Suspect in Bank Heist Says GIs Selling Illegal Guns

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A surveillance camera captured this image of one of the gunmen

A surveillance camera captured this image of one of the gunmen who robbed a Bank of America branch in Tacoma, Wash., in August. The gunmen -- armed with fully automatic AK-47s and wearing balaclavas -- carried out a heist that investigators describe as having military-like precision. FBI hide caption

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Luke Sommer

Army Ranger Luke Sommer, 20, has been charged in the robbery. Sommer neither admits nor denies the crime. But he does acknowledge that the illegal machine guns found by the FBI in his Army barracks are his. He says the guns were brought over from Afghanistan by other soldiers. FBI hide caption

itoggle caption FBI

An Army Ranger who is accused of robbing a bank with machine guns says his weapons came from Afghanistan — and that they were brought back to the United States by American troops.

Luke Sommer, 20, has been charged with robbing a Bank of America branch in Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 7. Surveillance cameras captured the robbery, which showed men armed with fully automatic AK-47s, balaclavas on their faces, carrying out a heist that investigators describe as having military-like precision.

Sommer neither admits nor denies the crime. But he does acknowledge the illegal machine guns found by the FBI in his Army barracks are his.

"I'm not going to deny the fact that I purchased one off a friend of mine," Sommer says. "Whether it was used or not in a robbery is obviously another issue. But I purchased one, and it cost me less than $300, $250."

And he adds that the gun, along with another AK-47 found in his quarters, were both brought over from Afghanistan by other soldiers.

The fully automatic AK-47 is a weapon typically found in war zones, but the model is hard to get in the United States because it is tightly restricted by federal law. Larry Kahaner, a journalist who's written a book on the AK-47, says it's an intimidating weapon.

"With an automatic AK, depending on the model and so forth, you can spray out between 600 and 700 rounds per minute," Kahaner says.

Army officials say they strictly prohibit soldiers bringing private weapons back from overseas, but they acknowledge there have been other instances of soldiers caught with illegal guns and other war souvenirs. In such cases, they say, the soldiers are prosecuted.

A spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigative Command would not provide details on similar cases.

Sommer, who is currently living with his family in Canada and fighting extradition on the bank robbery charges, says the rules against bringing back the weapons are only loosely enforced, especially when it comes to elite units such as the Army Rangers.

"We have our big hockey bags open, they take a quick peek inside, don't move anything, and then just walk by. I know guys who've brought back as many as five AK-47s on the bottom of their bag for that reason," Sommer says.

Sommer does have some credibility problems — especially because he has made as yet unsubstantiated allegations about war crimes that he claims to have witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when it comes to the source of his AK-47s, investigators are inclined to believe him.

They've found no import records for the guns, and the style of AK-47 — original automatics, not converted, with 7.62 ammunition — is typical of war zones.

Monte Shaide, the FBI agent on the case, says it's "obvious" to him that the guns came back with the military. The Army's Criminal Investigative Command will not say whether the discovery of the AK-47s at Fort Lewis has resulted in any changes to the inspection procedures for soldiers coming back from war.

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