Testimony begins in Homer Helter federal gun trial

Dania Maxwell/Staff
Homer Helter, charged with selling guns without a license, arrives for a preliminary hearing before U.S. District Magistrate Douglas Frazier in Fort Myers in August 2012.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL, NAPLES DAILY NEWS // Buy this photo

Dania Maxwell/Staff Homer Helter, charged with selling guns without a license, arrives for a preliminary hearing before U.S. District Magistrate Douglas Frazier in Fort Myers in August 2012.

FORT MYERS — The prosecution contends Homer Helter’s Antique Mall in Naples was selling modern guns and needed a federal license.

The defense maintains they sold only a few relics, curios and antiques, including their own, and didn’t need a dealer’s license.

Whether Homer Helter, 68, and an employee, James Kassel, 61, were conspiring to and engaging in the business of dealing in firearms at the Shirley Street store is up to a federal jury to decide in a six-day trial that began Wednesday.

Helter is charged with offering to sell two rifles he kept in a safe in his office in December 2011.

Kassel is charged with selling two revolvers in a deal with another employee, Dennis Jarstad, in June 2012 and selling a revolver in July 2012 — both from his car in the parking lot.

Jurors aren’t aware that Jarstad, 59, pleaded guilty last week to selling guns without a license in a deal that dropped charges of conspiracy and selling guns to convicted felons.

Defense attorneys Donald Day and Landon Miller of Naples are pinning much of the blame on Jarstad, who is seen on most of the videotapes taken by Osvaldo LaTorre, 42, a paid confidential informant convicted of two felonies in 1998.

Jurors aren’t aware that LaTorre, the government’s star witness, was convicted of murder and attempted murder in aid of racketeering and assault in aid of racketeering, only that he was convicted of two felonies in 1998. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas successfully prevented the defense from bringing out LaTorre’s crimes, which remain sealed.

However, U.S. District Court Judge John Steele granted a defense motion that allows the defense to question LaTorre about more than $87,000 he’s earned as an informant since 2008. Arguments show he began cooperating before his 1998 plea deal to time served and probation, and after probation in 2003.

News reports show LaTorre was a Latin Kings gang member known as “King Ozzy,” who was involved in a brutal beating in Staten Island that left a man bleeding from the brain and LaTorre charged with menacing in 2008. LaTorre allegedly pointed a gun and threatened a group of men while nine other Latin Kings beat them with bats and weapons.

Defense attorneys also won motions that allow jurors to hear videotaped discussions about the store’s “charitable contributions” to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During opening statements, Casas told jurors Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators received information about gun sales in December 2008 and Helter admimtted selling Japanese World War II firearms. The agent visited the shop in January 2009, spoke to Helter and his wife, Diane, explained the licensing process and left an application.

“In January 2009, he agreed and removed a couple of firearms that were on display,” Casas said.

But in 2011, agents began an investigation with confidential informants after receiving information about gun sales.

“The focus of the investigation was to purchase modern weapons, even curios and relics,” he said, referring to collectibles manufactured more than 50 years ago. “But even engaging in the business of curios and relics, you must have a license.”

Day told jurors the store sells flags, uniforms and military collectibles and is a place for veterans to hang out, trade and display guns and talk,

“There’s also a museum with items that would never be sold,” Day said, citing some from World War II and a gun belonging to an officer who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Many people often go in there to look at the collection. One of the largest collections of World War II uniforms is in that mall.”

Day told jurors that ATF Industry Agent Christine Hight, who gave Helter the application, concedes she’s not very experienced in relics and curios and didn’t examine the guns.

“She made the determination that some were antiques, which are perfectly legal to sell without a license,” he said. “She said two were not. My client disputes that.”

If they aren’t normally engaged in selling curios and relics and aren’t profiting, he said, they don’t need a license. “Our position is that he had antique firearms, not curios and relics,” Day said referring to antique guns made before 1898.

Miller told jurors Jarstad is the main character.

“He sold more firearms than anyone else and he was more visible than anyone else,” Miller said, calling Kassel, a Vietnam veteran, someone whose livelihood was to collect and trade guns.

He told jurors Kassel didn’t need a license to sell guns from a personal collection, but had a dealer’s license for years, until federal regulations changed and he couldn’t have a license at his Fort Myers home.

During a break, after jurors heard from Hight and ATF Special Agent Robert Cekada, Day asked the judge to reconsider letting jurors hear about LaTorre’s crimes, arguing Cekada “opened the door” by describing another informant’s record. Cekada testified there were three informants, but one was “deactivated” because his criminal history was “too bad.”

Day pointed out LaTorre committed a murder and attempted murder, adding, “That, apparently, is not too bad ...”

The judge denied the motion.

The trial continues today, when Casas continues questioning LaTorre.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features