Man gets 6 months in gun sale conspiracy

Posted June 16, 2009, at 11:21 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A third man who worked at a Calais hardware store has been sentenced to federal prison for conspiring to sell guns illegally to a Canadian man.

Leo Blais, 69, of Robbinston was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court to six months in prison followed by two years of supervised release. The imposition of his sentence was stayed until July 17.

He has been free on bail since February, when he waived indictment and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide guns to a person who is not a resident of Maine.

“I want to express how sorry I am for what I did,” Blais told U.S. District Judge John Woodcock. “I did a stupid thing. I made a mistake.”

He said he felt humiliated over what he had done.

“I don’t want to go shopping to the grocery story with [my wife] due to the embarrassment,” Blais said, breaking down as he spoke of his wife, Joan, who sobbed behind him in the courtroom.

She did not address the court.

Charges against Blais and four others were the result of a joint operation of agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was designed to curtail the flow of guns into Canada from Maine.

Blais admitted to selling 20 guns between March and December 2006, either directly or through another person, to a Canadian while he worked at Johnson’s True Value Hardware in Calais, according to court documents.

He told investigators that he and his wife needed the extra money and that he was afraid of losing his job if he did not go along with the conspiracy, even though no one ever threatened to fire him.

No charges have been filed against the storeowner.

Blais was paid $50 per gun to buy four guns for Andrew Porter, 34, of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, from the store, Woodcock said at Blais’ 75-minute sentencing hearing. Blais did the paperwork for Porter on 14 other guns that a third man picked up and paid for. He also sold two pistols from his own collection to Porter.

The guns Blais helped Porter obtain have not been found, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey told Woodcock. The prosecutor said they most likely were sold on the black market in Canada, which has more stringent gun laws than the U.S.

“I am aware that you have led an otherwise wholly law-abiding life so far,” Woodcock said in imposing the sentence. “It is striking that as you head into your sunset years, you chose this time in your life to commit a federal crime. I am impressed by the sincerity of your apology and have no doubt that I won’t see you here again.”

Blais, like the others who worked at the hardware store, faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Under the prevailing federal sentencing guideline range, Blais faced between 12 and 18 months in federal prison.

Casey recommended that Blais’ sentence be seven months because he immediately cooperated with authorities. James Nixon, Blais’ Bangor attorney, urged Woodcock to sentence his client to a combination of house arrest and probation. Nixon said that because his Social Security payments will be suspended while he is in prison, it is unlikely his wife will be able to pay the couple’s mortgage.

“I regret having to impose any jail time,” Woodcock said, “but to let you off on probation would not be meeting my obligation under the law.”

Four other people have been sentenced in the gunrunning conspiracy.

Bruce Thibeault, 34, of Calais was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to a charge similar to the one against Blais. Kurt Carter, 42, of Alexander was sentenced to 2½ years in prison after pleading guilty to a similar charge. Both men worked at the hardware store during the same time period that Blais did. They were sentenced in December.

The investigation that led to Johnson’s True Value Hardware apparently began in June 2006, when the owner of a Machias gun shop canceled the sale of eight 9 mm pistols to Lawrence Sears, 63, of Perry. The Machias storeowner, according to court documents, alerted the ATF that he suspected the man was buying guns for an-other individual.

In an interview with investigators, Sears admitted that he had tried to buy guns in Machias for Porter. He also said that he bought guns in June 2006 for Porter in Brewer.

Sears was sentenced in August to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to making false statements on an application to buy guns. Porter was sentenced in September to 2½ years in prison after pleading guilty to buying and possessing guns illegally.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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