Timothy Ward was a convicted felon barred from possessing a firearm on the night he fatally shot a man during an argument on Chicago’s West Side.

Minutes after the July 2015 slaying, police stopped a light-colored van and found the suspected murder weapon — a black revolver — under the front passenger seat where Ward had been sitting.

The gun had been sold just four months earlier at Suburban Sporting Goods in Melrose Park, a cramped strip mall store about 10 miles from the gritty block where 25-year-old Charzelle Hayes was killed, according to Chicago police. Ballistics matched the Nagant revolver to bullets removed from Hayes’ body, police said.

How the weapon made its way in such a short time from a retail purchase into the hands of Ward, a gang member who had recently been released from prison for a robbery conviction, reflects one of the most persistent and vexing problems in stemming the city’s epidemic of gun violence, experts say.

A sweeping gun trace report to be publicly released by the city on Sunday showed nearly one quarter of guns recovered at crime scenes over a recent four-year period came from just 10 Chicago-area businesses.

And Suburban Sporting Goods has made a startling leap into the top 10 list, according to the report, a collaboration among the mayor’s office, Chicago Police Department and University of Chicago Crime Lab.

In fact, the number of crime guns traced back to the Melrose Park shop jumped 300 percent in that time period, with weapons turning up at crime scenes from Edgewater to South Chicago as well as the West and Northwest sides of the city.

Even more significant, the store leads all other Chicago-area gun dealers in the “time to crime” statistic, a key metric in determining which stores are likely selling to straw purchasers or other illegal buyers, the report stated.

According to the report, nearly half of the guns traced back to Suburban Sporting Goods — including the revolver that was used to kill Hayes — were found at crime scenes within a year of their retail sale. And more than two-thirds — 68 percent — were found at crime scenes within a three-year window.

In an interview this week inside their store, owner Donald Beltrame and his son, Jim, defended their record, saying they’ve been trying as hard as they can to keep guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens even as sales have exploded in recent years.

“With business increasing, you’re going to have an increase in everything, which is unfortunate,” said Jim Beltrame. “We’ve probably had a 1,000 percent increase in sales, so (the 300 percent spike in crime guns found) is relatively low.”

Records show that it’s not the first time Suburban Sporting Goods has been red-flagged. Two decades ago, Donald Beltrame was one of five gun shop owners hit with rare federal criminal charges for allegedly selling to straw purchasers, but a jury acquitted him of all counts after a five-day trial.

The store has also been sued by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for allegedly selling illegal “Saturday Night Special” pistols — accusations that were later dismissed by a judge.

Meanwhile, Ward, 28, who fled to Tennessee after the shooting, was arrested last year and charged with Hayes’ killing. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and possession of a weapon by a felon in March and was sentenced to 14 years behind bars.

‘Time to crime’

The gun trace report covers a four-year-span from 2013 through 2016 and used firearms trace data to track so-called “crime guns” — weapons that were found at shooting scenes, in possession of gang members or otherwise being used illegally.

Of the approximately 15,000 guns that could be traced back to a point of purchase, about 40 percent had been sold at licensed guns stores in the Chicago area, from the Wisconsin border to northwest Indiana, making those stores the “primary source of illegal guns seized in Chicago,” according to the report.

At the top of the list were two familiar names: Chuck’s Gun Shop in south suburban Riverdale, which for years has been the target of protests and lawsuits for allegedly selling a disproportionate number of guns that wind up being used in crimes, and Midwest Sporting Goods in Lyons, another store that has raised red flags among investigators in the past.

Some 6.7 percent of the guns traced — or about 1,000 weapons — led directly back to Chuck’s, while Midwest Sports was not far behind, having sold 4.5 percent of the crime guns, or approximately 675, according to the report.

Others making the top 10 included three stores in Indiana: Westforth Sports in Gary, Cabela’s in Hammond and Blythe’s Sport Shop in Griffith. The list also included Shore Galleries in Lincolnwood, GAT Guns in East Dundee, Pelchers Shooters Supply in Lansing and Sporting Arms and Supply in Posen.

But it was Suburban Sporting Goods that garnered the most mention in the report. The small store wasn’t even in the top 10 when the previous report came out in 2013, but it “has continuously climbed each year” to become the seventh-largest dealer of crime guns over the four-year period, according to the report.

The “time to crime” statistics were also startling. According to the report, Suburban Sporting Goods had the lowest average time to crime numbers of any of the stores in the top 10, “indicating that a portion of direct sales went to straw purchasers and firearm traffickers.”

By comparison, Chuck’s Gun Shop, although it sold many more guns that were eventually found at crime scenes, had much lower “time to crime” numbers than Suburban Sporting Goods, with 21 percent of weapons traced back to Chuck’s found within one year and 39 percent found within three years.

‘The best we can’

Donald Beltrame took over Suburban Sporting Goods in the 1970s from his uncle, who once operated a full-service sporting goods store but switched to solely selling guns and accessories for hunters because of competition from big-box retailers, according to court records.

Beltrame was indicted in 1999 in Project Surefire, an unusual federal investigation into straw purchasing that culminated with criminal charges against eight owners and employees at five gun shops.

During Beltrame’s weeklong trial, four undercover Chicago police officers testified that they made illegal firearms purchases at Suburban Sporting Goods. During late summer and fall of 1998, the officers entered the store in pairs, one posing as a street tough and the other as a straw purchaser, according to testimony.

After a jury acquitted Beltrame in August 2000, his lawyer said Beltrame would keep a closer eye on who he sells weapons to in the future.

“It’s fair to say that he’s going to be much more careful,” the attorney, Michael Nash, told the Tribune after the verdict.

Months after he was cleared in that case, however, Beltrame again came under fire, this time from the state’s attorney’s office, which accused him in a lawsuit of selling illegal, inexpensive revolvers known as “Saturday Night Specials.”

A judge dismissed the suit two years later, ruling the state lacked evidence that Beltrame knew the firearms were illegal.

In 2004, the store was again in the news after being identified in a report by a gun reform group as one of the top sellers of crime guns in the nation.

That study, compiled from federal statistics by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, showed that 712 guns sold by Suburban Sporting Goods showed up at crime scenes between 1996 and 2000, ranking the shop 18th in the country, the Tribune reported at the time.

The store currently sits in a strip mall next to a jewelry store along bustling North Avenue. Paper targets, flashlights, gun cases and other firearm accessories are displayed near the entrance, while on the far end end of the shop, stacks of rifles sit behind display cases.

The shop space is limited due to a long, 4-foot-high wall separating the entrance from an area where handguns are displayed. At the far end of the wall is a swinging door with a sign telling customers they’re not allowed to enter the other side without showing an employee an Illinois Firearm Owner’s Identification card.

Beltrame told the Tribune in a brief interview Thursday he put up the wall about 20 years ago after his federal indictment. Even though Beltrame was eventually acquitted in the case, he said the wall is meant to act as a deterrent to straw purchasers.

Beltrame and his son, Jim, who works as an employee, could not say how many guns have been sold during the timespan studied in the gun trace report.

But they said sales have picked up significantly since 2013, when Jim Beltrame quit the construction business to help his father in the shop. From there, a few other employees got hired part-time, and the store began to advertise more aggressively, including starting a website, they said.

Eventually, the store also acquired more merchandise for sale. The Beltrames were able to also sell more guns after carrying concealed firearms became legal in Illinois in 2014. The store also allows gun owners to sign up for concealed carry courses, they said.

Sales likely got another boost during Barack Obama’s presidency as many gun-rights advocates were fearful of Democrats pushing for anti-gun legislation, Jim Beltrame said

All employees at Suburban Sporting Goods are trained to spot suspicious customers, and surveillance cameras monitor customers. But the father and son stressed that even if a gun buyer is completely legal, they have no idea what that customer is going to do with the weapon once it’s sold.

“Every gun here is legally sold,” Jim Beltrame said. “We do the best we can. I don’t want there to be crime. I don’t want there to be crime guns.”

‘Flocking’ to the store

Experts who study gun trafficking and straw purchases agree that a surge in sales overall certainly could increase the number of crime guns sold at any shop.

“It is the first thing ATF considers when they see a (high number of crime guns),” said Mark Jones, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who has consulted with the city. But he said it’s “disingenuous” to say it’s the only factor. Agents, Jones said, also consider how a store has tried to guard against straw purchases – does it have surveillance cameras, for instance?

Philip Cook, professor of public policy at Duke University, agreed. He said that when a business expands, it’s even more important to safeguard against becoming a supply channel for criminals.

“I think there is a special obligation when you become a big player to have all those kinds of security devices in place,” said Cook, who studies gun data in Chicago.

Meanwhile, maps in the gun trace study that plot out where the firearms sold at Suburban Sporting Goods were recovered by police indicate an alarming trend. They show a steady increase of crime guns turning up on some of Chicago’s most violent streets — including the 3500 block of West Grenshaw Street, where Hayes was killed by a revolver purchased at the store.

Walter Katz, the deputy chief of staff of public safety for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said Suburban Sporting Goods’ marketing plan was “so successful that criminals on the street know all about it and are flocking” to the store.

“If you know there is a violence problem on the West Side of Chicago … you would think if you were a gun shop owner you would be doing everything you know how to make sure your sales were on the up and up,” Katz said.

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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