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The Case of the Shortened Shotguns

DN Staff

February 23, 2004

4 Min Read
The Case of the Shortened Shotguns

Some 35 years ago daylight was admitted to parts oftwo human bodies where daylight is highly detrimental. Two men of questionable repute were felled by a series of shotgun blasts that caused their immediate demise. The police seized the murder vehicle and weapons but the perpetrators escaped.

One Red Kelly was at that time the premier bank robber in New England. He was arrested as part of the "Brinks Truck" robbery, not to be confused with the celebrated "Brinks Vault" case. Kelly was caught dead-to-rights and, at fifty-something and in iffy health, was facing death in prison. But Kelly knew a lot of things the police wanted to learn about, so was offered the witness protection program. In return for spilling his guts totally and truthfully he was to receive immunity, a new identity, money, and a chance to live the rest of his years in freedom.

Kelly described his part in the conspiracy and murder and fingered a half dozen people, all of who were well known to the police. One was the reputed leader of the New England branch of a criminal organization often referred to in the media by its initials, LCN.

A criminal planning mayhem does not simply show his firearm ID card at a local gun shop and purchase the needed firepower. Untraceable weapons are needed. Approaching a murder scene with a full-length shotgun would also attract entirely too much attention, so the barrels and stocks are routinely shortened for easy concealment. Kelly testified to buying firearms in New York City and shortening them with an ordinary hacksaw.

I entered the case when a lawyer client from my first aluminum ladder case asked if I could tell what kind of hacksaw had been used to cut off a gun barrel. I said, "maybe," but was yet ignorant of the murder. It turns out the lawyer was defending one of the accused murderers. The case seemed interesting, so I decided to get involved.

The lawyer took me to the Providence police station to examine the weapons, a double-barreled shotgun, a single barreled pump shotgun, and a carbine, all truncated fore and aft. There was just enough barrel to chamber a round and just enough stock to provide a handhold. They were vicious looking things.

I could not remove the weapons so made acetate replicas of the markings on the ends of the barrels for later study. I softened a piece of acetate tape in acetone, and then placed it over the surface of interest. The result was a mirror image, rather like the impressions kids make of their fingertips from molten candle wax. My assistant coated the replicas with a very thin layer of gold to allow study in the scanning electron microscope.

The defense side had doubts about Kelly's hacksaw story and hoped I could impeach his testimony. I figured that hacksaw, band saw, and abrasive wheel were easily available tools that could have been used in the cutting. I needed a comparison for my replicas, so used these three implements to cut steel tubing that approximated the gun barrels in hardness and diameter.

Each cutting tool leaves a characteristic pattern. The band saw leaves a series of parallel ridges, rather like the surface of a phonograph record. The hacksaw leaves the same kind of ridges, but they are at various angles. The abrasive wheel leaves distinctive fluted markings. The patterns are easy to tell apart.

I examined the replicas and the freshly cut surfaces in a new device, the scanning electron microscope. To my surprise the single barreled shotgun and the carbine had been cut by a band saw and the double barreled gun by an abrasive wheel. Red Kelly was flat out lying! And the prosecution case was based almost entirely on his testimony.

The defense lawyers of course liked my conclusions and had me come to Providence for what was to be my first court appearance as an expert. I was utterly terrified at the thought of testifying in an infamous underworld murder case, but showed up and waited my turn to take the stand. Meanwhile my wife was at home reading "The Godfather" and getting very nervous.

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