NORTH NAPLES — Homer Helter’s Military and Antique Mall on Shirley Street in North Naples has been more than a daily gathering place for veterans to swap war stories, federal prosecutors say.
Since at least October 2011, Helter, 68, and two employees, Dennis Jarstad, 59, and James Kassel, 61, have been illegally dealing in semi-automatic rifles and handguns without a license from a back room at the popular military memorabilia store, according to charges announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice.
A 27-page federal affidavit details a series of 11 undercover visits by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to Helter’s business, the last one as recently as July 13, to buy weapons and ammunition for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.
ATF agents warned Helter in 2008 and again in 2009 that he had to have a license to sell guns, but a check of an ATF database on July 26 showed none of the men has applied for or been issued a license, according to the sworn statement by a federal agent.
People were walking around inside Helter’s business Friday afternoon, but the front door was locked. A woman who didn’t identify herself popped her head out of a side door and said they would have no comment on the charges.
Helter and Kassel couldn’t be reached for comment but Jarstad, when reached Friday night, said: “We’re not bad guys, we’re good guys.”
If convicted, each faces up to five years in prison.
A well-known figure in Southwest Florida veterans circles, Helter organizes drives to send care packages to soldiers overseas, hosts cookouts at his store and has raised money for a scholarship named in honor of Sgt. Linda Pierre, an Immokalee native who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
Helter blew the whistle on fake war hero Raymond John Gauthier when Gauthier took medals to Helter to have them mounted and Helter noticed errors on his war records. Gauthier was later convicted twice and sent to jail.
Disabled veteran Jay Jones, whom Helter alerted about Gauthier when Jones was district commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he suspects the charges against Helter are overblown.
“I am pretty upset about it,” Jones said Friday. “It makes me sick. I’ve never seen him do anything but good things. He’s aces to me.”
Collier County Veterans Council President Jim Elson said he didn’t know what to say about the charges against Helter and his employees.
“The whole thing kind of surprises me,” Elson said.
In all, undercover agents bought nine handguns and one rifle from Helter’s store during visits that often featured frank talk about the sales being cash-only and off the books, according to the indictment.
One of the undercover agents portrayed himself as a bouncer who was looking for a better job in security but was having a hard time because he had a felony conviction. The agent said he bought guns for contacts in New York.
Guns — including AR-15s with a grenade launcher, a Russian-made AK-47, a bolt-action rifle with Nazi proof marks on it — were displayed in glass cases mixed with military memorabilia or were stored in a gun safe, the ATF agent’s sworn statement says.
During one buy, when an undercover agent remarked that the Internet had better prices on guns, Jarstad agreed but pointed out that the would-be buyer wouldn’t have to fill out any paperwork or sign any documents at Helter’s store, the affidavit says.
Jarstad admitted, according to the sworn statement, that he wasn’t a gun dealer and said he was able to avoid the required paperwork by claiming he was selling used guns from his collection and they ended up going to a private sale.
In another visit, Helter and Jarstad showed an agent an AR-15 equipped with a special stock that makes the rifle fully automatic, not semi-automatic.
“Obama will outlaw these within a year,” Jarstad said, the ATF agent wrote in his sworn statement.
Three Naples men, all associated with a local military and antique mall, are accused of unlawfully dealing firearms without a license.
United States Attorney Robert E. O'Neill announced the unsealing of a criminal complaint charging Homer Helter, 68, Dennis Jarstad, 59, and James Kassel, 61, with conspiracy to unlawfully deal in firearms without a license. If convicted, they each face a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
Helter is the owner and operator of "Homer Helter's Military and Antique Mall" located at 5510 Shirley Street. Jarstad and Kassel both work part-time in the military memorabilia and firearms section. Helter, Jarstad and Kassel conducted illegal sales of various handguns and rifles at the antique store. None of the men were licensed to sell firearms. Helter had been previously warned twice by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that he had to have a license to sell firearms.
This case was investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Collier County Sheriff's Office. It will be prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jesus M. Casas.