Police concealed cop's gun crime, sources say

Guns line a wall in the Police Dept.'s Firearms Identification Unit. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Guns line a wall in the Police Dept.'s Firearms Identification Unit. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER) (Guns line a wall)
Posted: August 01, 2011

HE STARTED crying, just a little at first, but then he couldn't stop, and the tears flowed like a waterfall.

Officer Anthony Magsam was in a world of trouble. It was August 2009, police sources said, and the young cop with high-ranking relatives in the Police Department had just tearfully confessed to stealing parts from two automatic weapons from the department's Firearms Identification Unit.

He found a measure of comfort from his boss, Lt. Vincent Testa, the commanding officer of the unit.

Rather than reporting Magsam, who allegedly committed a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, Testa agreed to quietly transfer him to another unit and not to report the theft, according to numerous sources with direct knowledge of the incident.

Everything went according to plan. Until now, that is.

On Friday, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey called for an audit of the FIU in light of the alleged cover-up, and he transferred Testa out of the unit.

The moves were made after the Daily News began inquiring about the transfer and about the Internal Affairs investigation, which appeared to have stalled after having been opened more than a year ago.

Also, the lead Internal Affairs investigator was replaced, as was Capt. Carmen Vuotto, who was overseeing the investigator's work. Vuotto previously worked in the FIU with Testa.

Left untouched, thus far, was Magsam, whose mother, Barbara Feeney, a longtime police sergeant, is married to retired police Chief Inspector Michael Feeney.

Federal crime left unpunished?

Magsam was known by colleagues in the FIU as a gun collector, and he spoke often about knowing how to convert semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons, according to more than a half-dozen police sources who are familiar with the Internal Affairs investigation and Magsam's tenure in the unit.

When firearms examiners discovered that parts from an AR-15 and M2 carbine had been removed - and crudely replaced with parts from a semiautomatic weapon - many immediately suspected Magsam, the sources said.

The stolen parts were soon returned - and photographed by members of the FIU - and Magsam offered a tearful confession to Testa, the sources said.

Being in possession of stolen or unregistered automatic-weapon parts is a violation of the National Firearms Act, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

But Magsam was never reported, disciplined or arrested.

He was moved to Northeast Philly's 15th District, where he had been previously assigned, after Testa instructed him to write a transfer request, the sources said.

When a handful of FIU members complained to Testa that Magsam had broken the law, that the incident should have been reported, the sources said he told them: "That's what's going to be done. I gave an order. If you don't like it, that's tough s---."

Testa declined to comment when reached by phone last week, and Magsam could not be reached for comment.

If the allegations against Magsam prove to be true, Ramsey said, the U.S. Attorney's Office could become involved.

In the meantime, he said, the department has reached out to federal and local law-enforcement agencies to audit the FIU in an attempt to determine whether Magsam tampered with other weapons - or if other problems are lurking.

Ramsey also expressed his displeasure with Internal Affairs, which has yet to complete the investigation into the transfer and supposed cover-up.

"This case lingered too long, and I don't know why that is," he said during an interview Friday. "It should have been completed much sooner."

'Obsessed'

The FIU is headquartered in the basement of the department's Forensic Science Building, at 8th and Poplar streets in North Philly.

It's a small unit with an enormous task: to examine, study, test-fire and catalog the several thousand firearms that police confiscate from criminals and crime scenes ever year. The unit also processes bullets and other forms of ballistic evidence.

The FIU also maintains an archive room of 1,200 rifles, handguns and other weapons that firearms examiners use as reference points when they examine new cases.

Magsam, 30, traveled a different path from most of his 25 former colleagues, who are mostly veteran cops who spent years toiling in districts before landing in the unit.

He joined the Police Department in 2003 and worked as a patrol cop in the 15th District. He transferred to the FIU on Feb. 20, 2008.

No one in the unit was surprised that he landed a plum assignment so early in his career.

"His mom was married to a big boss," said one of the sources with knowledge of Magsam's tenure in the FIU. "They pulled some strings."

Deputy Commissioner William Blackburn, who reviewed Magsam's personnel file with the Daily News on Friday, said it was unclear who arranged for the young cop to work in the FIU.

But he noted that Magsam was an Army veteran and presumably had experience with firearms that would have served him well.

Colleagues were a bit put off by Magsam.

"He was very immature, very strange," said one police source. "He was pretty much obsessed with talking about how to alter guns. He talked about how he put a short barrel on one of his rifles and how he knew how to convert semiautomatic weapons into automatics.

"Everyone told him that he would get fired and end up in jail if he did something like that."

But in August 2009, sources said, a firearms examiner took an AR-15 from the unit's archive room and made a troubling discovery.

"It was a fully automatic with a three-round-burst trigger system," said a source with direct knowledge of the incident. "It wouldn't fire, and she couldn't figure out why. Then she realized that the trigger group had been taken out and switched with semiautomatic parts."

Another examiner soon discovered something was wrong with an M2 carbine that had been in the archive room.

"The bolt had been removed and replaced with nonautomatic parts that had been ground down and colored with a marker, so that nobody would notice," the source said. "That started a snowball effect."

The twin discoveries sent a panic through the unit. Records were checked, and it was clear that the weapons had never been previously altered.

Sources said the replacement parts had been taken from a semiautomatic weapon that was in the FIU, waiting to be examined.

Testa addressed the unit and said the stolen parts needed to be returned, sources said.

The following day, an unidentified woman called the FIU and cryptically stated that the missing parts could be found in a box near the entrance to the unit's basement office.

Some members photographed the missing parts and then witnessed Testa confronting Magsam.

"Magsam started crying hysterically, like a 16-year-old who got caught with pot by his parents. It was unsettling," said one witness.

It's unclear what Magsam had intended to do with the stolen parts. Police sources speculate that he intended to convert some of his personal weapons into automatics.

But what happened next really floored the unit.

"Testa basically said, 'This is how we're going to handle it: We're not going to handle it,' " a source said.

Ramsey: Investigation took too long

Testa instructed Magsam to compose a note that essentially said he couldn't handle the work in the FIU and wanted to go back to the 15th District, sources said.

The transfer request was noticed and approved by several higher-ups in the department.

"The explanation was that it was for personal reasons," said Blackburn, who was among those who signed off on the request after it was received on Aug. 18, 2009. "It was endorsed through the chain of command."

Blackburn noted that personnel records indicated that Magsam had not been doing well in the FIU.

"We have documentation that shows he was struggling with the training and that his abilities were somewhat in question," he said.

Chief Inspector Evelyn Heath, who was in charge of the Forensic Science Bureau in 2009, said she remembered the transfer request, but didn't recall hearing any rumors that something far more serious was behind the request.

"If anybody had stolen something and we found out about it, there wouldn't have been some quiet transfer," she said.

But Testa seemed to reference the alleged theft in an Aug. 27, 2009, memo to his staff, which instructed examiners to photograph and document every automatic weapon they processed "in light of recent events," according to a copy obtained by the Daily News.

Sources close to the Internal Affairs investigation scoffed at the idea that word didn't travel up the chain of command that the stepson of a former chief inspector had been involved in a potentially serious crime.

"Everyone knew what Magsam did," said one police source. "He jeopardized the whole unit. He tampered with at least three guns - that we know of, anyway."

"Morals are morals. This didn't sit right with anybody in the unit," added another police source. "Nobody wanted to be part of a cover-up."

Blackburn said the department first became aware of the alleged theft and cover-up in June 2010, when an anonymous tip was sent to Ramsey. Ramsey said he immediately sent it to Internal Affairs.

The investigation started June 8, 2010. More than a year passed before the department's brass took any action - and that was only after the Daily News raised questions about the case.

Testa was transferred to Nicetown's 39th District and was barred from the Forensic Science Building. He and Magsam are the only targets of the investigation, said Ramsey, who acknowledged that Testa should have been removed sooner.

"If we had known all of this six months ago, we could've reached a point where we said we need to do an audit and move him, [Testa]" he said.

"But unfortunately, the investigation in Internal Affairs took too long."

On the surface, though, it appears Internal Affairs knew plenty about the case months ago.

In April, nearly every member of the FIU was interviewed by Internal Affairs.

Sources said the members provided extensive details about the alleged theft and cover-up, as well as photos of the stolen automatic-weapon parts.

"They were very cooperative," said Deputy Commissioner Stephen Johnson, who oversees Internal Affairs.

And department officials were briefed about the case during routine meetings about corruption investigations.

Johnson said the last update came about two weeks ago from Vuotto, who has worked in Internal Affairs for the past several months and supervised the investigator running the case.

"His precise words were something to the effect that it looks like . . . we'll sustain [the allegations], but we have a few more interviews to do," Johnson said.

Vuotto, who worked as recently as 2009 in the FIU alongside Testa, is no longer overseeing the case.

"We've just mandated that this investigation be reviewed by another captain, so it kind of deters any conflict of interest," Johnson said.

Ramsey quickly noted that the perceived slow pace of the investigation shouldn't be pinned on Vuotto.

"It should have been much further down the road before he even got to the unit, at least to the point where we could determine that [the allegations] would be sustained," he said.

So why has the case taken so long to come together?

"There are a lot of questions," Johnson said, "some very pervasive, some procedural, some that we'll have to correct internally."

In the meantime, those who have been waiting for the past two years for the case to come to light can only hold their collective breath.

"Police officers are hired to do an ethical job, to uphold the law," said a source with knowledge of the case. "If you don't, then everything is compromised."

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