A rifle that fired the bullet that killed a 2-year-old girl being held by her mother was among more than 36 firearms and over a pound of meth that was seized in a joint takedown of a major gun trafficking ring operating in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorities announced Monday.
The attorneys general’s offices in both states worked in tandem with NJ State Police, Philadelphia police and the FBI, DEA and ATF in “Operation Zombie,” which produced the arrests of five alleged ring members from Philadelphia who authorities said brought guns and meth into Camden.
A semi-automatic rifle that they said was sold by the ring in December has been identified as the gun used last October’s murder of young Nikolette Rivera, who was shot as her mother held her in her arms in their home in the 3300 block of North Water Street in Philadelphia.
The mother and a contractor working in the home were seriously wounded in the shooting.
Authorities arrested two men at the time who they said had targeted the child’s father.
Recovered along with the rifle in “Operation Zombie” was a 9mm handgun sold by the ring that was linked to another shooting a month earlier.
Also seized were the equivalent of 14,000 doses of methamphetamine, they said.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the takedown Monday while unveiling a new “PA/NJ Gun Trafficking Initiative” aimed at solving gun-related crime and getting illegal firearms off the street.
“Four out of five crime guns in New Jersey originate in states with weaker gun laws, with the largest number coming from Pennsylvania,” Grewal said at Camden Metro Police Headquarters (click below to watch a video of the news conference).
“By working together to dismantle rings like this one, we are saving lives and improving the safety of all our communities,” the attorney general added. “And by expanding our interstate collaborations, we can build on today’s efforts to further tackle the iron pipeline of illegal guns.”
The initiative intelligence sharing among law enforcement at all levels in both states “to identify and investigate interstate gun trafficking and criminal conduct that spans the Delaware River.”
The partnership already has paid huge dividends, Grewal and Shapiro said.
Between March 2019 and January 2020, the ring that was taken down in “Operation Zombie” sold 16 guns in the Camden area, including six military-style rifles, 10 handguns, and two illegal large-capacity magazines (one 75-round drum magazine and one 30-round magazine), along with 12 or so ounces of meth, the attorneys general said Monday.
Another 20 guns were seized during arrests and searches last week – including 10 handguns, six shotguns, three military-style rifles, and an Uzi – along with a large-capacity magazine, three partial sticks of dynamite, nearly 9 ounces of methamphetamine, 60 wax folds of heroin, over 80 marijuana plants, and a small amount of crack cocaine.
Some of the defendants got their hands on guns by using straw purchasers to buy them from dealers and at gun shows in Pennsylvania, they said.
Deals were arranged via text, often with photos accompanied by prices – including, in one case, an AR-15-style rifle for $2,200.
The weapons were then shipped to Camden, authorities said.
Deputy Attorney General Cassandra Montalto is the lead prosecutor for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau on the “Operation Zombie” case.
Detective Sgt. Garrett Cullen is the lead detective for the New Jersey State Police Gangs & Organized Crime South Unit.
For their work on the takedown, Grewal commended:
- New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau;
- New Jersey State Police Gangs & Organized Crime South Unit;
- Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force;
- U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania;
- FBI Philadelphia Field Office & South Jersey Resident Agency;
- DEA New Jersey Division, Camden Resident Office;
- ATF Newark Field Division, Camden Field Office;
- Philadelphia Police Department.
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