Crime

How this part-time cop legally sold a gun to a felon in a Waffle House parking lot

Thomas Otis Hawkins, center, was still absorbing his acquittal after leaving his trial Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court on felony gun sale charges. His family, there to support him, includes, from left, wife Opel Hawkins, sister Angela (who did not want her last name used), mother Willie Hawkins and attorney Michael Hester.
Thomas Otis Hawkins, center, was still absorbing his acquittal after leaving his trial Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court on felony gun sale charges. His family, there to support him, includes, from left, wife Opel Hawkins, sister Angela (who did not want her last name used), mother Willie Hawkins and attorney Michael Hester. calee@sunherald.com

Former Pass Christian police officer Thomas Hawkins risked six years of his life to prove his innocence.

Federal prosecutors this week tried Hawkins on charges that he ran a gun sale business without a license and knowingly sold a gun to a convicted felon.

Hawkins insisted he was selling guns through Facebook as a private collector. He told a jury that he might have earned $400 off his hobby in 18 months. He said that he had loved guns since he was a child.

Hawkins refused to accept his attorney’s advice to plead guilty to one of the charges. The attorney, Mike Hester, said the government would drop the other charge and Hawkins would probably serve less than a year in prison — as opposed to six years or more if a jury convicted him.

Hawkins, who did not even have a speeding ticket on his record, refused to go through life as a convicted felon.

Because of the felony charges, he resigned his job in January as a part-time police officer for the city of Pass Christian. He has been working weekend security jobs without his gun since the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged him with the crimes in August 2017.

The 36-year-old still works full-time in maintenance at a large Long Beach apartment complex for the same company that first employed him as a groundskeeper when he was 18 years old.

Hawkins, a father to three teenaged sons, insisted on testifying on his own behalf.

“I’m an innocent man,” he told the jury, “and I don’t mind telling the jury or the court anything they ask me because I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“... This means everything to me. This is my life. If I’m convicted, I lose my jobs ... my family is on the streets.”

ATF opens an investigation

Evidence showed the ATF learned that Hawkins, then working as a police officer, was selling guns that might be getting into the wrong hands.

Agents started an investigation by January 2015, securing a search warrant for Hawkins’ Facebook messages and putting him under surveillance.

An agent testified for more than three hours about the Facebook messages Hawkins traded with prospective gun buyers and hobbyists, one or more of whom they believed to be gangsters. The jury saw pictures of the guns: AR-15’s, revolvers, various Barettas and others.

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“Mr. Hawkins was dealing with some serious firearms — approximately 40 to 50 firearms,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Shundral Cole told the jury. “This was not an occasional thing.”

Hester argued that only 10-15 percent of the Facebook communications resulted in sales.

After 19 months of watching Hawkins, Hester said, the ATF was unable to pin any felony charges on him. They put two confidential informants on the case: a couple who had been members of the Simon City Royals.

Both the man and woman had felony records and had used methamphetamine. The woman had been a high-ranking female member who earned money for the gang through prostitution.

Hawkins knew none of this when she messaged him on Facebook. They arranged to meet in the Waffle House parking lot on U.S. 90 in West Gulfport.

Gangsters buying guns

No one disputed that Hawkins had just bought a Taurus .45/410-caliber revolver that he planned to sell so he could pay a cellphone bill. The couple secretly videotaped their meeting with Hawkins.

The male informant said he had a felony record. Hawkins said he could not sell the gun to the man. The woman had indicated she was going to buy the gun as a present for the man. Hawkins testified that he thought she planned to hold onto the gun until the man’s felony record could be erased or expunged.

Prosecutors argued the woman indicated to Hawkins that she had a felony record, too. But the videotape was unclear. They were discussing a bill of sale, which Hawkins was willing to provide, when the woman said, “Yeah, I can’t have nothing either. Neither one of us can.”

Hester took his opening. He told the jury: “There’s no evidence he sold to any gangsters, other than the gangsters the government provided.”

The ATF paid the woman $600 for the undercover gun buy, spending another $400 on the gun.

“She really hit a lick,” Hester said. “She hit a lick on a man with good character ... He happens to have a hobby of selling firearms.”

Unlike licensed dealers, private collectors can, under federal and Mississippi law, sell or trade guns without running background checks on buyers.

The jury was out for two hours. They did not make eye contact with Hawkins when they returned to the courtroom to announce a verdict.

After the words “not guilty” rang out twice in the courtroom, where three of his family members sat, Hawkins mouthed, “Thank you,” to the jury. Tears streamed down his face. Judge Louis Guirola Jr. had to tell his family to keep down their outbursts of relief.

Outside the courthouse, Hester said: “He was an innocent man. He chose to roll the dice. He believed in the justice system.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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