Operation Legend ATF mobile ballistics van comes to Chicago

ABC7 I-Team Exclusive

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Friday, July 31, 2020
Operation Legend: ATF mobile ballistics van comes to Chicago
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Exclusive: Crime Gun Intelligence Mobile Command Vehicle rolls into Chicago. What are they doing in there?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team has the first up-close look at the new mobile ballistics van considered the cornerstone of Operation Legend, the federal law enforcement effort to curb Chicago's surge of gun violence.

Even as hundreds of federal agents are deployed to several U.S. cities where violence is surging this summer, only Chicago is getting the coveted and brand new ballistics van from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

There is good reason for that. In Chicago, on average, someone is shot and wounded about every two hours, and more than 10,000 illegal guns were seized last year alone.

Under Operation Legend, the beefed-up ballistics lab on wheels will help sort through the shell casings that dot city streets, mostly from lawless gang skirmishes over drug territory.

Seven guns arrived at the ATF mobile lab for tracing through the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, known as NIBIN.

The revolvers and pistols were confiscated when recent parolee Benjamin Cortez-Gomez, 27, was arrested and charged with trafficking weapons along an Indiana to Chicago gun runners alley.

The agent in charge of Chicago's ATF field office said that arrest and others are a team effort.

"It is an excellent example of the partnership between our agency and others, and that case started because of ATF's relationship with the Cook County Sheriff's office and the onset is typical, and that is where we identify and want to disrupt those trafficking schemes and firearms trafficking is a cornerstone of our strategy," said Kristen deTineo, Special Agent in Charge, Chicago-ATF.

The guns Cortez-Gomez was allegedly selling are being analyzed in the high tech vehicle to see if they were used in crimes.

The massive vehicle has four separate rooms with six workstations. One of the rooms can be used to facilitate fingerprinting and DNA swabbing of firearms and evidence.

Like a fingerprint, every gun produces a unique signature: marks on the ammunition casings. Test firing a gun, will allow ATF to compare those ballistic marks with other shell casings recovered from crime scenes.

That process continues under a microscope.

"So we can figure out which exhibit is the best to use and put into the machine," said specialist Summer Dawkins.

The machine on which Dawkins painstakingly works is the heart of the process. It holds the shell casing, and provides close up scans of the lines and marks that end up carved into the metal as the gun is fired.

"This is unique to a specific firearm. There may be similar projector marks, but they won't have the same divots and grooves in the same spacing," she explained.

The process used to be done with still photos, and before that by a police sketch artist who would try to draw the unique markings.

Robert Wells designed the van and is a program manager in the Firearms Operation Division of ATF. He said this portable lab allows for a much more accurate and faster process.

"We can actually take guns off the street linked them by the casings case that we are able to expel for the firearm, get it in here and acquire it into the NIBIN system correlate it and have a results to investigators within four hours," he said.

Agent deTineo said the gun van and Operation Legend are aimed at one thing.

"It is a focus on intelligence, the investigations to identify and investigate the most violent trigger pullers in the city," she said.

She said in six months the success of Operation Legend will be based on one thing: increased gun prosecutions, something that should translate into safer streets.