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Down and Out

A sampling of Project Exile convictions.


Originally Published here by Westword March 21, 2002
Reprinted with author's permission.

Thirty-six and a half months per bullet.

That's what Joseph R. Morrison got when he was sentenced March 1 to five years and three months in federal prison for illegal possession of two .308-caliber rifle rounds. The details of his case are as follows: On June 21, 2001, Morrison contracted a nasty case of road rage on Highway 285 near Centerville. During an altercation on the side of the highway, he put a homemade "zip gun" to the scalp of another motorist and asked, rather rhetorically, "Do you want me to blow your head off?"

The other man flagged down a passing highway patrolman, who arrested Morrison and searched his vehicle, finding a pair of bullets that fit the single-shot zip gun.

Morrison had four South Carolina felony convictions on his record -- two for domestic violence, one for assault and battery, and one for malicious destruction of property -- making him an ideal candidate for Project Exile prosecution.

When an ATF agent test-fired the zip gun -- which was made of threaded plumbing fittings, with a spring for a hammer and a chopped piece of a key ring for a firing pin -- it didn't work. That would normally have been a moot point, because for a gun to fall under the jurisdiction of federal firearms laws, it needs first to have been involved in interstate transport. And in 99 percent of Colorado Exile cases, the firearms involved have, in fact, been manufactured in other states or countries before finding their way to Colorado. But in this situation, Morrison had made the gun himself.

So instead of charging him with illegal possession of a firearm, Exile prosecutors creatively employed a seldom-used provision of federal law that prohibits felons from possessing ammunition. Morrison pleaded not guilty. A jury convicted him earlier this year; he's scheduled for release in 2007.

Unusual as his case may be, Morrison seems to represent exactly the kind of criminal a program that targets gun violence would want to exile -- that is, a felon with a documented history of violence, who comes to the attention of prosecutors because he uses a gun to threaten or harm another person. As it turns out, Morrison is an exception among Project Exile felons, most of whom are caught in possession of a firearm not because they actually use it on another person, but because they are bad drivers, or passengers in the wrong car at the wrong time.

A sampling of cases:

On May 8, 1999, Dale American Horse, a Bureau of Indian Affairs peace officer assigned to the Ute Mountain Agency, was on a routine patrol of Rustling Willow Road in Towaoc, Colorado, when he stopped a red pickup truck with expired tags. The driver of the truck, Frank Johnson, appeared drunk, and there was a marijuana pipe on his seat. Officer American Horse searched the truck and found a .38-caliber revolver zippered inside a case under the driver's seat, along with a box of shells. Johnson, now 51, had four previous felonies on his record: breaking and entering (1982), burglary and escape from jail (1987), and battery on a police officer (1996). Charged under Project Exile as one of the program's first five cases, Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 77 months in federal prison -- fourteen more than Joseph Morrison.

In the early hours of March 1, 2001, Richard Cruickshank, then 36, rolled his Ford Expedition on West 90th Place in Westminster. As rescue workers pried Cruickshank from his damaged SUV, a Westminster police officer saw a .45-caliber pistol tumble from the waistband of the injured driver's pants. The officer ran Cruickshank's name through a database and found previous felony convictions for being a habitual traffic offender in 1991, second-degree burglary in 1993, and possession of a controlled substance in 1998. Cruickshank pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 months.

Just after 6 a.m. on July 11, 2000, a Colorado Springs police officer manning a traffic radar station on Highway 24 clocked a motorcycle driven by Jacob Lee Sorenson at 88 miles per hour. Less than a minute later, Sorenson, then 25, failed to negotiate a turn and flew off the road. He survived, but amid the scattered wreckage of his motorcycle, the officer found a Colt .357 revolver. A check of Sorenson's criminal record revealed a 1996 felony conviction for menacing. Prosecuted under a Project Exile case, he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 41 months.

Also in July 2000, a Denver cop followed a gold Nissan Altima traveling at a high rate of speed on Federal Boulevard near Tenth Avenue. When the officer turned on his lights, he saw Adam Michael Bonillas, who was in the front passenger seat, toss a marijuana joint out the window. A search of the car turned up a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol under the passenger seat. Bonillas said the gun was his. He had served three years in state prison for a 1996 conviction in Arizona for aggravated assault with a firearm. Among the minority of Project Exile defendants with a proven history of gun violence, Bonillas received a relatively light sentence of thirty months.

Floyd Zimmerman wasn't so lucky. On May 9, 2000, he was pulled over by a Denver police officer for failing to properly signal a turn onto 35th Avenue. When Zimmerman failed to produce proof of insurance, the officer searched his car and found a 9mm pistol under the front seat. Zimmerman's only felony record was a 1997 conviction for possession of a controlled substance, yet he was sentenced to forty months in federal prison.

One of the longest sentences handed down under Project Exile was that of Juan Carlos Ovalle, who on November 25, 2000, was riding in the passenger seat of a Cadillac observed making an illegal turn by an Aurora patrolman. As the Caddy was being pulled over, the officer saw Ovalle toss a Tec-9 assault pistol out the window. Ovalle, who had a 1996 conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary on his record, chose to take his case to trial. A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 84 months.

More Project Exile cases have been brought against convicted felons for shooting into the air than for shooting at other people. Here are three examples:

On July 4, 2000, Colorado Springs resident Karriem Johnson celebrated Independence Day the old-fashioned way: by smoking crack and shooting guns. Police responding to a report of gunfire found Johnson in his back yard with a crack pipe in one hand and a Smith & Wesson 9mm in the other. After watching him launch a few rounds to the heavens, the officers moved in. Johnson, then 23, was on probation at the time, having pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance earlier that year. He also pleaded guilty to his Project Exile charge. His sentence: 37 months.

In January of 2001, Aurora Police Department officers checking out a citizen's complaint of shots fired in his neighborhood heard the crackle of gunfire coming from behind Scott Gabrill Hickman's house on Lima Street. There they found Hickman, two juveniles and three handguns. Waiving his Miranda rights, Hickman said the guns were his and that the juveniles "had only been looking at them." He also informed the officers that he had a 1997 felony on his record for selling marijuana. Sentence: 55 months.

In June that year, a Denver officer saw Hugh Pacheco-Bello, then 33, standing at a bus stop at the intersection of Park Avenue and Champa Street, alternately waving a handgun at nothing in particular and shooting in the air. Pacheco-Bello, a citizen of Mexico, had been convicted in El Paso of possession of heroin in 1994. He pleaded guilty to Project Exile charges and got 38 months.

A few Project Exile defendants haven't been convicted felons, but illegal aliens. Two examples:

On August 25, 2000, Denver officers cruising the 2200 block of Arapahoe Street stopped to question pedestrian Alfredo Lugo Martinez, then eighteen, who matched the description of a robbery suspect. Though Martinez turned out to have nothing to do with the robbery, according to a police report, he "spontaneously told officers he was in possession of a .25-caliber pistol." The officers ran his name and found that Martinez had been deported three times in recent months after being caught crossing the border in Texas. He was charged under Project Exile with possession of a firearm by an illegal alien. Martinez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months.

Finally, apart from moving violations and confidential informants, domestic disharmony has been the cause of most Exile convictions:

Early in the afternoon of January 5, 2000, Denver Police Department officers responded to a radio call concerning a fight outside a home on south Quitman Street. At the scene, the officers found Chad Dean Sears and several other men standing in the garage. No evidence of a fight was observed, but while the officer was questioning the men, Sears's wife showed up, became angry, and told the officer she was "tired of drugs and guns all over the house." She gave the officer permission to search the home and suggested that he break into a safe in the basement using tools she handed him off a wall in the garage. Inside the safe, the officer found four rifles, two handguns and two shotguns, along with "Internet-generated information on how to synthesize narcotics." Sears had been convicted in 1999 of possessing methamphetamine. He pleaded guilty to a Project Exile charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was sentenced to 41 months.

On June 11, 2000, Denver cops were dispatched to a house in the 4600 block of Clay Street on a domestic-violence call. In front of the house, they contacted Robert John Roybal, then 25, and his girlfriend, who said Roybal wouldn't let her leave and was threatening to kill himself with a gun. Police went in and found a Mak90 Sporter rifle in Roybal's bedroom. Roybal pleaded not guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, but a jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 63 months. According to police reports, when he saw the officers coming out of the house with the rifle, Roybal told his girlfriend, "You know I only have that for protection from the UTAs [the Untouchables, a Denver street gang]. I'm on parole for drugs, and I only have six more months to go. Now I'm going down."

Related Reading:

Project Exile Archives

Project Exile Condemnation Coalition

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We'll take one step at a time, and the first is necessarily - given the political realities - very modest. We'll have to start working again to strengthen the law, and then again to strengthen the next law and again and again. Our ultimate goal, total control of handguns, is going to take time. The first problem is to slow down production and sales. Next is to get registration. The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and ammunition (with a few exceptions) totally illegal. Pete Shields, founder of Handgun Control, Inc., New Yorker Magazine, June 26, 1976, pg. 53

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