Chicago-Area FFLs Sued After Thwarting Sting

by Dave Workman
Senior Editor

Gun shop proprietor John Riggio must think of himself as a whipping boy for the anti-gun power structure in Chicago and surrounding Cook County, IL.

After all, Riggio, who operates Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, IL, has been the target of a municipal lawsuit filed by the city of Chicago, which he and his gun industry colleagues initially won. A second pending lawsuit, involving the slaying of a police officer, has also named Chuck’s as a defendant, along with several firearms manufacturers and distributors.

Chuck’s was recently in the bull’s eye of a gun shop sting operation, which Riggio thwarted when he had local police “arrest” the undercover officer in his shop.

Now, Riggio and several other local gun retailers have been served again, this time by Richard A. Devine, state’s attorney for Cook County. The new lawsuit alleges the gun shops have been selling firearms that do not meet standards set down in a 1974 law that banned so-called Saturday Night Specials.

“For two years they’ve been screwing around with me,” Riggio said indignantly. “I guess it would be harassment.”

That’s exactly what Patrick O’Malley, deputy director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, called this latest legal action. “Definitely harassment,” O’Malley observed.

Likewise Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, exclaimed, “This is ridiculous!”

Ridiculous is just how Riggio described the recent sting attempt, which ended far differently than he suspects the state’s attorney’s unit anticipated.

Gun Week has obtained copies of a police report and witness statements describing the events that unfolded in Chuck’s Gun Shop over a three-day period from July 11 to 14, 2000 that support Riggio’s account.

On July 11, a man claiming to be Miguel Santiago entered the shop, produced an Illinois driver’s license and Firearm Owner’s Identification Card, and plunked down $500 cash for three handguns—a Davis .380 ACP, a Bryco Jennings .22 LR and a Davis .32 ACP. Told by employee Jack Jabrosky that he could take delivery of one pistol following the mandatory 72-hour waiting period, then pick up the other two at 30- and 60-day intervals as required by city ordinance, Santiago departed the store.

But Riggio was suspicious, so he followed the man for a couple of blocks to where Santiago got into a black Ford Crown Victoria that later turned out to be a police car and drove away.

Riggio returned to his shop, checked the FOID card with the state and found it to be issued to a bogus address. He then sent an envelope containing a free pass to the shop’s gun range to Santiago’s address by express mail, only to learn from the local Post Office that the address was no good, and it had the wrong zip code.

Concluding that something was amiss, Riggio contacted the Riverdale Police Department and reported his suspicions that Santiago was attempting an illegal gun purchase.

On July 14, a police sergeant and detective were in the shop at Riggio’s request when Santiago arrived to pick up his gun. Santiago had been thwarted in his attempt to take delivery of the gun earlier than allowed by law, but he was to be even more disappointed soon after he walked through Riggio’s door.

Riggio immediately advised Santiago that his FOID card was invalid. After giving Santiago back his money, Riggio told the man there were two cops in the store, and he turned over the fake identification to them.

The officers escorted Santiago outside to a waiting patrol car, where their prisoner then identified himself as investigator Michael Santana with the state’s attorney’s office of Cook County. However, to “protect” his undercover identity, which had by then been effectively blown, Santana asked to be taken away in handcuffs.

Incredibly, Santiago/Santana attempted the same ploy a few days later at Suburban Sporting Goods in nearby Melrose Park, IL, where proprietor Don Beltrame was waiting. Tipped off to the foiled Riverdale sting by Riggio, Beltrame immediately suspected he had the same man in his store on July 17.

Beltrame told Gun Week essentially the same story as Riggio. Santiago/Santana attempted to purchase guns using false identification, and when he showed up to take delivery, Melrose Park police officers were waiting.

This time, however, the investigator may not have been taken away in handcuffs, but he was taken away. Beltrame suggested that this entire sting operation was linked to the lawsuit, and he believes Santana and three colleagues, including one woman, were involved. They were, Beltrame theorized, buying inexpensive guns for evidence in the lawsuit.

Beltrame, who was acquitted in the past on a charge of making straw sales to undercover officers, foiled the woman and another of the men in a separate incident, he said. That couple was also detained at his store when Beltrame called police over what he thought was an attempted illegal gun buy.

Telephone calls to Santana’s office by Gun Week were not returned.

In early October, a man entered Chuck’s looking for a magazine for his pistol, which he handed over to a store employee, allegedly to make certain a replacement magazine would fit properly. Upon examination, the employee saw that the pistol’s serial number had been scratched out, and Chuck’s immediately called the police, who came and arrested the suspect. The state’s attorney’s office declined to file a felony charge and the man was released.

In November, Chuck’s was broken into, but the culprit didn’t get far. Thanks to the store’s alarm, police arrived in minutes and found the would-be thief standing at the end of the block, bleeding and covered with shards of broken glass. Though this suspect had just been released after 3&Mac251; years in jail for robbery, the state’s attorney again declined to approve a felony charge, and the police had to turn him loose. Several days later, the suspect was arrested after he tried to rob a female truck driver.

In mid-November, Chuck’s and several other local gun shops were sued by Devine. That lawsuit asserts the gun shops are selling specific gun models banned by the “Saturday Night Special” law, after undercover officers went into several stores, including Chuck’s, and purchased the gun models in question. Firearms named in the lawsuit allegedly have zinc alloy components which melt or deform below an arbitrary melting point of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, Gun Week also obtained copies of documents, one dating back to Oct. 1, 1974, dealing specifically with the “Saturday Night Special” law. That document identified by brand and model specific guns affected by the law. None of the firearms listed in the Devine lawsuit are on that 1974 list, and according to a Nov. 16, 2000 memo written to Riggio by Cheryn Wahl of the Illinois State Police, “There has (sic) not been any changes to the list for ‘Saturday Night Specials’ since they became illegal April 1, 1974.”

While it is possible that some guns sold to undercover officers do have low melting points. Riggio argued, “It is not our duty to know what the metallurgy is. They can’t expect us to go out and melt these guns to see if they meet the 800-degree test.”

Riggio is dumbfounded by what he considers repeated attempts to put him out of business, a business started by his father in 1968.

Beltrame is incensed. Had the authorities simply approached him with a concern about certain handguns not meeting the legal requirements, he said, he would have cooperated by pulling them off his shelves until testing could be completed.

“If they’d have just come to us and told us they had some concerns about the guns, we’d have stopped selling them,” Beltrame insisted. “We’re businessmen. We’re not felons.”

Like Riggio, Beltrame believes the bottom line here is not to seek cooperation from gun retailers, but to bankrupt them. Beltrame said the “cloak and dagger” approach was used “because it cost us money (to defend).”

They’re trying to drive us out of business,” he said.

True enough; Riggio said that these legal actions are hammering him financially. He has started a “Defense Fund” and will accept contributions to help defray his legal expenses. Donations may be sent to Chuck’s Gun Shop at 14310 S. Indiana Ave., Riverdale, IL 60827.

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