resigned in December 2014 rather than be fired for being untruthful in an investigation unrelated to the federal case, a department spokesman said.

Valles relinquished his certification as a peace officer in August 2015, according to state records. TPD was not part of the investigation into the federal firearms charges, a department spokesman said last year.

From October 2015 through mid-May 2016, Valles worked with Veninga to illegally transfer weapons ownership, authorities said. Veninga operated a gun dealership, Ballistic Firearms, out of his Northwest Side home. Valles worked with Veninga, painting firearms.

According to the indictment naming both men, Valles and Veninga used the stolen names to fill out and submit ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) Forms 4473 required to purchase guns from a federally licensed dealer, concealing the identities of the true buyers.

The conspiracy involved a total of 35 firearm transactions, including 24 semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Of those, 29 transactions were made under the stolen identities, authorities said.

Court records showed that Valles had arrested one of the men whose identity was used on DUI charges in late 2014. Records from the arrest were found during a search of Valle's house. Another man whose name was also used on about two dozen of the forms had also been arrested by Valles while he was a TPD officer.

TPD's Sgt. Pete Dugan said last year that he didn't have any details on the case that resulted in Valles ending his employment with the department, but said it was not connected with the firearms charges.

"One of the firearms was intercepted at the Nogales Port of Entry and a second firearm, a .50 caliber semi-automatic rifle, was seized by Mexican authorities," a 2017 news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

According to the indictment filed against the pair, Joe Valles paid his brother, Josue Valles, $200 to fill out three ATF forms, including one for a Barrett .50 caliber rifle. The section of the forms describing the firearms purchased "was never completed in Josue's presence," the initial criminal complaint said. He also recruited his sister, Jessica Valles, to fill out two forms, and a man named Nibsan Ozuna Herrera to fill out another two, according to the indictment.

The plot unraveled, according the the account presented in the indictment and court papers, when ATF agents traced the pistol that was blocked from being smuggled south of the border in March 2016 back to Veninga's business. Although the serial number on the Kel-Tec PMR-30 had been removed, authorities were able to determine the number. Examining Veninga's records, they then discovered in mid-April 2016 that the driver's license number and concealed carry license number used on at least one of the forms did not match the name of one of the individuals whose name was used, without their permission.

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Valles and Veninga then attempted to cover up the gun trafficking operation, authorities said.

According to authorities, after Veninga was interviewed by ATF about the paperwork, Valles and Veninga falsely reported to local law enforcement that the latter had been the "victim of an attempted home invasion by masked individuals."

Veninga later falsely claimed to ATF agents that one of the men whose identity had been used to fill out the ATF forms tied him up and gunpoint and took all of his FFL records and book recording firearms sales, the indictment said. Instead, authorities said, the gun dealer and Valles had destroyed and concealed the papers to cover up their actions.

Josue Valles, after being interviewed by federal agents in 2016, discussed the gun purchases in an April 25, 2016, meeting with his brother that was recorded, the court filing said.

Joe Valles told his brother that "all of the guns were already out of the country," an ATF agent wrote in the complaint.

"Honestly, you guys want me to tell you the truth? I already got rid of all the paperwork. ... No! It's me. I'm the one that did all the shit. I'm the one that's gonna go to prison. I'm the one that made all the f'ing sales," Joe Valles told his brother, according the the court filing.

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U.S. Navy

A U.S. Navy sailor fires a .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle.