By Farrah Fazal
SALEM, Ill. (KSDK) - A trail of guns outside The Hunting Stuff in Salem, Illinois was a part of a crime spree that affected small gun store owners across Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The surveillance video tells part of the story. Four gangsters peered into The Hunting Stuff a few minutes before they shattered the glass; and the Serenity in Salem. It was Christmas Eve 2011.
The gangsters drove to Salem from Chicago. They bought totes, bolt cutters and gas before they broke into Cory Tolka's gun store and stole 124 of his 1,000 guns.
"Your heart just sinks, you know what's happened,' Tolka said. He thought he had enough security.
"I had a cattle cage on the front, a roll across iron gate and video surveillance."
It wasn't enough.
"Our gun stores in Southern Illinois are targets," said Steve Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Illinois. He said the gun store robberies got Southern Illinois on the government's crime fighting radar.
ATF agents began an investigation that resulted in a four month undercover operation between April and June of 2013 to crack down on crime in St. Louis, and East St. Louis.
Kevin Winford, Denis Joiner, Antoine D White and Earl Warner stole 455 handguns from the gun stores.
They were only caught when two of the men were firing off the guns they stole in Chicago. Officers chased and caught them, and found half of the guns the men stole stashed in an apartment.
"They bring power speed and capacity and that's the three things criminals are looking for," Wigginton said.
The gangsters sold the guns to other bad guys.
"It's not unusual for us to find a weapon in East St. Louis that's been used in a crime in St. Louis or in Chicago. The reality is they are used in another crime and that's how we find them," Wigginton said.
Federal agents and local police traced the guns using high tech equipment that reads scratch marks on shell casings.
Wigginton said 500 stolen guns showed up at crime scenes in East St. Louis in the last three years.
Federal agents are calling East St. Louis the most violent city in America.
The numbers for the entire state of Illinois show ATF got more than 11,000 requests to trace guns in 2012. They traced more than 4000 in Missouri.
"We are fighting the fight everyday to reduce gun violence but it's a tough fight," said Wigginton.
The fight is going on in corners, neighborhoods and past small towns like Salem.
Winford, Joiner, and White were all convicted and serving time in federal prison. Warner was killed by one of the very weapons he stole in his crime spree.
"The punishment is not stiff enough for the crime," Tolka said, adding that he never wants to see his guns again.
It breaks Tolka's heart to know the criminals took his legitimate enterprise and turned it into a criminal one.
"You're not going to keep anybody from robbing you, you can slow 'em down," he said.
He's put more steel reinforcements, more motion detectors, higher tech doors to prevent glass breakage and automatic alarms.
Tolka pieced the pieces of his business back together over days, weeks and months. The Serenity is back stronger, safer and even more solid in his fortress a few blocks from Main Street in Salem.