Federal authorities have announced a major roundup of violent criminal gang members in New Haven, Connecticut, who allegedly were trading drugs for guns in Bangor.

Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly and other officials said Friday that several gang members and associates have been charged with murder, racketeering, firearms violations, drug trafficking and money laundering.

The crackdown on the New Haven-based Red Side Guerilla (sic) Brims, a sect of the Bloods street gang, was in connection with six murders and four attempted murders, the officials said. The indictments do not allege the shootings were committed with guns from Maine and officials would not comment on whether they believe that to be the case.

As local and federal authorities were investigating gang violence in New Haven, agents with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency were conducting an investigation into drug trafficking by a group of people from New Haven. The agents shared that information with the Connecticut authorities and the joint investigation led to indictments in Maine and some of the charges announced Friday, said Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA.

“We want to be able to identify the source of the drugs that come into Maine communities and work with those agencies out of state to help dismantle those drug enterprises at the other end,” McKinney said. He said one agent focused on the investigation for more than a year, bringing in additional people when needed.

Shutting down the pipeline is important for Connecticut as well as for responsible gun owners, he said.

“We all want our communities safe,” he said. “Handguns illegally obtained and in the hands of criminals – that’s not good for anyone.”

According to court documents, gang members were shipping crack cocaine and heroin into Maine for sale in Bangor and surrounding communities, federal authorities said in a statement. The gang members also traded drugs for guns, which they brought back to New Haven and distributed to other gang members, the statement said.

In February, a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court in Bangor indicted 10 people in connection with the guns-for-drugs scheme, McKinney said.

Throughout 2012 and into 2013, several so-called straw purchasers bought 15 handguns at Bangor-area pawnshops. The guns were 9 mm, .40- and .45-caliber and .357 Magnum, according to court papers. The people lied on the required forms, failing to disclose they were buying the guns for someone else and that they had addiction and substance abuse issues, McKinney said.

The pawnshops where the guns were purchased are not accused of any wrongdoing, he said.

While Maine has been criticized for being a source of a significant percentage of guns used in crimes in states such as Massachusetts, records kept by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that very few guns used in crimes during the past two years were traced back to Maine.

Gun control advocates in Maine have concentrated efforts on requiring background checks for sales that are currently exempt from such checks, namely private sales and gun show sales, and have launched a petition drive to allow voters to decide.

However, the technique allegedly used by the New Haven gang was subject to a background check because the pawnshops are licensed firearms dealers.

Using straw purchasers allows people who would otherwise be unable to purchase a gun because of a disqualifying condition like a felony conviction or involuntary psychiatric commitment to use someone else who has a relatively clean record to obtain them. The technique also means if the guns were recovered in a crime, they would be traced back to the straw purchaser, not the person who took ownership of it immediately afterward.

Emma Connors, director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said the problem of straw purchasers is not insurmountable.

“Obviously, laws aren’t going to stop every crime from happening,” she said. “Stronger gun laws – making sure people are doing (background checks) thoroughly, having waiting periods – discourage that type of action. Those things are really going to have a chilling effect (on straw purchases), but of course there’s no perfect answer.”

The takedown, called Operation Red Side, has led to federal indictments and several members have pleaded guilty or are expected to, the statement said. The indictments identified the ringleaders of the drugs-for-guns enterprise as Jeffrey Benton, 30, also known as “Tallman” or “Fresh,” and Christian Turner, 29, also known as “P.”

Benton was indicted in Connecticut for conspiracy to murder six people. The Maine indictments say Turner would get guns from drug users to whom he would give cash or drugs. Turner would then bring the guns back to New Haven and give them to Benton.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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