… Girls, ages 11 and 13, shot in ditch in rural town …
By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
7:58 PM EST, December 17, 2011
The wanted poster portrays a .40-caliber Glock Model 22 semiautomatic pistol, serial number EKG463US, that resembles thousands of standard-issue guns owned by the Baltimore Police Department.
But this particular weapon found its way out of the hands of law enforcement and into the hands of a suspected killer — an above-board but nightmarish scenario for city police. Authorities say the gun was used three years ago to shoot two young girls on a dirt road outside a rural Oklahoma town.
“I was shocked when I found out the gun came from Baltimore,” said Wanda Mankin, the elementary principal of the Graham School, where the victims, Taylor Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11, shared a classroom for fifth- and sixth-graders. “How did that gun get here from so far away?”
Baltimore police — whose commissioner coined the crime-fighting strategy of targeting “bad guys with guns” — are very sensitive to the fate of their old weapons. The department refuses to sell guns back to manufacturers, and has barred officers from buying their guns when they retire.
In 2001, city police refused to sell thousands of 9 mm handguns back to Glock when the agency switched over to .40-caliber because officials were concerned about adding to the proliferation of weapons on the streets. The principled stand cost the city more than $500,000 in rebates.
Even with such precautions, though, guns can get into the wrong hands, so police still worry about the ramifications of the most innocent transfer. The gun pictured on the poster, for example, had been returned to Glock because it was broken, and now Oklahoma authorities are trying to find it as part of the double-murder case. They’re offering a $5,000 reward.
“If we put guns back on the street and they’re used in a crime, do we bear some responsibility for putting them back into circulation?” retired Deputy Police Commissioner Bert F. Shirey, who led the 2001 discussion about the gun changeover, said last week.
“There are plenty of guns rolling off the assembly lines,” said Shirey, who retired in 2002 after 37 years on the force. “But do we want to put more out there? We see so much carnage already. If one of our guns is used in a crime — or to kill a child, as in this case — we don’t want that on our conscience.”
Baltimore police returned the Glock to the company about six years ago, along with a batch of weapons with defective firing pins and other problems.
Glock refurbished the guns, and the one from the Police Department ended up in an Oklahoma gun store, where authorities said it was bought by Kevin Joe Sweat in the fall of 2007.
About a week ago, police charged Sweat with using a .40-caliber Glock and a .22-caliber pistol to shoot Taylor and her best friend, Skyla, both members of the cheerleading squad, as they walked to Bad Creek Bridge after a slumber party in the summer of 2008.
Court documents say the suspect confessed to shooting Taylor and Skyla in the head and chest — five bullets into one, eight into the other — thinking the two girls were “monsters” coming at him. At the time he was charged in those killings, Sweat, now 24, was already in jail in connection with the death of his fiancee; her burned body was found in August.
Prosecutors in Oklahoma, who are seeking the death penalty for Sweat, revealed the gun’s history and its ties to Baltimore when they announced his arrest. That ended a three-year investigation that involved chasing more than 900 leads and testing nearly 20,000 pieces of forensic evidence.
But the weapon itself is still missing; police believe it was sold at a Tulsa gun show after the killings.
The slayings were the first in two decades in or near Weleetka, a once-thriving western railroad town located in Okfuskee County, birthplace of Woody Guthrie. It’s situated between old coal mines and fits into less than a square mile of flat, dusty land settled with slightly more than 900 people.
Authorities linked the double killings to the gun through five bullet casings found near the bodies; others found at Sweat’s father’s house, where they said Sweat did practice shooting; and a casing kept on file at the Baltimore Police Department, where it had been test-fired.
No one is criticizing city police or Glock — whose representatives did not return repeated phone calls — for the gun ending up in Oklahoma.
Okfuskee County District Attorney Max Cook praised Baltimore for keeping a single shell casing from the gun — that helped authorities draw a link to the weapon used in the slayings.
All city police weapons are test-fired, and casings matching each one are filed away before the weapons are distributed to officers. When a semiautomatic is fired, unique grooves are left in the sides of the ejected metal casings, and those can be traced like fingerprints.
The casing on file in Baltimore gave Cook a link to the gun, because the weapon’s serial number is also recorded. In court, that could help the district attorney draw a connection between the still-missing weapon and the suspect.
“I’m very pleased the Baltimore police had the records they did,” Cook said. “Every bit of evidence will be crucial.” Of the Glock’s circuitous trip from Baltimore police to Weleetka murder suspect, the prosecutor said, “The weapon got to the suspect through legitimate sales. The Baltimore police didn’t do anything wrong.”
Baltimore authorities gave the gun back to Glock at a time when state law forbade law enforcement agencies from returning old weapons to manufacturers. Instead, the law required departments to sell weapons that were no longer needed to officers or other police agencies, or to melt them down. But agencies were still allowed to return defective weapons, legislators said.
The General Assembly eased the sell-back law in 2007 — overriding a veto by Gov. Martin O’Malley — to allow police departments to sell old guns back to manufacturers. State police supported the legislation, as did many small Maryland departments that needed the revenue.
It is unclear how many police departments in the state sell back their old guns. Many agencies around Baltimore, including the city, state and Anne Arundel County, now forbid officers from buying their department-issued weapons, which had been a common practice up until about five years ago.
And even though it’s now allowed, city police are still refusing to sell the stockpile of old 9 mm Glocks from 2001, preferring to keep more than 2,000 of them in storage. Glock had offered a discount when Baltimore police upgraded to .40-caliber guns if the city gave back the older 9 mms.
That would have saved $500,000 on the $1.4 million purchase of 3,350 guns, but officials declined because of the restrictions in state law at the time and because the company was going to resell the weapons overseas.
Shirey, the deputy police commissioner at the time, said last week that the discussions over what to do with those weapons was intense. The city could have used the money, he said, but commanders debated moral issues and the political implications of police guns used in crimes.
“Do we really want that kind of problem?” Shirey said. “We decided it was not in our best interest to let those weapons out.”
A decade later, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has no plans to sell the old guns.
“We don’t know where those guns would end up,” said his spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi.
Former state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican who sponsored the gun sale legislation, said last week that the city was being shortsighted. The option of selling guns back to manufacturers saves localities money at a time when revenue is most needed, he said.
“One argument from O’Malley was that these guns would get back on the street,” said Haines, who led the veto override that passed 135-4 in the House of Delegates and unanimously in the Senate. “That firearm that was used in Oklahoma, it could’ve come from anywhere. I don’t think it’s relevant that it came from the police.”
The killings of the girls still reverberates in Okfuskee County, where the elementary school principal, Mankin, said “children wouldn’t sleep alone” after the shootings.
And residents are once again recalling the two children — Taylor as a shy but polite girl, and Skyla, bubbly and outgoing.
Sorrowful stories about the three-year anniversary of the case — which just months ago noted frustration that there were no breaks in the case — have given way to hope that an end is near. Still, the arrest is forcing everyone to relive that fateful day at Bad Creek Bridge.
“I thought I’d be relieved that someone is behind bars,” said Mankin, whose school has 100 pupils from kindergarten through the 12th grade. “But there’s a trial coming, and I know all my children are going to be forced to live through those horrible moments again.”
Before the slayings, the principal said, “we thought we were safe.”
Tracing the gun
2005-2006 — Baltimore police return a batch of defective .40 caliber handguns to Glock, including one with serial No. EKG463US.
2006 — Glock fixes the guns and sells them, one to a dealer in Oklahoma.
Fall 2007 — Kevin Joe Sweat buys a .40-caliber Glock handgun from the gun store.
June 8, 2008 — Taylor Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11, are fatally shot along a dirt road outside Weleetka, Okla. Police find five .40-caliber shell casings at the scene.
January 2010 — Sweat tells agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation that he sold the .40-caliber Glock and doesn’t know the serial number.
Aug. 15, 2011 — Sweat is arrested and charged with killing his fiancee.
Aug. 22, 2011 — Agents search the home of Sweat’s father and recover several .40-caliber shell casings.
Sept. 30, 2011 — FBI traces the casings to the Baltimore Police Department.
Oct. 5, 2011 — FBI confirms that the casings found at Sweat’s father’s property and the five at the murder scene match the casing from the gun — serial No. EKG46EUS — that had been owned by the Baltimore Police Department.
Sept. 13, 2011 — Court documents say Sweat confesses to killing the girls.
Dec. 9, 2011 — Authorities charge Sweat with two counts of first-degree murder and announce plans to seek the death penalty.
Dec. 2011 — Authorities in Oklahoma say they believe Sweat tried to sell the Glock in Tulsa. Police announce a $5,000 reward for the gun.
Source: Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Police Department, the District Court of Okfuskee County, Okla., the Associated Press
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun