A federal judge in Milwaukee could make a decision in the coming weeks on a bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed against an online marketplace accused of facilitating the sale of the gun used in the 2018 killing of Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer.
The organization Brady: United Against Gun Violence in February filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bauer’s family against Armslist, a website that connects buyers and sellers of firearms and advertises their weapons for sale. The lawsuit alleges Armslist created a forum that allowed its users to bypass background checks and other restrictions that could potentially make it easier for felons or others prohibited from owning guns to possess them.
On Oct. 29, the day after a Cook County judge sentenced Bauer’s convicted killer Shomari Legghette to life in prison, arguments were heard in federal court in Wisconsin on Armslist’s motion to dismiss the suit on grounds including that it is protected under law that shields websites from liability for content posted on them by someone else. Judge Pamela Pepper could make a decision in the coming weeks.
Jonathan Lowy, the Brady group’s chief counsel who represents Bauer’s widow, Erin Bauer, said Monday in a Tribune interview the lawsuit is sound and should continue.
“We’re not suing Armslist because it posted a gun-for-sale ad. We’re suing them because they designed their website (in) a way to facilitate illegal gun sales,” said Lowy. “I hope we can all agree that people and businesses should do what they can to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
A lawyer for Armslist did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The case is comparable to another lawsuit against Armslist stemming from a 2012 fatal shooting at a spa in suburban Milwaukee where an armed man gunned down his estranged wife, Zina Daniel Houghton, who worked at the spa, along with two of her co-workers, before turning the gun on himself. Houghton’s daughter later sued Armslist, alleging it facilitated the sale of a gun to her mother’s killer even though a domestic violence court order did not allow him to use firearms.
Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in a 5-1 ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act protects Armslist from liability.
The Brady litigation continues after another man investigated for an alleged link to the gun’s sale pleaded guilty in September to selling marijuana to an undercover federal informant. The defendant, Ron L. Jones, had been under investigation by federal authorities for playing an alleged role in the illegal transfer of the 9 mm Glock 26 handgun that Legghette was accused of using to kill Bauer. A jury found Legghette guilty earlier this year.
The investigation broadly highlighted how the gun’s trail was facilitated by Armslist, coupled with looser gun laws in Wisconsin that critics say make it easy for felons to acquire weapons illegally. But agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were unable to prove that Jones ever had possession of the handgun ultimately used by Legghette, a felon who wasn’t allowed to own a weapon.
Instead, the agents arrested Jones a few months after the Feb. 13, 2018, killing for selling marijuana to a confidential ATF informant and illegally possessing another gun, court records show. Jones was sentenced in September by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman to one year of probation, court records show.
Days before Jones’ guilty plea, his lawyer wrote in a sentencing memorandum that he should be given an even more lenient punishment, arguing that the ATF clearly set up Jones, an avid gun collector, because the agents weren’t satisfied with his cooperation in their investigation into the origins of the Glock 26 in the Bauer case.
“In the course of the investigation they determined that Jones had purchased in the past, very small amounts of marijuana from the ‘soon to be’ CI (confidential informant). Those amounts were clearly for personal use,” Robert LeBell, Jones’ lawyer, wrote on Sept. 16. “The theory was that if Mr. Jones delivered marijuana to the CI as part of an undercover operation, he would be committing a felony and therefore prohibited from ever owning a firearm. The plan worked.”
But federal prosecutors said in a court filing last year that it was the informant who initially contacted law enforcement in March 2018, explaining that he had information about Jones.
“… The ATF had probable cause to believe that the defendant violated several federal laws connected to firearms and narcotics,” Milwaukee U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger said in the court filing. “The ATF continued its investigation into the defendant and coordinated with the CI to conduct controlled buys of firearms and marijuana from the defendant.”
ATF agents began their investigation into the origins of the Glock 26 after it was confiscated from Legghette during his arrest moments after fatally shooting Bauer outside the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago’s downtown.
Days after the shooting, ATF agents raided the homes of Jones and a Madison, Wisconsin, man, Thomas Caldwell, confiscating dozens of guns from both residences. The investigation led to Caldwell being sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for selling firearms without a license.
Caldwell told the ATF that he met Jones through Armslist and that he “probably” sold the Glock 26 to him as well, court records show. LeBell, meanwhile, had raised doubts about Caldwell’s credibility because he had told a federal judge in Madison that he had trouble remembering things and was being treated for a mental illness.
Jones, meanwhile, told authorities he bought several guns from Caldwell, including a Glock, but he never admitted buying from Caldwell the Glock later used to kill Bauer, court records show.
After Bauer was killed, agents at Jones’ home seized 40 guns, more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition, a ballistic helmet and drug paraphernalia, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune. The source said several extended pistol magazines, similar to the one found in the Glock 26 used to kill Bauer, also were seized along with body armor.
Legghette was wearing body armor when he was arrested, but authorities have not specifically linked it to Jones.
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