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Pistol’s history ends in murder

Pistol’s history ends in murder

It took more than a decade for the Lorcin 9 mm semi-automatic pistol bearing the serial number L1155

It took more than a decade for the Lorcin 9 mm semi-automatic pistol bearing the serial number L115525 to land in the hands of Laurel Teer's killer.

Over those years the weapon drifted, moving from a shoddy weapons manufacturer in California to a resident of an impoverished town in North Carolina to an illegal seller in New York City. It surfaced on a warm spring evening in 2009, when Wade McCommons used the gun during an attempted robbery in Schenectady.

McCommons, a “three-star general” in the Nine Trey Gangsters faction of the Bloods, was trying to steal cash to buy his girlfriend a birthday present. Instead, he ended up firing the Lorcin into the temple of the 41-year-old Teer, as she struggled with him near the register at the Eastern Avenue Deli & Grocery.

The shooting launched an investigation that tracked the gun’s West Coast origins to its travels among gang members in Schenectady. And it highlights how cheap handguns manufactured years ago are still turning up in crimes today.

First owner

Jeffrey Leon Jones was the first and last person to own the handgun legally after buying it new from the A & J Pawn Shop in Kinston, N.C., in February 1999. But his wife grew uncomfortable with having the weapon in their home and convinced him to return it about four months later.

The pawnshop eventually closed, and for more than a decade, federal authorities had no way of telling where the gun was located or who owned it.

“From there, the trail goes cold,” Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said.

The gun was located in Schenectady on June 12, 2009, when a parole officer pulled it out of James Porter's waistband during a traffic stop. Porter, a member of the Bloods, claimed he had found the gun discarded in a plastic bag on the street in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood and was hoping to turn it over to an Albany gun-buyback program.

In truth, investigators already knew the Lorcin had been passed around Porter’s fellow gang members. And by the time the weapon reached his hands, it had already been used to commit a murder.

Teer was struck by one round from the pistol during the botched robbery on June 5, 2009. McCommons was identified as the gunman and later convicted of the killing after a three-week trial in October.

Poorly engineered weapons like the Lorcin 9mm are typically shunned by hobbyists and law enforcement because they pose a safety risk.

“They’re so cheap they could blow up in your hand,” said Pat Popolizio, owner of Taylor & Vadney Sporting Goods in Rotterdam. “I wouldn’t take one simply because of the safety risk.”

That doesn’t stop criminals from coveting Lorcins and other cheap guns sometimes referred to as Saturday night specials. Lorcin 9 mm handguns sold new for roughly $150 and now have an approximate value of about $60, low enough to make them popular among street thugs.

“It’s just a low-end 9 mm with real cheap ammunition,” Popolizio said. “And unfortunately, it’s a favorite among gangsters.”

‘Ring of fire’

The gun used in Teer’s murder was manufactured by California-based Lorcin Engineering in November 1998. Founded by entrepreneur James Waldorf, the company was among a half-dozen makers of inexpensive weapons encircling the Los Angeles metropolitan area in the 1990s.

These manufacturers flooded the nation with cheap handguns and became know as the “Ring of Fire” because of their location in the suburbs around the city. At their peak in 1993, Ring of Fire companies produced 892,886 handguns and accounted for 39 percent of all pistols manufactured in the United States.

Waldorf claimed his company was producing weapons for the working class. He argued that the high price of firearms was discriminatory and prevented a large segment of the population from being able to protect itself.

Yet a study conducted at the University of California campus at Davis in 1997 suggested Waldorf’s guns and those produced by the Ring of Fire were causing crime, not protecting people from it. The study found that 69 percent of handgun purchasers with no prior criminal history were likely to commit a crime within three years of buying Ring of Fire handguns, as opposed to other companies. They were also nearly twice as likely to be arrested for an offense involving firearms or violence.

By the late 1990s, companies like Lorcin were hit with a deluge of lawsuits from the victims of gun violence. Several cities also filed legal action against the companies, claiming the proliferation of guns was spiking crime rates.

Legal troubles prompted Lorcin Engineering to seek bankruptcy protection in 1996. The company closed in August 1999 — less than a year after the 9mm pistol that killed Teer was shipped to the North Carolina-based Scott Wholesale Co.

Off the radar

Schenectady Police investigators gave the serial number to the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to begin tracking the gun. Agents were also able to contact out-of-state law enforcement to help find and question the last legal owner — before the Lorcin vanished.

The gun had been shipped to the A & J Pawn Shop in Beulaville, N.C. The pawnshop moved to Kinston — where Jones told investigators he bought and later returned it — but apparently went out of business without leaving any record of what happened to its inventory.

“It shows the problem of tracing through businesses like this,” Carney said. “They’re out of business, and it just disappears.”

Nearly a decade later, the weapon was purchased illegally in New York City by a Bloods member operating a crack house on Bridge Street in Schenectady, according to statements given to police investigators. The weapon was stashed beneath a mattress as protection for the drug operation.

McCommons knew where the gun was and had access to it on May 27, 2009. That evening, he used the weapon to force his way into a Rugby Road apartment and hold a mother at gunpoint as an accomplice searched for money or drugs.

Nine days later, McCommons retrieved the gun again. Only this time, his target was a business.

Concealing his identity with a black-hooded sweatshirt and red bandanna, McCommons burst into the Eastern Avenue Deli & Grocery and brandished the Lorcin at the clerk. When he brushed up against Teer as she stood at the register, she swung around and kicked him in the groin.

McCommons reacted by striking Teer with the pistol on the left side of her head. But as his blow followed through, the gun discharged a single shot into her right temple and out the back of her skull. The bullet lodged in the wall behind the counter and the shell casing ejected and rolled beneath a soda crate. The fatally wounded Teer slumped to the ground by the Lorcin, which McCommons dropped after it discharged.

Surveillance video captured the stunned McCommons lifting Teer to recover the weapon and then fleeing without stealing so much as a penny from the store. Teer was rushed to Ellis Hospital but died a short time later.

In the days that followed, McCommons confided in several fellow gang members about his role in the shooting. Less than a week later, the murder weapon was traded to Porter for a .357 revolver.

Investigators claim Porter was aware of the Lorcin’s history and even test-fired the weapon before making the swap. But a tipster alerted authorities about the deal, and Porter — already on parole — was promptly arrested after the minivan he was in was pulled over.

McCommons, who was on federal parole for a weapons conviction, remained out of prison through August 2009. During that time, he racked up more than a dozen parole violations ranging from testing positive for marijuana to blowing off a mandatory drug test.

Authorities executed a search warrant of his home on Sept. 11, 2009, uncovering an electronic stun gun, a .40-caliber Glock handgun, a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was handed a 13-month stint in federal prison several days later, after he admitted to possessing drugs and violating the conditions of his home detention.

Building the case

With McCommons and Porter incarcerated, investigators had plenty of time to build their case. But linking the Lorcin to the shooting wasn’t exactly easy.

Sgt. James Campbell, a ballistics expert with the state police crime lab in Albany, said the weapon’s shoddy craftsmanship helped conceal some of the microscopic markings usually left on a shell casing after a bullet is fired. The lack of markings made it harder for him to definitively cite the Lorcin as the one used in Teer’s murder.

The Lorcin’s breech plate — the area behind the firing chamber where the firing pin strikes the bullet — was covered by a smooth sheet-metal insert. On well-crafted weapons, this area is often machined smooth, so that there are unique scratches that will match up to a shell casing fired from that gun.

Campbell also had to contend with a bullet that was badly damaged. The force of it slamming into the wall left only a portion that could be studied.

Ultimately, Campbell was able to identify unique rifling patterns on part of the bullet to suggest it came from one of four guns, including the Lorcin. This uncertainty might have been enough to cause doubt, had it not been for a damning piece of circumstantial evidence.

The slug that killed Teer was identified as a special bullet often used by indoor target shooters. Winchester’s WinClean ammunition is encased in a copper jacket and is designed to reduce harmful particulate matter discharged after a bullet is fired.

“You don’t see a lot of them, so it’s kind of unique,” Campbell said.

Porter had unwittingly left a single cartridge of WinClean ammunition in the chamber. Carney said the presence of the unusual cartridge was circumstantial in nature, but enough to strongly suggest the Lorcin was the same one used in the Teer murder.

Prosecutors were also able to match the appearance of the gun — its silver barrel and black grip — to still images taken from the surveillance cameras.

Carney said the likeness coupled with the ballistic evidence and the unique ammunition found in the gun was enough to show that it was the murder weapon. “There was nothing dissimilar, so there was a very strong circumstantial case for this being the gun,” he said.

Jurors deliberated for 10 hours and 30 minutes last month, but ultimately found McCommons guilty on counts of manslaughter and second-degree murder. He faces 50 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in December.

Porter was found guilty of two felony weapons possession charges after trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He refused to testify in McCommons’ trial, invoking his rights under the Fifth Amendment, and continues to maintain the weapon pulled from his waistband was not the one used in Teer’s murder.

The Lorcin now sits in a safe at Carney’s office. One day, the weapon will be moved to the Schenectady Police Department’s evidence locker, where it will be kept off the streets for good.

“Eventually it’ll be destroyed,” Carney said. “But it’ll probably stay in evidence until [McCommons] dies.”

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