Sgt. Ray Bullard, an investigator with the Sanford Police Department's narcotics division, sprinted across the trailer park as he chased the armed suspect toward a patch of Harnett County woods.
It was the afternoon of Aug. 14 and Bullard had been on a 10-day hunt for the man, Chris Hill. A Sanford resident, Hill was wanted in New York on firearms charges and now hiding out in Lillington. As Bullard gulped for air mid-stride, he thought to himself, I'm 45 and too old for this. Why did he have to run?
The operation was supposed to be easier, meticulously crafted by the New York Police Department's Firearms Investigation Unit. Using phone wiretaps and undercover work, the unit uncovered evidence that would lead to the largest bust of a gun-smuggling ring in New York City history. On Aug. 1, seven Sanford-area men and one woman were indicted on firearms charges, including Hill and Walter Walker, a 29-year-old ex-con and the leader of the ring, living just blocks away from the town's police department.
North Carolina is a main supplier of guns smuggled to New York. Ninety percent of firearms seized by New York authorities in 2011 were trafficked from another state, according to a recent study. North Carolina is the second-leading source of those guns—255 total—trailing only Virginia.
Many of these firearms are funneled via the "Iron Pipeline," a term used by law enforcement since the 1970s. The label refers to the I-95 corridor, traversed by arms traffickers from southern states, where gun laws are lax. New York, with its strict gun laws, offers a bountiful black market where guns can fetch three times their original value.
"There's no shortage of weapons flowing north from the south through the iron pipeline," New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement last month.
The trend, which has grown over the past decade, could continue to escalate. In the last legislative session, 22 N.C. lawmakers co-sponsored House Bill 518, the Second Amendment Protection Act, in an attempt to ensure that firearms manufactured in North Carolina are not subject to federal law or regulation, including guns with imported accessories. The bill is in committee and could be resurrected next year. It would levy criminal penalties for any local or U.S. official enforcing federal gun laws in the state.
The NYPD had been on Walker's case for a year, and for eight months they had worked with Sanford authorities to identify his accomplices who bought or stole his weapons. Walker rode low-cost buses from Raleigh, transporting the firearms into Brooklyn and Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood, selling 82 guns for $82,000 during 19 meetings with an undercover officer, according to the recently unsealed 264-page, 552-count indictment. (It also named seven suspects from Rock Hill, S.C., who formed a separate smuggling ring but dealt with the same Brooklyn broker.)
The guns ranged from .22-caliber pistols to a full automatic Cobray 9-millimeter machine gun with a 30-round high-capacity magazine.
After arrest warrants were issued, the NYPD team booked a flight into Charlotte for Sunday, Aug. 4. They planned to arrest the South Carolina suspects on Monday and the Sanford suspects, including Hill and Walker, on Tuesday. Just before their plane took off, Bullard, a 24-year police veteran, was enjoying a day off with his wife and kids. At 11 a.m., his phone buzzed. An agent had pressing news.
"Cat's out of the bag," the agent told Bullard.
In a routine traffic stop the night before, a Cary police officer had pulled over a car with unregistered tags. Walker was driving; his girlfriend was riding shotgun, according to Bullard. The Cary officer searched a federal database and learned Walker had a pending warrant in New York. The officer arrested Walker and let his girlfriend go.
In hours, word spread around Sanford that the leader of one of New York's biggest gun-running rings had been captured. Several of his alleged accomplices fled, including Hill, who wouldn't resurface until two weeks later, in a trailer park in the next county.
After learning of Walker's traffic arrest, Bullard grabbed his badge and sped to his office, where he waited for the NYPD team to arrive. The revised plan was to start arresting suspects immediately.
Of the seven remaining Sanford suspects, one was in jail. Two didn't flee; four needed to be tracked down. Tarell "Serious" Flow was hiding at Walker's house and was arrested that day. Cordero "Heat" Rollins fled to Lexington, N.C., where he was arrested by U.S. marshals. Jeremiah "Cougar" McDougald was arrested in a Greensboro apartment complex by a federal violent-crime apprehension team. That left Hill.
Hill, who, according to Bullard, broke into homes to obtain several of Walker's guns, was the most elusive. After a weeklong search, Bullard received information he was hiding in a Harnett County trailer park. On Aug. 14, Bullard and two sheriff's investigators went to the park, where Bullard noticed a gold Ford Explorer he believed belonged to Hill's girlfriend.
"You take the front, I'll take the back," Bullard told the deputies.
Behind the trailer, Bullard saw Hill talking to his girlfriend. After Bullard told him he was under arrest, the 24-year-old bolted past the mobile homes; Bullard ran after him.
After about 75 yards, Hill dashed toward the woods. He reached into his waistband and pulled out a Walther PPQ .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun with a laser and flashlight, according to Bullard.
Hill tossed the firearm to the ground and cut a trail through the thickets, but became tangled in a briar patch. Bullard arrived with handcuffs and waited for the sheriff's investigators.
The two looked at each other, winded.
"Why did you run?" said Bullard, who recalled the conversation.
"Because I had a gun and didn't want to get shot," Hill said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The ones who didn't get away."