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[Rich Clement/Getty]

ATF

Alleged ATF Gun Thief Is on the Lam

A longtime security guard is accused of stealing a “substantial” number of weapons — including a rare, fully-automatic rifle — from a government facility in West Virginia. This week, he skipped court.

The search is on for the West Virginia man accused of stealing firearms and gun parts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Judge Robert Trumble issued a bench warrant after Christopher Lee Yates of Martinsburg failed to appear at a preliminary hearing on Wednesday morning at the Federal Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

Yates had been free on bond since March 6. He’s turned over his passport and, according to the conditions of his release, he was under curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day, and was not allowed to leave the area. He was also forbidden from possessing any guns.

Court filings say that on two separate occasions in late February and early March, Yates was found with at least three different stolen guns and an unknown number of firearm parts. The ATF has separately described the number of weapons as “substantial.” And an indictment filed late Tuesday contained a troubling revelation: Prosecutors said that Yates possessed a stolen FNP90 submachine gun, which is a high-end and relatively rare fully automatic weapon. The U.S. Secret Service frequently equipped its agents with FNP90s until at least 2016.

In an email, ATF spokeswoman April Langwell declined to say whether the FNP90 was a retired law enforcement weapon, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation. Langwell said that the ATF’s internal affairs department and the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General are currently reviewing how weapons and gun parts Yates is accused of stealing were falsely logged as destroyed. “We continue to make progress across the country recovering the stolen property,” Langwell added.

Yates had worked as a contract security guard at the National Firearms and Ammunition Destruction Branch in Martinsburg since at least 2013, according to the company that employed him. Law enforcement agents from around the country send approximately 23,000 seized weapons to the facility each year when the guns are no longer needed as evidence. There, agents and contractors are supposed to destroy the firearms with a hydraulic shearing machine, and certify that the guns are no longer operable.

Authorities were first alerted to weapons going missing from the Martinsburg facility in early February when local police requested a trace on a firearm slide that turned out to have been part of a retired ATF service weapon that should have been destroyed.

Yates was first arrested on February 27, according to an affidavit. He admitted to ATF agents that he had stolen a number of firearm parts and sold them to an unnamed man in Maryland. On March 1, according to a second affidavit, an ATF agent found a FN FiveSeven semiautomatic pistol in his car. That gun had been falsely logged as destroyed at the Martinsburg facility.

Yates’s public defender, Nicholas Compton, declined to comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Virginia also declined to comment.