Joint investigation leads to arrests of burglary, firearm trafficking suspects

The theft of an all terrain vehicle in Dongola two years ago has led a team of investigators to uncover a widespread burglary ring which involved a network of stolen firearms.

The ongoing investigation has also solved the break-ins at several area churches.

Dogged, old-fashioned police work and a newly formed alliance among local, state and federal agencies led to the arrests of 16 individuals on Nov. 24, most of them in Union County, and five of them from Dongola. Two juveniles were among those arrested.

“This investigation all began with one stolen ATV and has expanded to include the burglaries of homes, churches and businesses in Union County, as well as neighboring counties,” said Union County State’s Attorney Tyler R. Edmonds during a press conference the day of the arrests.

The press conference was held at the Union County Courthouse in Jonesboro.

“There are also numerous charges regarding the sale of stolen property and possession of stolen property.”

Edmonds and Union County Sheriff David E. Livesay announced the arrests and the creation of a new initiative, Operation FASTEN.

The operation brings together federal, state and local agencies to investigate crimes in trafficking – specifically gun trafficking, but also covering other forms including drugs and stolen property.

FASTEN stands for Federal and State Trafficking Enforcement Network. The task force was officially formed in October.

For now, the task force includes investigators from the sheriff’s departments for Union, Pulaski and Alexander counties, the Illinois State Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

On the day of the arrests, 30 law enforcement officers from the various agencies involved in the investigation were divided into three teams of 10, each with its own commander and tasked with executing the arrest warrants on five individuals.

The teams began their execution of the arrest warrants at 6:30 a.m. after being briefed at the courthouse. All of the individuals had been apprehended by 10 a.m.

The adults charged through grand-jury indictments on Nov. 19 follow:

Brandon D. Griffin, 25, 445 Frey Ln., Dongola; Nathan W. Roland, 18, 525 Springville Hill Rd., Jonesboro.

Wesley A. Conkle, 24, 530 Frey Ln., Dongola; Austin M. Richardson, 24, 317 Wetaug Rd., Dongola.

John H. Evans, 23, 415 Main St., Gorham; Polly A. Quintana, 44, 445 Frey Ln., Dongola.

Johnny F. Smith, 24, 102 S. John St., Jonesboro; Thomas E. Nelson, 24, 412 Court St., Vienna.

Joshua S. Hathy, 25, 1905 State Route 127 South, Jonesboro; Fawn E. Eddleman, 24, 401 N. Green, Anna.

Marsha K. Farthing, 22, 530 Frey Ln., Dongola; Damian R. Kerr, 22, 502 McKinley St., Anna.

Charges were also brought against Kaleb W. Brown, 18, 428 S. Front St., Cobden.

Union County State’s Attorney Tyler R. Edmonds  and Union County Sheriff David E. Livesay announced the arrests at the press conference Nov. 24.

“We thought it would be a two- or three-month deal and it ended up (lasting) from 2007 to 2009,” Livesay said, talking about Operation FASTEN after the press conference.

“We did an interview with someone who said they knew something about guns, and we checked on that, and this guy said, ‘Yeah I know this guy who stole a gun.’ We talked to him. He confesses. At that point he tells us where he took the guns. At that point, we start tracking. It’s unbelievable how many hands stolen guns go through.”

The common thread through all of the investigations involved the firearms. One gun in particular went through 15 hands in a three-state area during the two-year period.

“The guns were leaving Union County and going into other county jurisdictions,” Livesay said.

“We didn’t realize how big of a problem we had until we started investigating.”

Livesay said the guns were being trafficked in Southern Illinois and eventually they found that they were leaving the state, making it a federal matter – and that’s when they brought in investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, ATF.

Capt. Scott Harvel of the Union County Sheriff's  Office was the lead investigator for what became known as the Operation FASTEN Initiative.

Through his investigation of a stolen ATV and subsequent follow-up on leads on other crimes from solving that, the network of stolen weapons was eventually brought to light.

“He (Harvel) got this ball rolling and kept it rolling for two years. He deserves a lot of credit,” Livesay said.

“He did a lot of work. He put long hours into it. My hat’s off to him on the good job he did. He could have easily stopped after the one burglary and said, ‘We got that solved.’ But he didn’t.

"He took it one step further and went to another one and went to another one and another and another.

 “A lot of it was done with his initiative with a lot of people helping him. He’d say, ‘We gotta go here. We gotta go there.’ ATF would send down resources, but they have things that they have to do. So when they left (Harvel) kept the ball rolling on it.”

The key to solving the crimes was the guns. When investigators here realized the trend and the fact that the guns were getting into other jurisdictions, they brought in ATF, knowing that the bureau would have many more resources to utilize.

“We thought maybe we could get ATF involved,” Livesay said.” They sent the agent down. He got to digging. He said, ‘There is something going on here.’”

The more they dug in the joint effort, the more they found.

ATF’s Senior Special Agent Robert Nosbisch said that it was apparent that there was “some type of trafficking issue that relates to firearms and/or narcotics” that were leading into other county jurisdictions and other states.

“We actually follow the firearm,” Nosbisch said. “We trace the firearm in the sense that (it) goes into one hand to the next, and I can tell you that these firearms in this particular investigation led to several of the communities in this area, which enhanced the need of what we have here – Operation FASTEN.”

Edmonds later said in wide, general terms that the investigation tracked anywhere from “twenty to forty” firearms. He said the guns were changing hands through illegal means, not through gun shows or dealers.

He said that this particular investigation led into Union, Pulaski, Alexander, Johnson and Jackson counties, as well as Cape Girar-deau and Scott counties in Missouri.

Livesay estimated that they have interviewed “over 150 people” during the two-year investigation.

FASTEN will eventually be expanded to include the lower 38 counties in Illinois, the primary area covered by the ATF from its Fairview Heights field office.

“The problem we run into in Southern Illinois is financial, like most of the country. In turn, we are trying to be more effective and efficient in utilizing what assets we have,” Nosbisch said, noting that ATF has certain resources that the counties don’t have.

Nosbisch said the FASTEN task force also will allow a quicker response to these crimes if something should come up.

Figures released by Edmonds’s office said together the 15 individuals face over 100 felony counts including 39 counts of burglary, 23 counts of theft, 23 counts of possession of stolen firearms, eight counts of obstructing justice, five counts of money laundering, four counts of possession of a stolen vehicle and two counts of production of cannabis.

The charges, said Ed-monds, include burglaries of homes, churches and businesses in Anna, Jonesboro, Cobden, Dongola, Ware and Wolf Lake.

Charges also include the sale and possession of stolen property, including firearms from the burglaries in Union County as well as burglaries in neighboring counties in Illinois and Missouri.

A 16th man, Robert Roland, was also arrested that day on possession of cannabis.

Edmonds said Roland was at the residence where officers had gone to serve a search warrant in connection with the indictment on his son, Nathan. Officers allegedly discovered the cannabis on the father.

Arrests were made by the Union County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the U.S. Marshals Service, Alexan-der County Sheriff’s Department, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department, Illinois State Police, Anna Police Department and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police.

Griffin has been charged with, allegedly, unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle (a Kawasaki ATV); two counts each of burglary of and of theft at both the Church of Christ and the United Pentecostal Church in Dongola on March 26, 2008; burglary of and theft at the Cobden Quick Serve on Aug. 8, 2008; and criminal damage to property at the Quick Serve.

Nathan Roland has been charged with, allegedly, unlawful production of cannabis sativa plants; nine counts of possession of a stolen firearm; and obstructing justice.

Conkle has been charged with, allegedly, burglary of and theft at the Anna Heights Baptist Church on July 2, 2007, and the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Anna on May 7, 2008, Lockard Chapel Church in Jonesboro, Galilee Baptist Church in Wolf Lake in July 2008, and the Church of Christ and the United Pentecostal Church on March 26, 2008, and on May 7, 2007, the Cobden Quick Serve on Aug. 8, 2008; burglary of the Big Creek Baptist Church near Anna on May 7, 2008, the Tip Top Tavern on Dec. 2, 2007, Rossi’s Mart in Cob-den on Oct. 5, 2007, and the Revlon Tavern on July 2, 2007; two counts of money laundering; obstructing justice by concealing evidence on Sept. 14, 2008; criminal damage to property at the Cobden Quick Serve; and two counts of unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle (an Arctic Cat ATV; a Kawasaki ATV).

In total, there are 13 counts of burglary and nine counts of theft alleged against Conkle in addition to the other charges.

Richardson has been charged with alleged residential burglary and theft at a residence on Nash Road near Anna and obstructing justice by concealing evidence.

John Evans was also charged in connection with the break-ins at the United Pentecostal Church, the Church of Christ, the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Galilee Baptist Church, Lockard Chapel Church, Big Creek Baptist Church, Anna Heights Baptist Church, the Tip Top Tavern, the Cobden Quick Serve, Rossi’s Mart and the Revlon Tavern. He has been charged with 11 counts of burglary; six counts of theft; obstructing justice by concealing evidence; and criminal damage to property at the Quick Serve.

Both Quintana and Eddleman have each been charged with money laundering.

Smith has been charged in alleged connections with break-ins at the Revlon, Rossi’s Mart, the Tip Top, Anna Heights Baptist Church, the United Pentecostal Church, the Church of Christ, Big Creek Baptist Church, Lockard Chapel Church, Galilee Baptist Church and the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church for a total of 10 counts of burglary and five counts of theft. He has also been indicted on unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle (an Arctic Cat ATV) and money laundering.

Nelson has been charged with, allegedly, five counts of possession of a stolen firearm and obstructing justice by knowingly furnishing false information to a police officer.

Hathy was indicted on two counts of possession of a firearm without a firearm owner’s identification card, the unlawful production of cannabis and obstructing justice by providing false information to a police officer regarding stolen firearms.

Farthing was charged with obstructing justice with allegedly providing false information to a police officer.

Kerr was allegedly implicated in the break-in at the Cobden Quick Serve with indictments for a count each of burglary, theft and criminal damage to property.

Brown, who was a minor at the time of the alleged crimes, has been indicted for residential burglary, nine counts of possession of a stolen firearm, theft and obstructing justice by concealing evidence.

A statement released by the Union County State’s Attorney’s Office said these individuals are being held at the Tri-County Jail in Ullin with bonds ranging from $25,000 to $340,000.

The guns that were noted  in the indictments were a 410 Winchester shotgun with a gold trigger, a Ruger 10-22 stainless rifle with a stainless aim point scope and laminated stock, a Ruger 10-22 rifle with a four power scope, a Mossberg pump 12 gauge shotgun, a Mossberg single barrel shotgun, a Smith and Wesson stainless 44 magnum ported 629 Classic revolver, a side-by-side 12 gauge double barrel shotgun with hammers, a 22-caliber bolt action rifle with clip, a 12-gauge Winchester model 97 pump shotgun with a hammer.

The investigation continues. “We anticipate several more arrests,” Livesay said, but he would not elaborate.

Edmonds also confirmed that more charges are possible. He said that his office is waiting to see what indictments the U.S. Attorney brings forth. Further state charges could be determined by what the feds do.

Most of the suspects had their first appearance in Union County Circuit Court in Jonesboro Monday, where further court dates were set.

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