TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

September 25, 2008

Elliotts found not guilty

Jury finds former gun shop owners innocent on all charges


By Brad Hicks / Staff Writer

An emotional Leonard Elliott left his chair, walked across the room and knelt down to embrace his wheelchair-bound father as the court clerk read the jury’s verdict.

After approximately four hours of deliberation, the jury found Leonard Charles Elliott and Thomas Charles Elliott not guilty on all charges against them in U.S. District Court in London Wednesday.

The father and son, owners of the former Bacon Creek Gun Shop in Corbin, which closed in 2007, were charged with selling firearms to a person they knew to be a convicted felon and falsifying records required to be maintained by federally licensed firearms dealers.

Following the verdict, Leonard Elliott said it was faith and the support of his family, community and fellow church members that helped him through the investigation and this week’s three-day trial.

“All through this, I said ‘God, you’re in control,’” Leonard Elliott said. “I had faith in my savior Jesus Christ ... I just asked for a miracle and intervention, and, as you can see, God is alive ...We appreciate everyone’s love, concern and prayer.”

An investigation of the Elliotts began in 2005 after an informant, Letcher Gray, advised the ATF that they were selling firearms out of their gun shop through straw purchases, in which a person legally prohibited from owning a firearm gets another person to complete the required paperwork on his behalf for him to make the purchase.

Prior to becoming an informant, Gray was being investigated by ATF Special Agent Tom Chittum after the Kentucky State Police, responding to a domestic assault, found several firearms at Gray’s home. Gray, a convicted felon since the 1960s, is prohibited under state law from owning or possessing a firearm.

Chittum went undercover and purchased marijuana and a firearm from Gray. This firearm was traced back to Bacon Creek Gun Shop, Chittum said. Gray agreed to cooperate with investigators by entering the store, initiating conversations about gun purchases with the Elliotts and was ultimately instructed to negotiate the purchase of a firearm while an undercover KSP officer completed the paperwork.

Three incidents in 2005 in which Gray entered the Bacon Creek Gun Shop were secretly videotaped. On May 3, 2005, Gray is seen purchasing ammunition from the store and asking Leonard Elliott if there were any guns “off the books,” to which Leonard Elliott responded there was not.

On that date, Gray also inquires about firearms and tells Leonard Elliott “you know my situation. I can’t sign for one. I’ll have to bring someone to sign for me.”

Leonard Elliott testified Tuesday that Gray came into the gun shop three to four times annually and the only “situation” he was aware of concerning Gray was that he could not read and write. He said he was unaware Gray was a convicted felon.

David Hoskins, Leonard Elliott’s attorney, said it was clear from Elliott’s testimony that his client thought this was the “situation” Gray was referring to and that Leonard Elliott had no knowledge of Gray’s status as a convicted felon. He added that the video did not prove otherwise.

“Well, I think the biggest hole in the government’s case was not having any proof that Leonard Elliott knew about these felony convictions,” Hoskins said. “I don’t think there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

On May 10, 2005, Gray entered the store with undercover KSP Det. Shelby Slone. On this occasion, Gray negotiates the purchase of a firearm from the store while Slone, under the alias of “Bradley Coleman,” completes the paperwork. Gray left the store with a firearm and ammunition.

Again, on Nov. 16, 2005, Gray enters the store and leaves with two firearms after Slone completes the required paperwork using his alias. On the forms, Slone marked that he was the actual purchaser, which defense attorneys said firearms dealers must follow. Gray also tells Thomas Elliott he is working with an attorney to try and reacquire his gun rights, to which Thomas Elliott asks “who are you working with?” However, defense attorneys said it was the busiest time of the year and Thomas Elliott, who has difficulty hearing, was likely not paying attention to the conversation.

Leonard Elliott also testified Tuesday it was common for family members to enter the store together and go through the same process of purchasing a firearm, and he assumed Slone was a family member of Gray’s.

Because of his cooperation in the investigation of the Elliotts, the marijuana and firearm charges against Gray were not prosecuted, defense lawyers pointed out. Also, a driving under the influence charge against Gray had been amended to reckless driving. Hoskins said it is possible that this leniency could have played a hand in the verdict.

“My guess is most people were displeased with the way Letcher Gray was treated,” he said.

William Crabtree, attorney for Thomas Elliott, said he was thankful for the jury’s time and work throughout the trial.

“I do believe the jury listened very attentively and worked very hard,” Crabtree said. “I certainly, on behalf of my client, appreciate the verdict.”

Crabtree said that testimony showed his defendant had hearing problems and that the recordings did not present enough evidence to return a guilty verdict.

“Overall, I thought they were inconclusive,” he said.

Both of the Elliotts were thankful and complementary of the work done by their defense attorneys prior to and during the trial.

“There are no finer two defense attorneys in the area,” Leonard Elliott said.

“I never doubted the ability of my attorney,” Thomas Elliott said.

Crabtree was equally as complementary of the characters of Thomas Elliott and Leonard Elliott.

“Well, I represented some very, very good people,” he said.

Thomas Elliott said the verdict comes as a relief to him and his family.

“It’s certainly a relief to be out of the shadow to be convicted as a felon,” he said. “I am very much relieved that at my age of 84, I can spend the rest of my years not as a convicted felon.”

Like his son, Thomas Elliott said he also received a tremendous amount of support from the community and members of his church.

“Everybody I met that knew me wished me luck and didn’t understand why the charges were brought against me,” he said. “I never met a person who was negative. Everybody wished me luck ... The church members at Central Baptist Church had a positive effect on the outcome.”

While Thomas Elliott said he would like “to go in business in the morning,” Leonard Elliott said he is unsure at this point if he wants to see the gun shop reopened.

“Right now, all we want to do is relax,” Leonard Elliott said. “As you know, this has been going on for about three years.”

Following the verdict, Leonard Elliott again embraced his father in the hall outside of the courtroom where they had spent the last three days.

“My mother is smiling in heaven today,” Leonard Elliott said.

Brad Hicks can be reached at bhicks@thetimestribune.com