U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF and Billings law enforcement address gun violence in the community
BILLINGS — U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich, along with federal and local law enforcement officials, today addressed gun violence in the Billings community saying they are committed to keeping citizens safe by investigating and prosecuting the most dangerous offenders who carry and use firearms in drug trafficking or violent crimes, persons who illegally possess guns and those who possess stolen or illegal guns.
During a news conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Special Agent in Charge Kirk Howard, of Denver; Billings Police Chief Rich St. John; and Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, acknowledged the homicides, non-fatal shootings and other gun violence that have been occurring throughout the Billings area and discussed law enforcement’s strategy for combatting gun crimes.
“There is no doubt that the gun violence racking the Billings community is a serious problem, often leading to tragic results. All citizens have a right to feel safe in their home and their community, which is why our office has made combatting gun crimes a top priority. Through the investigative hard work of our law enforcement partners and the dedication our assistant U.S. attorneys, our federal firearms convictions are on the rise. This coordinated response is critical to reducing violent crime and to getting dangerous offenders off the street,” U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.
"ATF is committed to combating violent crime and illegal firearms trafficking. Crime guns, whether they are stolen, straw-purchased, or obtained through other illegal means, are too often found at the scenes of violent crimes, in the hands of violent offenders,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Kirk Howard. “Our priority is to identify trigger pullers and disband criminal organizations using ATF technology and resources, in partnership with local law enforcement and prosecuting offices."
“Violent crime has dominated the headlines of late causing our citizens to question whether Billings is a safe place to live,” Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said. “The crime concerns are real and gun violence is at the forefront. The increase in gun violence among our youth brings urgency to resolving the problem. Ideally, we would like to stop the violence from occurring in the first place and much work is going into that effort. At the same time, the BPD along with our partners have re-doubled our efforts in enforcement and prosecution. We have made progress, but that is no solace to the families and friends who have lost loved ones. So, we will continue to partner and aggressively investigate and prosecute anyone who commits or aids these senseless acts,” he said.
“Yellowstone County has seen far too much gun violence over the past several years. This gun violence does not seem to be slowing and is a challenge that we must overcome by working together,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said. “The YCAO is proud to work with local and federal law enforcement partners developing best and new strategies to target Yellowstone County’s most dangerous gun offenders. I appreciate U.S. Attorney Laslovich and his efforts to put a federal focus on our community and prosecute these dangerous offenders. These are the offenders in our community who use illegally obtained firearms to enforce their meth or fentanyl drug distributions or hurt or intimidate others,” he said.
Federal prosecutions for firearms crimes in Montana are increasing. In the past two years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has obtained a record number of convictions on firearms offenses, with 153 convictions 2022 and 157 convictions in 2021. The third highest number of firearms convictions was in 2018, with 132 convictions.
The gun violence, officials said, is being driven mostly by drug trafficking activity involving methamphetamine and fentanyl and by armed robbers seeking to obtain money to buy drugs. The ATF has seized numerous firearms and illegal guns while investigating violent crimes. The agency identified several trends that are contributing to the gun violence in the Billings community:
- Firearms are usually stolen, often from vehicles, or are straw purchased, where a person illegally buys a gun for another person who is prohibited from possessing firearms.
- Almost all shootings are related to drugs.
- Most of the shooters have prior convictions and are on state or federal supervision or are known to the criminal justice system.
Law enforcement said they are working to reduce gun violence through coordinated, multi-agency investigations and prosecutions and through the federal initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods, to ensure that persons who violate federal firearms laws are indicted in federal court and sentenced to federal prison, where there is no parole.
Under federal law, it is illegal to possess a firearm if a person falls into one of nine prohibited categories, including being a felon, an unlawful user of a controlled substance or an illegal alien. Federal statutes also make it illegal to purchase, or even attempt to illegally purchase, firearms if the buyer is a prohibited person or illegally buying a firearm on behalf of another. Lying on an ATF form used to lawfully purchase a firearm and possessing stolen or illegal guns also are federal crimes. In addition, drug dealers who carry firearms to further trafficking activity or persons who possess guns to commit violent crimes face mandatory minimum sentences.
Recent federal prosecutions in Montana include:
- Rodney Trimble, of Billings, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in February for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances and for prohibited person in possession of a firearm. Trimble, who had been recently released from a pre-release center, admitted to possessing meth, fentanyl pills and heroin found in his vehicle and told officers he also had been dealing the drugs from the pre-release center. Trimble further admitted to having two firearms he had obtained from “a couple of tweakers on the street” because someone had broken into his residence.
- Joel Zamora, of Billings, was sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison in March 2022 for possession with intent to distribute meth. Law enforcement found in Zamora’s vehicle a loaded handgun under the driver’s seat, almost one pound of meth in a metal box and $3,500 cash.
- Anthony Ray Morgan, of Billings, was sentenced to nine years and nine months in prison in April 2022 for possession with intent to distribute meth. In two traffic stops, law enforcement found Morgan in possession of meth and firearms. In a search of his home, officers found a handgun that had a laser sight and loaded magazine, a rifle, U.S. currency concealed in a soft body armor carrier and approximately 3.75 pounds of meth.
Officials also encouraged the public to help law enforcement reduce gun violence by reporting stolen firearms so they can be returned to the owner if recovered, securing firearms in their homes, not leaving guns in vehicles and calling law enforcement when they see suspicious or criminal activity.
Removing violent criminals from the community is a key goal of the continuing work of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) Yellowstone County. PSN is a U.S. Department of Justice initiative that brings together local, state, federal, and tribal agencies and stakeholders to address gun violence and other causes of violent crime in communities. PSN Yellowstone County has identified methamphetamine as the primary cause for violent crime in the community and is working diligently to arrest meth traffickers, armed robbers, and violent felons who possess firearms.
Clair Johnson Howard
Public Affairs Officer