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Justice Department launches multistate search for stolen firearms

Search for stolen firearms

Washington — The Justice Department launched a multistate search for firearms and firearms parts stolen from a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) facility, sources familiar with the situation told CBS News Tuesday.

The chief concern, the sources added, is that the weapons may fall into the wrong hands. Along with staging a criminal and internal affairs investigations, ATF officials have also notified the Justice Department's inspector general — who, in the past, has been critical of some ATF weapons disposal procedures.

Authorities have one suspect in custody, who they've identified as Christopher Lee Yates. Reached by CBS News Tuesday evening, Yates was distraught, repeatedly saying, "It's me against the government." He referred questions about his arrest to his attorney and said he was cooperating in the investigation.

According to court documents, officials found "a firearm concealed in a book bag on the front passenger seat floorboard" when they searched Yates' vehicle on March 1.

Agents later determined the pistol had a serial number on it. The ATF computer system confirmed the firearm had been listed as "disposed" by the ATF's National Disposal Branch on August 2017.

Efforts to track down any more stolen firearms intensified over the weekend. On Sunday night, officials sent a communication urging stepped up efforts to locate any stolen firearms from the facility. They were concerned buyers may not know where they originated.

ATF spokeswoman April Langwell confirmed the contractor who was involved was "quickly removed" and a criminal investigation has begun.

In a statement Tuesday evening, the ATF said its officials were working expeditiously with other departments to investigate the theft. "ATF has made substantial progress in recovering the stolen property and is working around-the-clock to pursue all leads," the agency said. 

"The Department of Justice and the ATF do not tolerate theft or other violations of law by employees or contractors, and will ensure these allegations are thoroughly investigated and take appropriate action and against anyone engaging in unlawful behavior," the agency added in its statement. 

According to an inspector general report released in March 2018, the destruction of firearms and ammunition is supposed to be "witnessed by an ATF Special Agent and a credentialed employee or contractor who then signs a report of destruction certifying that the firearm has been destroyed." That same report identified concerns about ATF's "ability to track seized ammunition."

ATF officials said there could be more arrests, but don't know how many firearms or firearms parts were stolen.

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