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Cops dismantle interstate gun trafficking ring; deals done in Astoria parking lot to Staten Island

Nov. 6, 2023 By Iryna Shkurhan

A seven-month investigation into an interstate gun trafficking ring spanning from Cincinnati to an Astoria parking lot resulted in the seizure of over 100 guns and the indictment of three individuals. 

Over the course of five meetups with an undercover police officer at the P.C. Richard & Son parking lot on Steinway Street in Astoria this summer, the defendants sold a total of 97 firearms, including 17 assault weapons. The purchases by the plainclothes cop totaled $124,000 at approximately $1,200 per gun. 

The five meetups between the defendants and an unnamed undercover officer occurred in the parking lot of P.C. Richard & Son on Steinway St. in Astoria.Photo via Google Maps

“Guns and the recovery of weapons on the streets of Queens are a priority for this office and the NYPD,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz at a Nov. 6 press conference, where the firearms were on display. “We are fighting the gun plague with all our might and resources, on the streets and in the courts.”

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz thanked the undercover officer who secured the majority of the guns during meetups with the defendants.Photo courtesy of Queens DA Office 

The three defendants, who are cousins – Ahmed “Taju” Mutalib, Abdul Haruna and Murtala Haruna – were indicted on 575 counts by a grand jury. Their charges include criminal sale of a firearm in the first degree, criminal possession of a weapon, conspiracy and money laundering. 

The NYPD and the DA’s office received a confidential tip informing them of the gun trafficking ring in March 2023. After gathering intelligence and completing an initial investigation, they appointed an undercover police officer to begin acquiring the firearms. 

The identity of the officer remains confidential to protect his safety. 

Interactions with the defendants were recorded and their cell phones were wiretapped.Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

In one undercover stint on June 27, Mutalib sold 16 semi-automatic pistols, three rifles, one shotgun and 900 rounds of ammunition to the undercover officer. Less than two weeks later on Aug. 8, Abdul Haruna accepted $4,000 from the officer as an upfront payment for additional firearms that were sold during ensuing meetups, according to the Queens DA’s office.

Over the course of the investigation, referred to as Operation Chainline, the defendants were recorded discussing the purchase, sale and transportation of firearms across state lines. Detectives also witnessed the defendants carrying large boxes out of a Cincinnati townhouse and loading them into a U-Haul truck. Investigators determined that it corresponded directly with subsequent calls they heard from wiretapping the defendants’ cell phones. 

Two of the guns, marked with blue tape, were determined to be ghost guns.Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

According to officials, the guns were smuggled through the “notorious” Iron Pipeline – a network that utilizes interstate highways to transport a steady stream of firearms to New York and other states. It typically refers to the use of the I-95 highway along the East Coast. 

But in this case, the I-90, which spans from Montana to Massachusetts, was used to transfer the guns from Ohio. Officials said that the transfer of firearms from states in the Midwest to those on the East Coast has emerged on their radar. 

The firearms bought and seized in New York City came from Cincinnati.Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

“Through investigations, arrests and prosecutions, we will continue to do everything we can to shut the Iron Pipeline down once and for all,” Katz said. “When that day comes, all of us will owe a debt of gratitude to the brave undercover officer in this dangerous investigation, and to all those who have risked their lives to help keep us safe.”

The bust occurred on Staten Island after officers received information that the traffickers were planning to sell weapons to another buyer, possibly in another country. 

On Sept. 8, officers tracked down two of the defendants driving a rented vehicle with Florida plates from New Jersey to New York. After they parked in Staten Island, and a search warrant was executed, officers were able to arrest Murtala Haruna and Mutalib. 

During that search they confiscated an additional 12 guns, two of which were assault weapons, 13 high-capacity magazines, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, two sets of men’s clothing and a backpack of financial documents in Mutalib’s name. 

Over a dozen assault weapons were also acquired during the course of the investigation.

The third defendant, Abdul Haruna, was arrested in accordance with the indictment on Nov. 2.

Katz noted that there has been a decline in shootings in 2023 –  by 38 percent in Queens and 28 percent across the city – and attributed it to the collaborative work of police and prosecutors. 

“This case underscores some disturbing truths: First, illegal guns proliferate and circulate in many neighborhoods that still need our help. And second, every day the men and women of the NYPD perform incredibly dangerous work to prevent these firearms from getting into criminals’ hands,” said NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban in a statement. “Every illegal gun taken off the street, every robbery that is avoided, every shooting that does not occur, and every homicide that never comes to pass, is another realization of the public safety promise we have vowed to fulfill.”

The defendants face up to 25 years in prison. They are due back in court on Nov. 9. 

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