OFF THE WIRE
ATF agents raid the Combat Weapons Coating, a gun shop on 2224 Pleasure House Road, Virginia Beach, on Oct. 28, 2011. Investigators say Leonard Davis and Christopher Phillips sold more than 20 machine guns and 15 pipe bombs to an undercover agent. Arrest warrants filed for the men accuse them of conspiracy to possess and transfer unregistered machine guns and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. (Photo courtesy WAVY TV)
Chris Phillips thought he could make some money in a niche market catering to gun enthusiasts and the military. More than a year after opening his Combat Weapons Coatings store in Chic's Beach, he began to see a profit.
Then the feds arrived. Now Phillips and his father simply hope they can stay open.
After a sting operation that began in August, Phillips and a friend, Leonard C. Davis, were arrested Oct. 28 on federal charges of selling machine guns and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to an undercover agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Phillips and his lawyer contend that his role in the alleged offense was minimal, and a federal prosecutor acknowledged that the case against him is largely circumstantial. The case against Davis, who also has a disturbing felony on his record, is stronger, the judge and prosecutor said.
In federal court this week, the judge allowed Phillips to post a $5,000 bond and be released under the supervision of his father, Mike Phillips. The judge ordered Davis jailed.
"I am persuaded that this is an incredibly dangerous offense," U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Miller said in court.
ATF agents wouldn't say exactly how the case came about, but sources involved say it revolved around bikers. Davis believed the undercover agent was a member of Hells Angels, they said, and court records cite a recorded conversation of Davis telling the agent not to sell the weapons to rival motorcycle gangs.
Authorities and court records say Davis paid Phillips to use the tools in the back of his shop to convert semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic machine guns. The government accuses Davis of then selling 20 machine guns and 15 IEDs to the undercover agent for $33,000.
Recordings of the conversations between the agent and Davis show that Phillips was at least knowledgeable of what was going on and was seen carrying crates believed to contain the weapons from the shop to Davis' home, court records say.
And a safe removed from the shop contained blueprints on how to convert the weapons. Agents were also assisted by an unidentified co-conspirator who has not been charged, but who was himself the subject of a 2009 investigation into the sale of stolen military firearms and parts, the ATF said in a court affidavit.
Agents became particularly concerned about Davis after learning of his background and after the undercover agent discovered a loaded .44-caliber handgun under the sheets of his bed during the sting. As a convicted felon, Davis is not allowed to own a gun. Davis also showed him a can of black gunpowder, IEDs, shrapnel and a claymore mine that Davis said he would use to booby-trap his home, court records say.
Davis, 42, a construction worker, was somewhat of a drifter. Born in California, he has lived in Florida, Kentucky and, most recently, Virginia. His ex-wife still lives in Florida, and he has a 19-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.
While working construction in Campbell County, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, Davis was arrested in 1998 on a kidnapping charge.
Davis had come home from work one day to find a 16-year-old neighbor in his house. Instead of calling the police, Davis took matters into his own hands, according to the prosecutor and Davis' lawyer. Davis roughed up the youth, duct-taped him to a chair in his basement, and held him there for about five minutes, "to scare him," Davis' lawyer, Keith Kimball, said in court.
The boy was so frightened he wet his pants. He ran home after being released, and his father called the police. Davis pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of unlawful imprisonment and was sentenced to five years in a Kentucky prison. After serving his time, he made his way to Hampton Roads and began working construction jobs.
He hooked up with Phillips in the construction business. Phillips framed houses, and Davis did the drywall work.
Phillips, 50, was born in Puerto Rico and also lived in Florida before moving to Virginia Beach.
As the construction industry began to tank a few years go, Phillips started to think about a business he could start. A gun aficionado, he decided to open a shop offering tactical gear and coatings and detailing of firearms.
In March 2010, he and his father opened Combat Weapons Coatings in a small strip mall on Pleasure House Road just off Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. They incorporated the business under the name Chick's Beach Pirates.
"It seemed like a niche market that was perfect for this area," said his attorney, Chad Dorsk. "He was planning on this being a good source of income."
When reached at the store Friday, Phillips declined to comment other than to say, "We're still open."
Dorsk said Phillips is trying to figure out how to get his clients their weapons back. He knows he has to be careful because the judge who released him ordered him not to handle firearms. ATF agents took just about everything from the store, Dorsk said.
Earlier this week, about the only thing remaining was a sign that said, "No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
Phillips and Davis are now waiting to see if a federal grand jury will indict them.
Tim McGlone, (757) 446-2343, email@example.com