With Massachusetts armory theft, military guns went public

June 15, 2021 GMT

The young barber was walking to the car after the first Saturday night party of the new year when a robber put a pistol to his head and demanded everything.

Wallet, gold watch and jewelry in hand, the robber was hanging out on a dark Boston avenue when a police patrol car rolled through. An officer inside noticed the gun.

During a foot chase that ended in his arrest, the robber ditched the weapon. Police found it with seven rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.

It was odd that a civilian had this model of Sig Sauer M11 semi-automatic. The gun is issued to U.S. service members. It was reported stolen seven weeks before, after a man broke into a weapons vault at a military training center an hour’s drive away.

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James Morales knew the Lincoln Stoddard Army Reserve Center well. As a medical logistics specialist in the reserves, he had trained there. On his last visit, just two days before, Morales picked up copies of his discharge papers.

A downward spiral led the 34 -year-old Morales to return that Saturday night.

In a hand-written account, he said that legal, financial and family problems -- and a dependence on java-flavored, high-caffeine drinks -- culminated in a breakdown in November 2015. “A slow-brewing cocktail for disaster,” he called it.

He had been living in his 2003 Ford Explorer for months. He couldn’t stay with his children -- he had a conviction for aggravated assault on their mother, and had been charged with child rape.

Selling Army guns, he wrote, seemed like the way to make enough money to solve his problems: “I reasoned that one rack of each weapon was sufficient.”

Exactly an hour after parking a rented BMW SUV on the compact campus in Worcester, Massachusetts, he emerged with a duffel bag.

His target was the large room where reservists train. Inside that drill room was the vault, roughly the size of a shipping container. And inside the vault were racks of guns.

Morales broke a kitchen window. Atop the vault, he cut through several layers of metal and wood.

Once, twice -- nine times in all -- he walked between the building and vehicle, sometimes carrying tools in, sometimes duffel bags out.

It took four hours, but by just after midnight, the plundering was complete. Morales had six automatic M4 assault rifles and 10 M11 semi-automatic handguns. The guns were among the at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms that an Associated Press investigation found were lost or stolen during the 2010s.

Wedged between a large medical campus and a lake, the center was just isolated enough. A barbed-wire fence shredded his clothing, but didn’t keep Morales out. The building’s alarm never rang.

No one would realize anything was wrong until the first staff arrived Sunday morning.

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Morales used his head start.

The morning after the break-in, he was at the Boston home of a convicted marijuana dealer and gave the man one of the M4 assault rifles and five handguns to sell. Cellphone photos from the exchange show “Property of U.S. Government” stamped on the side of the M4, as well as a selector switch that lets the rifle fire three-round bursts with each trigger pull.

The dealer, Tyrone James, later told investigators that he unloaded the five handguns in two separate sales to people he didn’t know.

Due to the rape charge, Morales wore an electronic monitoring bracelet.

With the break-in all over the news, two days later he cut the bracelet off his ankle and fled down the East Coast. Investigators soon arrested him outside a movie theater in Westbury, New York.

Authorities caught Morales with four of the assault rifles and two of the handguns. He already had ditched some of the other weapons: A homeless man prospecting for recyclables later found an M4 rifle and two of the handguns in a trash bag in a Bronx park near Yankee Stadium.

Five handguns remain missing.

While awaiting prosecution, Morales escaped prison and committed two bank robberies before being caught again and sentenced to 11.5 years for all his federal crimes.

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Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Contact her at https://twitter.com/kmhall.

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Jeannie Ohm in Washington contributed.

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Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at investigative@ap.org. See other work at https://apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.

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