The NBC Bay Area Investigative unit has learned that over the last year, more than a dozen crimes – including at least three homicides – have been tied to a high-powered handgun that authorities say has an especially lethal capability.
“When you get this type of a firearm, it really raises everybody’s antenna of concern and fear,” said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe about the FN Five-seveN pistol, which can fire both conventional and illegal armor-piercing 5.7 mm rounds.
“It’s a scary thing,” the prosecutor said, “because it can go right through a protective vest of a law enforcement officer.”
That armor-piercing capability had gun control advocates pushing to ban the weapon more than a decade ago. While the FN Five-seveN is legal in California, its armor-piercing rounds are not for civilian purchase.
Over the last year, authorities have found evidence tying the 5.7 mm pistol to at least 14 street shootings from Watsonville to Antioch, including six in Oakland between April and June.
Authorities say they also recovered evidence that an FN Five-seveN was used in the slaying in September of local rapper Lamonta “Tay Way” Butcher in Richmond. Investigators believe the hip hop artist was essentially hunted down after posting on social media at a city street corner.
His sister, Strangenae Campbell, said her brother was a force for good and an inspiration to his community.
“Everyone loves Tay Way, everyone listens to his music,” she said in a recent interview. “Richmond is empty without him.”
She said her brother, who was 29, had simply gone out of his apartment to get a soda when he was attacked.
She said Butcher had lost his father and brother to violence in Richmond.
“The guns in the city of Richmond have gotten ridiculously out of control,” she said. “When does it stop? When does the gun violence stop?”
Butcher’s former basketball coach described him as a “born leader.”
“By the very nature of what he was able to do as an entertainer, it gave a lot of pride to a lot of folks and it helped folks feel a certain level of uplift,” said Guthrie Fleischman, now a principal in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
Fleischman said Butcher is one of more than two dozen young men from Richmond he’s known as an educator and coach to be killed over the years.
“In 2020, there were two other former students of mine who were killed,” Fleischman said.
Authorities have made no arrests in the case.
Just one month before Butcher was attacked, police found two FN Five-seveN pistols at the scene of a double homicide in East Palo Alto believed to stem from a drug deal gone bad.
The 23-year-old victims, Antonio Martinez Moradel of Oakland and Roberto Velasquez Martinez of Chico, were in a car found at Pulgas Avenue and East Bayshore Road.
Federal court documents reveal that one of two FN Five-seveN pistols recovered in East Palo Alto had been purchased at a Utah sporting goods store 46 days before the slayings.
“To think that a firearm purchased unlawfully in Utah ended up at a homicide scene in California is very disturbing, alarming -- and it motivates us to get to the bottom of this,” said John Huber, the outgoing U.S. Attorney in Utah.
Huber’s office filed 11 federal firearms trafficking charges against the man that federal authorities alleged bought the weapon, Gregory Alan Nelson, 32, of Las Vegas. Nelson has pleaded not guilty and his attorney in Utah had no comment.
Huber said that Nelson’s lack of a criminal record allowed him to obtain a concealed weapons permit in Utah, which helped him avoid suspicion from dealers. Nelson allegedly lied in his purchase applications that he signed to obtain more than 280 guns within just months, many destined for California, officials said.
“People perceive Utah as more of a gun friendly state and it probably is politically compared to California,” Huber said, “and that may add to the image that maybe that's easier to get a gun here and then transport it to other places.”
Huber said that while having a concealed-weapons permit eased transactions at first, eventually sellers became suspicious and alerted federal authorities who have now tied 38 of those guns to crimes across the West.
Huber said his biggest worry is that the relatively short timespan between when Nelson allegedly bought weapons and the time they were used in crimes out of state, like the slayings in East Palo Alto.
“The shorter that window, the more alarming that is to us,” he said. “In this case, we have ‘time to crime’ from two days from purchase up to a few months. Even the few months we consider a pretty short amount of time to look at. And that’s a red flag.”
In Richmond, Gonzalo Rucobo, Executive Director and Founder of the non-profit Bay Area Peacekeepers, likened the violence in his city to a public health threat.
“We’ve been having a pandemic and our pandemic is a gun pandemic in our community,” Rucobo said. His organization works on the ground in Richmond to steer young people away from violence.
“It’s just too easy for our young people and young adults to have access (to weapons) for some reason. They flow through this community.”
He said stopping that flow of guns needs to be a priority.
“The said part is that we don’t see it as a priority until somebody is laying on the ground,” he said.
A memorial still stands where Butcher was gunned down. His sister, Strangenae Campbell, says she and her mother have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that has come from far beyond the streets of Richmond that Tay Way chronicled in his music.
“I didn’t know how much impact he had” she said, “not just in Richmond, but the world.”