The compact black pistol was tucked into the right side of Marcus Terrell Bryant’s waistband when he casually strolled into a street corner MetroPCS in November 2015 in the District of Columbia.
Bryant made his way toward the customer service counter, swinging a plastic bag in his left hand. The sales floor was empty, except for the two young women behind the counter. The store manager was so busy counting the previous day’s cash that she didn’t even bother to look up as Bryant approached her coworker.
“Welcome to MetroPCS. How may I help you?” asked Rosa Jones-Thompson.
The 22-year-old Bryant reached into his jeans, pulled out the semiautomatic handgun, and held it over the purple counter – the 9 mm barrel pointing straight at Jones-Thompson’s chest. He kept his face turned left toward the manager, Veronica Bermudez.
“Open the drawer and give me the money,” Bryant said, waving the gun.
It was a Taurus PT111 Millennium G2. This pistol was never meant to be in Bryant’s hands. Handguns are difficult to obtain legally in the nation’s capital. And it’s illegal anywhere in the United States for firearms to be in the hands of someone like Bryant – a convicted felon with a history of home burglary and attempted armed robbery.
But a US Defense Department employee had peddled it to a drug dealer, before it ended up in the hands of Bryant. Now he was pointing it at two young women at 2:44 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Security camera footage captured the exchange, later verified and supplemented by CNN through interviews with two of the women.
Bryant ushered the women into the back office. He stood by the doorway, keeping an eye on the main lobby to make sure no one else walked in. A third coworker was in the bathroom, he was told. Bryant made his way to the bathroom door.
“Get out,” he said.
When Rachel Formoso cracked the door open, Bryant shoved the pistol in her face and dragged her outside, her pants still down by her ankles. “Please, no! No!” Formoso screamed, as her frightened coworkers stared in disbelief. Bryant let her go, but Formoso kept shrieking uncontrollably. The outside world was a blur to her.
“If you scream one more time, I’m gonna shoot all you bitches down,” Bryant growled. Formoso went silent, put her head down, and held her hands up.
Bermudez unlocked the safe and gave him a plastic bag of cash, which Bryant stuffed into his waistband.
“Don’t tell nobody that I was here,” Bryant warned them. “Don’t call the cops. Don’t scream. Cause I’ll find out if you do.”
He opened the back door and disappeared into an alley with almost $6,000 in cash, according to a police report. Formoso collapsed on the floor. Bermudez ran into the bathroom, desperately hoping that the stress of the last few minutes didn’t cause her to miscarry her baby boy.
The women didn’t realize it, but at that moment, the stability in their lives began to unravel. Bermudez would become a recluse, unwilling to work outside her home and sending her young family spiraling into debt. Formoso would go on to develop an unshakable fear of strangers, becoming dependent on prescription drugs to fight back panic attacks.
It wasn’t until three years later, while sitting down for interviews with CNN, that either of these women would give any thought to where this gun came from — or how little punishment would be dealt to the man whose black market dealings put it in Bryant’s hands.
A trail of crime
Leonard Joseph Laraway earned a six-figure salary as an aerospace engineer, held a government security clearance, and lived in a half-million-dollar home in a leafy suburb of Richmond, Virginia with his wife and two young daughters.
He also ran a thriving side business as a black market gun dealer, purchasing and illegally selling more than 400 weapons without conducting the background checks that licensed dealers are required to perform, court documents say. He sold about about half of those guns to a crack dealer named Bobby Perkins, according to an affidavit later signed by the ATF special agent who investigated them both.
As of March of last year, nearly 130 of the guns sold by Laraway had turned up at crime scenes or in police investigations in Washington, D.C., and in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, court records show. Guns sold by Perkins have been tied to three homicides, including that of his own cousin, federal prosecutors allege.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is responsible for conducting firearms traces, is prohibited by federal law from releasing the details of such investigations.
But CNN was able to piece together the path of some of Laraway’s guns based on in-person interviews, police reports, court records, and posts on internet gun markets – showing how urban neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., were flooded with crime guns that came from a man in a wealthy suburb 90 miles away. And some of those guns left a trail of misery that spans to this day.
‘I was living my life in fear’
It’s been more than three years since Marcus Bryant brandished one of Laraway’s guns at the MetroPCS store in DC.
Rachel Formoso, the single mom who was dragged out of the store bathroom, still remembers the heart palpitations and uncontrollable shaking she experienced on the taxi ride back home after the robbery. When she arrived, Formoso walked straight into her 14-year-old girl’s room. The mother held her daughter and began to sob.
Formoso, who already suffered from anxiety attacks, grew to rely on daily doses of Zoloft and Xanax to remain functional. Her occasional visit to the therapist became a twice-a-week necessity. Overcome by distrust of strangers, she swore off public transportation and began to rely on ride-sharing services like Uber.
“I was terrified. I was emotionally distraught. I was living my life in fear,” she later told CNN.
It wasn’t until two weeks after the MetroPCS store holdup that D.C. police officers caught up with Bryant, when he flashed his gun in a residential neighborhood. He admitted to the robbery and took a plea deal.
Unbeknownst to the women he had robbed, a related case was just getting started at the US District Courthouse in Richmond—United States of America v. Leonard J. Laraway.
Laraway was quietly indicted on February 16, 2016. The law enforcement action received no media coverage, no press release from the US Department of Justice. Law enforcement had been investigating him for months after he purchased hundreds of weapons, many of which were being recovered by law enforcement.
Laraway agreed to hand off his gun collection and help ATF agents go after Perkins, so prosecutors offered him a reduced sentence. He was allowed to keep his government job and security clearance until his case was resolved, and to continue attending the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was obtaining a second master’s degree.
In court filings, Laraway cast himself as a repentant man about to have his life ruined by the criminal case against him. “He has moved his family to a less expensive residence in preparation for the impact this case will cause his family,” his lawyer wrote in a court pleading.
On July 1, 2016, the Laraway family bought a second home for $307,500 – yet another two-floor, four-bedroom colonial-style home in an upscale Glen Allen residential neighborhood, according to county property records. The home is surrounded by golf courses belonging to The Dominion country club, in an area once rated “most kid-friendly suburban community.” This time, they placed it under the name of his wife, Yali Yin. The couple rented out the first home and moved into their second, CNN has independently confirmed.
That very week, former MetroPCS store manager Veronica Bermudez was caring for her newborn baby boy and packing up boxes at her apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. Like her ex-coworker, the armed robbery had left her overcome by constant fear and she had become a shut-in. Unwilling to work outside the home – and unable to find an at-home job – Bermudez and her two kids relied on her husband’s near-minimum wage income. Mario Armando Velazquez had already borrowed against his 401(k) to afford a few more months of rent. The family was on their way to maxing out seven credit cards that would eventually rack up $36,000 in debt to pay bills. They could no longer afford their apartment and were forced to move in with his sister. The stress nearly tore the family apart, the couple told CNN.
Bermudez, who struggled to breastfeed, was forced to buy baby formula with the help of the federal food stamp program Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC. But she remembers the heartbreak of watching her son Eli cry from bouts of constipation from the only brand of formula she could afford at the time.
“I wanted Earth’s Best, the organic label. But we didn’t have that kind of money. We didn’t have any more options,” she tells CNN.
That summer, US District Judge Henry E. Hudson convicted Laraway, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of dealing firearms without a license, and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Laraway served less than half that – just 8 months at the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg just south of Richmond, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
On May 5, 2017, the day Laraway was released from a halfway house and became a free man once again, Bermudez was celebrating a muted Cinco de Mayo and serving enchiladas and mole sauce at her sister-in-law’s home. She appreciated the family bonding, but the 27-year-old mother craved independence.
“I felt trapped and like a failure,” Bermudez tells CNN. “I couldn’t afford anything.”
‘I bet he’s got a nice life’
Laraway, now 56, became a manager at a Wawa gas station in Virginia. He still rents out his first home, valued at $458,200. He declined to meet with CNN for this article but allowed his Richmond defense lawyer, Edwin Brooks, to speak on his behalf.
“The collateral consequences have been devastating… the permanence of his conviction, the loss of his security clearance, not being able to use his training and experience, it has a lasting impact on him. He likes guns, and he can only look at pictures of them now,” Brooks said of his client, noting the impact of a felony conviction. “That’s a permanent scarlet letter.”
Laraway was entirely driven by finances when he started illegally dealing guns in 2013, his lawyer explained. Laraway and his wife had recently purchased a house and had a 5-year-old girl and a baby, and he had two adult children from a previous marriage.
He was supporting his current wife’s Chinese parents, and he was spending money to bring them to the United States. His Defense Department job didn’t pay enough to support his upper middle-class lifestyle.
Laraway now laments it all, according to Brooks: “He realized belatedly it wasn’t that hard to get a federal firearms license.” But because so many of these guns were involved in crimes after his conviction, Laraway doesn’t actually know the damage he’s caused.
All of the crimes committed in the District of Columbia with Laraway’s guns had extremely short “time-to-crime” periods, as law enforcement calls it – which is indicative of the heightened dangers of unlicensed dealing.
In the District of Columbia, the average time between a gun’s purchase and its appearance in a crime is 10 years, according to internal ATF statistics. The Laraway guns identified by CNN had a time-to-crime of less than a year and a half.
In October, CNN met with the Bermudez and Formoso families at their homes in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was the first time either of them had ever heard of Laraway or Perkins. Bermudez, who has since moved her family to their own apartment but remained more than $22,000 in debt at the time of her interview, angrily pointed out the disparity between Laraway’s upscale lifestyle and her own, as she struggles to pay rent.
“I bet he’s got a nice life,” she said.
Formoso was shocked that Laraway received so little prison time for illegally selling more than 400 guns.
“To this day, this is a nightmare to me. I feel totally unsafe. I’ll live with that for the rest of my life. There’s no way 18 months could be enough. He should have served more than a year for each gun he sold. He didn’t care about anybody,” she said. “The penalty doesn’t match the crime.”