As Anchorage continues to grapple with a sharp spike in stolen cars, law enforcement officials announced on Thursday that federal charges are being filed against 10 men connected to vehicle theft cases.
Nine of the men are charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. One is charged with being a drug user in possession of a firearm. In another case, a man was indicted on carjacking charges, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.
Prosecutors explained Thursday why firearm possession charges were being sought in federal court.
"We get pretty serious sentences in these cases federally, and so it gives us a little bit more of a hammer," said Bryan Schroder, U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska.
"And there's a perception out there among the criminals — and that's a perception that we think is just fine — if they start thinking, 'Hey, the feds are going to lay their hands on this,' there's a deterrent effect to that," Schroder said.
Some of the men charged federally have pending state cases for vehicle theft; others have prior convictions for a variety of crimes. Some of the charges were filed in November and January, online records show. Others were filed yesterday.
Tony Tuaato, 23, faces charges of attempted murder in state court. He is being charged federally with being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possessing an unregistered firearm.
Tuaato was arrested in October. Anchorage police found a stolen 1991 Toyota 4Runner in an apartment complex parking lot. As officers processed the car, Tuaato drove up in a stolen green 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe. Tuaato had a stolen handgun in his possession, police said.
The number of vehicles stolen in 2017 shattered city records, with 3,184 cases reported — that's more than three times the number of vehicles reported stolen in 2014.
"Obviously, there's been a significant increase in vehicle theft, and we're constantly looking to see what we can do to address those emerging crime trends," said Justin Doll, Anchorage Chief of Police.
There's no indication that the trend is slowing down. In January there were around 350 reports of vehicle theft, according to an online crime mapping service used by the city, RAIDS Online. The month before, there were 285 stolen vehicle reports, according to data from police.
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials have been coordinating efforts to crack down on these types of crimes, officials said Thursday.
Another reason to charge people in federal court is that prison sentences for felony possession of a firearm cases typically range from two to 10 years, said Frank Russo, criminal chief at the U.S. attorney's office.
And unlike in state court, people convicted in federal court have no chance for parole. The best-case scenario is 54 days out of a calendar year for good time served, Russo said.
Also, federal prosecutors are able to file charges that may not be applicable in state court, Russo said.
In some instances, a felon who is in possession of a "long gun" — a rifle — may not be violating state law.
"The Alaska statute prohibits a felon from possession 'a firearm capable of being concealed on one's person' — that has been interpreted to mean handguns," said Anchorage deputy district attorney Christina Sherman.
Schroder said Thursday's announcement likely wasn't the end of federal firearms cases for suspects in Anchorage car thefts.
"I think we'll be charging more those cases in the future," Schroder said.