Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Repentant gunrunner sent to prison

N.D. judge gives him 57 months, urges co-operation with probe

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BISMARCK, N.D. -- Gokhan Ozturk knows that bullets have been flying with alarming regularity on the streets of Winnipeg. But exactly what role the local concert promoter has played in the recent outbreak of gun violence isn't as clear.

Ozturk, 23, told a U.S. federal court Thursday he is ashamed of the potential damage he has caused by arranging to have at least 22 handguns brought into his hometown. Only three have been recovered -- all in the hands of local criminals.

"I've been thinking a lot about all I've added to the corruption of society. I was only feeding that fire," Ozturk told Chief Judge Daniel Hovland. "I'm not proud of what I did. I know I've let a lot of people down."

Ozturk pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic firearms and the drug ecstasy and was sentenced to 57 months behind bars. His parents and several other relatives made the six-hour drive from Winnipeg to witness the sentencing hearing. They declined to comment following court.

Lawyers made a joint recommendation for a sentence in the range of 57-71 months based on Ozturk's youth, prompt guilty plea and lack of criminal record.

Hovland told him he could have faced up to 50 years behind bars if he committed the same crime in many other U.S. states.

"I know I am very lucky to be in this position. I know I can get a second shot, show that I'm not a loser," Ozturk said. "I will do something positive with my life after this."

Ozturk has spent nine months in custody since his January arrest, which leaves him with another four years to serve. He will be eligible for early release in January 2013 after serving 85 per cent of his total sentence.

Ozturk could also be given a further reduction if he agrees to co-operate with American and Canadian justice officials regarding ongoing investigations into the case, court was told. Ozturk told court Thursday that several other Winnipeg men were involved in the year-long crime but have yet to be arrested.

"I believe you have some good connections and sources in the Winnipeg area and that you have information that could be, and should be, provided to officials. But that's your choice," Hovland said.

Ozturk told court the idea to launch an international smuggling operation was launched in a Winnipeg bar in late 2007. Ozturk met two U.S. college students -- Thomas Scher and Curtis Rolle -- who were visiting for the weekend.

"We got to talking about a lot of things, and they started saying how easy it was to get guns out of the U.S. and into Canada," Ozturk said. "It just hatched from there."

Ozturk, who was struggling to make money by promoting concerts at local nightclubs, was sold on the idea. He knew a couple local men who could provide him with ecstasy to be used as payment. In turn, Ozturk said he traded the guns to other men in the city.

"It was an easy way to make money," he said Thursday.

Rolle and Scher agreed to buy a variety of firearms from several outlets in the Minot area. Rolle purchased the weapons, then smuggled them into Canada with Scher. This was done on at least eight occasions and involved at least 22 semi-automatic handguns of various makes.

They would meet Ozturk in Winnipeg and be paid either $1,000 cash per weapon or with ecstasy tablets. Scher and Rolle admitted they sold 1,800 doses of the illegal drug to people in North Dakota, then pocketed the profits. After their arrest in December 2008, the pair agreed to assist police.

Scher began speaking with Ozturk in conversations investigators recorded. A meeting was set up for Jan. 22, 2009, in a parking lot in Minot. Ozturk drove to North Dakota believing he was going to meet a potential new client, as arranged by Scher. In fact, it was an undercover police officer.

Scher, 20, was given one year in jail after pleading guilty this past summer to selling ecstasy he received from Ozturk in exchange for the guns. Scher is a former Winnipegger who had been attending Minot State University on a football scholarship. Rolle, 23, was given the same sentence in August.

Defence lawyer Josh Lowther said Thursday that Ozturk was an equal participant in the criminal enterprise.

"He wasn't a ringleader. He was on equal footing with the two accused," Lowther said. He said Ozturk would be willing to work with police on both sides of the border in their ongoing investigation.

"The time I've had in custody has given me a lot of time to focus on my life and the mistakes that I've made. This is not a situation I want to be in again," Ozturk told court. "I want to do something positive for society rather than put a burden on it. I want to be a pillar in my community."

Unfortunately, the real impact of Ozturk's crime may never be fully realized.

"It's certainly not inconceivable that one of these guns smuggled across the border has already been used in a homicide," Mike Sutherland, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, recently told the Free Press.

He notes there has been a disturbing wave of recent shootings, many which have involved handguns. Several cases, such as this summer's shooting at a Winnipeg wedding reception that left an innocent bystander dead, remain unsolved. Sources say it is possible the North Dakota weapons have been used in some of those incidents.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2009 A6

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