U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced that Michael Paul Grisham Smith, 44, pleaded guilty to selling AR-15s with obliterated serial numbers to undercover Homeland Security Investigations agents who had been posing as a darknet weapons vendor. In five months, according to the announcement and recently unsealed court documents, Smith sold eight rifles to the undercover federal agent on three separate occasions.
The undercover HSI agent had been advertising weapons on an unspecified darknet market when he received an email from Smith. “Hello. I am brotherbig. I understand you are in the market for some trades. I am enamored of fine weaponry,” Smith wrote. He asked the agent for a list of prices and products available. He told the agent that he was particularly interested in purchasing explosives of various sorts. He also asked if the vendor would be willing to accept completed 80% lowers or fully built 6061 AR-15s for anti personnel mines, claymore explosives, or a c4 explosive device with a detonator.
The term “AR-15,” throughout the court documents and email conversations, was used colloquially; Smith had no affiliation with Colt, the maker of the AR-15. Instead, like many people, Smith and the undercover agent referenced AR-15-style rifles (or any civilian version of the military’s .223-caliber M16). The term 80% lowers refers to AR-15 blanks (completely legal and unregulated castings or frames). The ATF does not regulate the majority of gun parts. And as long as the “gun” lacks a lower, the ATF does not consider it a “gun.” And anyone can buy 80% lowers without a license or any form of registration.
Smith, throughout the conversation, explained that he could finish 80% lowers (turning them into lowers aka a fully functioning firearm). Gun parts like unfinished blanks exist so that manufacturers can convert them into lowers and sell them to customers searching for a specific weapon. However, Smith was not a licensed manufacturer; he manufactured guns without serial numbers; he was not a licensed seller of AR-15s; he sold the guns without questioning whether or not a buyer could legally purchase the firearm.
The undercover agent had more interest in purchasing guns from Smith than he had in selling explosives to Smith. In late 2017, the undercover agent agreed to purchase four short-barreled AR-15s for $4,400 in bitcoin. Smith mentioned bitcoin in an email with the undercover agent. HSI Special Agent Aron Mann searched public PGP key servers for “BrotherBig” and found two emails associated with PGP keys connected to BrotherBig. Both addresses included phrases that referenced weapons. Special Agent Mann sent the emails to Coinbase and requested information on any accounts connected to those emails.
Coinbase agreed and returned information on “Michael Smith” and “Julie Smith.” The account belonged to Michael Smith but a debit card on the account belonged to Julie Smith. HSI identified both individuals and conducted surveillance at the Smith’s home. Although Michael Smith (hereinafter Smith) wanted to ship the finished products to the agent, the agent declined and requested public meets. Smith agreed. The agent met Smith and picked up all four completed rifles. The agent sent the first half of the payment before the exchange and, during the exchange, sent the second half to a bitcoin address Smith provided. After the meet, Smith emailed, “that’s so awesome that you turned Out not to be a fucking cop, I can’t tell you how fucking happy I am about that.”
Two similar exchanges followed. On January 4, 2018, Special Agent Mann filed a Criminal Complaint. One month later, a Magistrate Judge signed an arrest warrant. One day later, agents arrested Smith for “Unlawful Dealing and Manufacturing in Firearms,” and “Unlawful Possession of an Unregistered Firearm.” He had been on probation for a misdemeanor burglary only weeks prior to his arrest but they did not charge him for possessing a firearm while on probation.
He pleaded guilty to the first charge: unlawful dealing and manufacturing. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.