Parked in a 2005 gold Impala, Colton Crews waited in a busy Target parking lot, an AK-47 in the trunk of his car.
He’d parked away from other cars, but not too far away, when he arrived just a few minutes earlier on this Saturday afternoon in Carrollton. The 24-year-old watched people enter and leave the Target to pass the time while waiting for his customer to arrive.
Sporting short blond hair and a beard in need of a trim, Crews spent his days working at his uncle’s car dealership and his nights playing drums in his ska band (monkeysphere). He didn’t come to Target to shop for removable wallpaper for his practice room, an inexpensive bookcase for his mostly bare living room or a gold-side table to set his bong on. He came to make a quick $600 to pay off a payday loan he borrowed to buy plane tickets to Mexico for his girlfriend. A 24 percent interest rate called for desperate measures. So he decided to sell his AK-47.
He’d met the buyer in a private gun-trading Facebook group and set the deal up in this parking lot. Despite its apparent seediness, it was perfectly legal in Texas for individuals to sell guns from their private stock out of the back of their cars as long as the buyer is a Texan. The buyer must be at least 18 years old for a rifle, and 21 years old to buy a handgun.
Besides, Crews wasn’t the only one doing it. Facebook users across the nation have been buying, selling and trading guns in private Facebook groups. These have names like NYS Weapon Photography, DFW Gun Traders or Tarrant County Gun Traders. Members often meet in parking lots and at flea markets to complete their transactions.
Crews chose a parking lot because he felt it was a safer meeting place than his nearby three-bedroom yellow brick home. He’d been buying and trading firearms out of the back of his car in parking lots across North Texas since 2012. He picked up the AK-47 in the trunk about six months earlier, in a parking lot behind a pancake house in Bedford.
He usually met with the buyers and sellers alone, typically fitting the deal in during his lunch break. But on this Saturday afternoon, in early 2014, he brought his stepdad with him just in case. Not that he expected it to go bad; he vetted the buyer on Facebook before he agreed to meet, and saw he was a 22-year-old Army veteran. Crews also figured the private gun-trading Facebook group where he met the buyer had also vetted members before allowing them to join. He didn't know that the page's screening only included checking someone’s profile to make sure he or she is a real person.
A few minutes passed, and a black Chevy Tahoe pulled up and parked next to Crews. A 22-year-old opened the SUV’s driver-side door and stepped out. He’d been recently discharged from the military after a 12-month tour of duty in Afghanistan but apparently remained in good shape.With a short black Afro and a clean-shaven face, he looked young for an Army veteran and not much bigger than Crews. More reserved than the laid back drummer, his buyer looked like “an ordinary dude” dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt.
Micah Johnson had finally arrived for his rifle.
Parked in the same, mostly empty Target lot, Crews draws from his cigarette and looks at the spot where he met Johnson more than two years ago. Two weeks ago, Johnson became an internationally reviled mass murderer, and Crews still can’t believe he sold him a gun that could have been used to kill five Dallas police officers and injure nearly a dozen more at a demonstration against police violence on July 7.
At 26 years old, Crews doesn’t seem like the stereotype of a gun enthusiast. Blond hair messy, blond beard growing longer, he’s more liberal than conservative, and considers himself a “pescatarian” who avoids hunting and fishing. He still works as a body repairman at his uncle’s auto shop during the day and plays drums in (monkeysphere) at night. He’s been also known to host punk shows and weekly jam sessions out of his home.
“You never know what someone’s gonna do with it,” Crews says. “It’s just a fucking awful thing. It’s not even a huge story. I just sold a guy a gun.”
Unlike Johnson, who discovered his love of guns in the military, Crews is like many North Texans who inherited it as a family tradition. He spent his youth shooting with his family on his grandfather's property outside of Flower Mound. He still owns the first gun he ever learned to shoot: a .22 Smith & Wesson revolver, one that used to belong to his granddad.
Nearly half of Texas’ more than 13 million voters who voted in 2012 owned at least one gun, and 44 percent of those polled owned two to five guns, according to a 2013 Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll. In rural areas in Texas, guns are used not only to hunt and protect against snakes and wild boar, but also to bond with loved ones. Growing up in Flower Mound, which was once considered rural, Crews says his granddad taught him about gun safety. He learned how to load and unload a gun and, more importantly, how to aim the thing. And always point it down range.
Born in the late '80s in Dallas, Crews grew up in a cookie-cutter neighborhood in Flower Mound much like the one where Johnson grew up in Mesquite. Located in the heart of a growing suburb, it was a place where younger trees grew, newer cars parked and skateboarders skated without fear of hitting cracks in the sidewalk. His grandparents moved from Oklahoma to North Texas, buying land not far from where Crews grew up. He’d visit his granddad over the weekends and during the summer, he says, and shoot guns at cans, sometimes paper targets.
Sitting in the parking lot of the vacant Target building, Crews lights another cigarette and recalls memories of his grandma, his mom and his aunt preparing food inside his grandparents’ house, while he and his granddad, his brother and his stepdad shot their guns until the sun set. With a distant look in his blue eyes, he looks over and says, “It’s just fun family times, you know?”
These family times also included going to gun shows with his dad, which is where he purchased his first rifle. When he got older, he'd hit gun ranges with his friends. He wasn’t an avid gun collector who bought weapon after weapon, growing his collection as if he were stocking up for martial law or a doomsday scenario. But he did purchase a few guns over the years. His first was a .40 caliber handgun made by High Point, a manufacturer known to build cheap but sturdy weapons. Too bulky to carry as a concealed handgun, the gun’s low cost of $200, he says, made it well worth the price.
He bought his first .22 that resembled an AK-47 from a federally licensed firearms dealer at a gun show in Lewisville. The gun show was held in a vacant retail department store. Since he was buying a gun from a licensed dealer, he had to fill out a background-check form, something he didn’t need to do buying used guns in parking lots. But it didn’t take long for it to clear, and he soon found himself at his granddad’s place, shooting his new semi-automatic rifle. There was no kick at all when he shot the gun, he says, and he could unload 20 to 30 bullets just as fast as he could pull the trigger.
Shooting guns for Crews was much like learning to play drums as a high school student. “It’s kind of more of a primal thing,” he says. “It’s more of a felt thing than a knowledge thing. I like playing drums, so I guess I’m just a fan of big bangs. It’s just a good feeling, a bit of a release.”
It may also explain why he wanted to upgrade to an AR-15, a more popular semi-automatic rifle and slightly more powerful than his .22 rifle. “It was cool, you know?” he says. “I just wanted to shoot one.”
He’s not quite sure how he discovered private Facebook groups like DFW Gun Traders and Tarrant County Gun Traders, where users bought and traded firearms and their accessories as well as posted news about gun control. Gun violence prevention groups considered it a place where the “private sale” loophole flourished since most states allow people to sell their guns legally without a background check. He says he believes a friend told him about the private Facebook groups at a gun range.
It was a discovery that eventually led Crews to cross paths with someone who would later become one of the most notorious mass murderers ever to wield a semi-automatic rifle, at least until another takes his place.
“He was U.S. service,” Crews says. “He was like your first pick when you’re selling a gun to somebody.”
Crews sought out the private gun trader groups on Facebook because Craigslist wouldn’t allow people to sell firearms on its website. He wanted to upgrade to an AR-15 because he wanted something with a little more power. But he wanted to sell his .22 first. He could have sold it on a website like ArmchairGunShow.com, GunBroker.com or GunAuction.com or even taken it to a federally licensed gun dealer, but he would have paid a consignment fee (usually 10 percent of the sale) and the gun buyer would have had to pay a transfer fee (usually an extra $30). On Facebook, the seller could keep all the profit, and the gun buyer avoided added costs. It was also perfectly legal as long as his gun buyer resided in the state where the sale took place.
Facebook has long been a digital flea market where users could sell items like toys, guitars and clothes. More than a billion people use the social media site, opening up a marketplace that extends well beyond a user's city. Its ease of access was also more appealing. Private individuals seeking to sell guns didn’t need to set up a separate account. They simply used their Facebook profile and requested to join one of the private groups. It’s unclear how the vetting process works, but Crews says he believes it is much similar to how he vetted Johnson: checking a Facebook user’s profile to make sure he or she is a real person.
Crews didn’t find a buyer for his .22 rifle, but he did find an AR-15 that he wanted to purchase from another Facebook user toward the end of 2013. The AR-15 is one of the best-selling rifles in the U.S. because of its ease of use and its ability to be accessorized. It’s also one of the most commonly owned firearms in the U.S., with around 5 million rifles in U.S. households, according to some estimates. First manufactured by Colt in 1959, its chamberings include .22, .223, 6.8 SPC, .308 and .450 Bushmaster.
Despite looking like something a soldier of fortune would wield, the AR-15 is no more powerful than any other hunting rifle. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for America’s firearms industry, dubbed it a "modern sporting rifle."
The AR-15 that Crews found on Facebook was a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than a new one, which often ranges between $500 and $1,500 at a dealer’s shop. He also didn’t need to go through a background check. He simply viewed the photo of the gun posted on Facebook, checked the price and called the gun seller to arrange a place to meet to exchange money for the gun.
They met in the parking lot of a gas station in the middle of the afternoon. Like Johnson, the gun seller looked like an ordinary dude, a city dude from Duncanville.
Crews quickly realized that he didn’t like AR-15 precisely why it was popular: because of its accessories. He wasn’t a fan of the tactical holographic weapon sight, the extended M4 carbine quad rail, the compensator suppressor or the other dozens of accessories that could turn an AR into a weapon out of a sci-fi movie. He calls it, “Blinging it out.”
“I just wanted to shoot one,” he says. “Then, after having it, I kind of got disenchanted with it. It seemed to be more of like a collector’s game as opposed to having fun shooting and bonding with people.”
He ended up trading the AR-15 about six months later for a Century Arms Saiga AK-47 because he considered it a simpler machine without all the bling. It sells between $600 and $700 new, but the Facebook user was willing to trade the AK for the AR and included a Mosin Nagant bolt action rifle used by Russian troops against the Nazi invasion in World War II to sweeten the deal.
Crews met the seller in the parking lot behind a pancake house in Bedford to make the gun trade. He didn’t get to enjoy the AK-47 as much as he thought he would because he began to take his music more seriously with some other musicians he’d met on Craigslist and “put the whole gun thing on the back burner for a while.”
Micah Johnson lifted the AK-47 and sighted in the scope in the Target parking lot. He’d checked the weight and double-checked that the 30 round magazines fit the weapon. Crews stood next to him, waiting anxiously to complete the deal. When Johnson pulled up and parked, Crews took the gun in a soft gun case out of the back of his car and moved it over to Johnson’s Tahoe because it was roomier than his small Impala.
Johnson wasn’t the first person to contact him about the Century Arms Saiga AK-47 when he uploaded a picture of it on one of the private gun trader groups on Facebook. Most people were trying to chisel him down to a cheaper price. Johnson, though, was willing to pay the full $600 for the gun, enough to pay off that payday loan he’d taken out to appease his girlfriend.
“You’ve got to keep the girlfriend happy,” says Crews, who’s now single.
Johnson looked much like his military photographs circulating news websites shortly after the Dallas shooting in early July, short black hair, clean shaven. He’d recently returned home from a deployment in Afghanistan, and seemed reserved, maybe a little standoffish. Johnson certainly wasn't the goofy high school student some of his classmates would later recall to reporters. A family friend told The Dallas Morning News that Johnson changed during his time in the military. “He was withdrawn, didn’t want to talk to people anymore, didn’t believe in God anymore,” she said.
Crews knew Johnson had served in the military. On Facebook, he'd seen pictures of Johnson wearing military fatigues and posing with some of his military comrades. He also remembers discussing Johnson’s military service with him, although he can’t remember if they discussed it in person or on Facebook. “When I pulled in, I knew I was meeting a veteran,” he says. “He didn’t seem weird, just a normal guy.”
But he still brought his stepdad with him to meet Johnson because he says he didn’t know if he was going to get robbed. His stepdad and his mother had come over to his house earlier in the day to help him clean it. But Johnson wasn’t looking to rob anyone. He was genuinely interested in getting his hands on Crews’ gun. So Crews’ stepdad thanked Johnson for his military service and stepped back to let the deal unfold.
Johnson showed Crews his Texas driver’s license, and Crews opened the gun case and showed Johnson the semi-automatic AK-47. He turned the gun over in his hands, lifted it up and looked through the scope, checking out the gun while Crews continued with small talk and later recalls Johnson mentioning something about not being able to mess with any AKs since his deployment and wanting one since his return from overseas. They only noticed one person kind of “eyeballing” them, but they simply chuckled and finished the deal, which took no longer than 10 minutes to complete.
“I really wasn’t worried about drawing too much attention,” Crews says. “Everything was legal.”
Crews reached out to Johnson about a month later to make sure the AK-47 was performing as the veteran expected. Other Facebook gun sellers had shown him the same courtesy when he purchased a gun in the private Facebook groups, and he wanted to return the favor. Johnson told him, “Everything was good.”
Crews was preparing to go onstage with his band at a small bar in San Antonio when he heard about the shootings in Dallas. The next night, he received a strange Facebook message from the guy who originally sold him the AK-47 in a parking lot behind a pancake house in Bedford.
“Do you still have that AK I sold you?” the Facebook gun seller asked. “I’m trying to buy another one, and I really like that one.”
Crews told him that he sold the gun, but he couldn’t recall who bought the gun because Johnson hadn’t been all that memorable, he says. “Well, the truth is there’s people here looking for you,” Crews recalls the Facebook gun seller telling him. “It’s the police. They said that you’re not in trouble, but they need to get info from you like they did from me. They just need to know where the gun went. They just need your phone number, and they will call you. Sorry for lying to you.”
Shortly after the Facebook message, he received a call from an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who was looking for the Century Saiga AK-47 that he had sold in early 2014. The ATF agent told him to go through his Facebook messages and find out who bought the gun and call him back with the person’s name. But Crews had to finish the show first.
Crews was searching through his Facebook messages after the show when he started “shooting the shit” with his guitar player. He told him about the ATF calling and looking for a gun he’d sold a long time ago.
“Who’d you sell it to?” his guitar player asked.
“Some black guy. I’m looking for his name here, but I can’t find it.”
“His name wasn’t Micah, was it?”
“Dude, that kind of sounds familiar. Why are you telling me his name?” asked Crews, who doesn’t have cable or Wi-Fi at his home in Carrollton and does his best to avoid the news.
“Micah Johnson … ” his guitar player said.
“Damn, dude, that’s like really familiar,” he replied, then remembered watching the Dallas shooting unfold on TV at his mom’s house in Flower Mound the night before the show in San Antonio. He says he remembered someone mentioning an AK-47 on TV and thought about the one he sold a couple of years ago, but he shrugged off the memories as if to say, “No way. It couldn’t have been him.”
Crews immediately called the ATF agent and told him the guy’s name. He says the ATF agent ended their conversation by telling him that he didn’t do anything wrong, that they were simply tracing the history of the gun.
Crews had quit selling guns on Facebook after he sold the AK-47 to Johnson, and later heard that Facebook had implemented new rules banning the sale of firearms in January. Federally licensed gun dealers are still allowed to display their firearms for sale on their business Facebook pages, but users were not allowed to post guns for sale in private Facebook groups. It was a move that prompted administrators of the private and public gun-trading Facebook groups to warn their members not to post guns for sale. But it must have taken some time for some of their users to heed the warning.
Lori Line of Minot’s Outdoorsman, for example, posted in early February shortly after the rule change: “Seriously guy, I’ve made plenty of posts & advised you of what was going to happen to the page. (Deletion.) From this point on, if you post a gun sale, we will automatically delete it. It fucking sucks that we’ve had to make changes, but it’s time we pull our big boy pants up and deal with it.”
But other gun-trading private Facebook groups didn’t. Instead they found ways around the new rule by posting pictures of their firearms with the words “free” and “not for sale” written underneath. It was an unspoken understanding between seller and buyer that interested parties would need to contact the seller for the price of the firearm.
Law enforcement officials with the ATF were recently made aware of people selling guns in private groups on Facebook. The problem with private groups lies in their secrecy, and the only way Facebook or anyone else would know a gun sale is taking place is if someone from the group reports it.
ATF special agent Russ Morrison told the Observer he’d been working the field in East Texas for about 25 years, checking for illegal firearms sales at places like flea markets. He recently returned to the public information office and just began learning about the private gun-trading Facebook groups when a reporter called to question him about it.
Morrison pointed out that federal law allows private individuals to sell guns to one another as long as they’re not selling handguns across state line. “You have to show that you are engaged in the business [of selling firearms] and rely on the income to make a living,” he says, before you’re in violation of the law.
“There is a lot of gray area in the law,” he adds.
Crews sits behind his Pearl drum kit, preparing an impromptu jam session with a bass player and a guitarist he’d met through an ad on Craigslist. They’ve set up their instruments in the living room. As he prepares to lay down a beat, he doesn’t look like a man who’s been spending the last week dodging reporters seeking comment for their stories about Johnson, who died the night he ambushed police.
After he spoke with the ATF agent the day after the Dallas shooting, Crews headed to Austin to play a show with his band, then returned home on Sunday with the results of his actions in the Target parking lot weighing on his mind.
Even though the ATF agent assured him that he didn’t do anything wrong, he couldn’t help but wonder if Johnson had used the AK-47 to gun down five Dallas police officers. He had asked the ATF agent if the gun he sold to Johnson had been used. “He didn’t say if it was the one used,” Crews says. “I hope to God it wasn’t. I hope I’m not that close to all of this nonsense.”
It didn’t take reporters long to figure out he had sold a gun to Johnson. CNN was the first to arrive seeking comment, but it was the New York Daily News that would break the story using his real name. He’d met with a Daily News reporter at a bar in Addison first before he walked across the street to meet with the CNN reporter at another bar because an old childhood friend freelanced for the New York publication.
He’d called his childhood friend earlier that day when he learned that the CNN reporter had been seeking him for comment. Crews wasn’t sure how to handle reporters, but he says he knew he wanted to help if they felt his interactions with Johnson in early 2014 could help them understand who he was. “I kind of felt a responsibility to say what happened,” he says. “If I could help put something together about this guy’s state of mind, I have to do what I can.”
But he wasn’t expecting the line of TV news trucks that would appear the following day in front of his mother’s house in Flower Mound, clamoring for a soundbite once the story published online. When his 17-year-old brother returned home, one TV news reporter had mistaken him for Crews and yelled, “Hey, how do you feel about the gun sale?”
Then his phone began to blow up, and his inbox flooded with requests. NBC Nightly News, Buzzfeed, major news outlets from all across the nation were all seeking comment from the man who sold what many people consider an assault rifle to a mass murderer in a Target parking lot. “They wanted to talk to me about all the same shit I’d already talked about,” he says.
Inside his home in Carrollton, Crews falls into the funkish rhythm of the music, moving his head and body slightly as he lays down the beat. He doesn’t seem to be thinking about the mass murderer he met in a nearby parking lot, the reporters blowing up his phone or anything else for that matter. The only thing that seems to matter at this point is his ability to channel the music he’s creating for a few friends who linger on the couches and around an island in the kitchen.
Crews’ friends grew up around guns but don’t own any guns themselves. They weren’t even aware that Crews owned guns, let alone had been somehow connected, if only for a moment, to a mass murderer. “Why do we even need guns?” one of his friends asks, then falls into an argument about the U.K.’s lack of guns and gun violence compared with the U.S. Some estimates put the number of guns in the U.S. in the 300 million range and gun deaths about 11,385 annually between 2001 and 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Council on Foreign Affairs.
Crews says the CNN reporter told him that the AK-47 he sold to Johnson wasn’t used in the shooting that injured nearly a dozen people in addition to the five dead police officers. Other news reports claimed anonymous law enforcement sources reported Johnson used an AK-74 made by the same manufacturer. But he still hasn’t received confirmation from the ATF agent. “I don’t think he’s going to call me back unless I did fuck up,” he says.
Even if he somehow knew Johnson had been planning to use the gun in a mass shooting two years later, he still may not have been held liable for selling it. Nicole Knox, a Dallas-based criminal defense attorney who’s given presentations about gun laws and gun-holders’ rights, said that since it was the legal sale of a gun, she couldn’t think of a legal situation or a viable cause of action.
“The general issue is, is it your duty to intercede if you know that a crime is going to be committed?” Knox says. “I can’t think of a situation where a normal citizen (barring someone with a heightened sense of duty like a doctor) would be charged to intervene in a hypothetical future crime.
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“If you think about it, even if Micah had told the person who sold him the gun that it was his plan in two years (to commit a crime), how do you police that and how do you know that it’s a viable threat? Do you arrest him because of a future crime?”
Crews still owns his granddad’s pistol and the WW2 bolt-action rifle he traded for the AR-15 in 2013. He says he doesn’t think more gun laws need to be drafted, but admits even though it’s legal, he’s done selling guns to strangers on Facebook and out of the trunk of his car in parking lots across North Texas. He says the whole experience has left a bad taste in his mouth, so much so that he decided not to purchase a shotgun for his grandfather.
“I feel partially responsible for all this shit that happened,” Crews says. “That’s why I don’t want to fuck with anything that goes bang. It’s something I wanted to get back into, but I’m totally turned off now.
"I’m gonna learn my lesson here and tap out.”