Police chief calls move to destroy Zastava improper while investigation is open

By Record News | Sep 11, 2018

O’FALLON – Whoever sought a court order to destroy a high capacity Zastava rifle did so without contacting the arresting agency to see if an investigation was still open or if the weapon had any evidentiary value, according to O'Fallon police chief Eric Van Hook.

“It’s our gun,” he said on Sept. 10. “State police have it but it’s our gun.” 

At a guilty plea hearing on July 18, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn refused a prosecutor’s proposal to destroy the Zastava.

O’Fallon police officers Daniel Hesselbacher and Matt Adamson found the weapon on May 27, 2017, in a vehicle with Levander Williams of Missouri behind the wheel. 

They also found a Glock pistol, which passenger Cierra Moorehead said her aunt had given her. They found no criminal record on her, and the aunt confirmed ownership. 

Williams had served about 13 years of a 15-year sentence for the 2001 murder of 31-year-old Raynard Clark in Missouri. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Williams was 15 at the time of the killing; he was paroled in 2015. 

Eight months after his arrest in O’Fallon, grand jurors in St. Louis indicted him in January on a charge that he fatally shot Victor Williams, no relation, at an intersection in November 2017. He is set to go to trial on Nov. 26. In connection with that case, Williams pleaded guilty in federal court in St. Louis last month to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. 

Because of the murder conviction in Missouri, Williams qualified in St. Clair County for a felony warrant as a felon with a firearm. Moorehead qualified for a felony warrant because she possessed cannabis. 

O’Fallon police detective William Barlock applied for warrants on May 28, 2017. 

Assistant state’s attorney Chris Allen rejected a warrant on Williams and pinned both felony possession counts on Moorehead. 

On Monday, a message was left with State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly asking why the warrant on Williams was not issued and why an application for order to destroy was made. He indicated Tuesday evening that he would provide a comment on Wednesday, but it had not been provided by press time.

No record of a petition to destroy the weapons appear in case files, following a search for records at the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk’s office on Monday.

On June 8, 2017, O’Fallon police sent the Zastava to a state police crime lab.

Van Hook said, “We wanted them to look for prints, do a live fire test, and see if it had been used.” 

“We still have not received anything,” he said. 

Van Hook explained that the crime lab is faced with a backlog of cases, but he hopes to get “something back soon.” 

In Moorehead’s case, assistant state’s attorney Erica Mazzotti and defense counsel Madelyn Daley brought a plea agreement to McGlynn at the hearing on July 18. 

Mazzotti said Moorehead would get 15 months probation with treatment. 

“There would be two gun destruction orders presented to the court following the plea and sentencing,” Mazzotti said. 

McGlynn asked if Williams was charged with either gun. 

“He is not listed as her codefendant,” Mazzotti said. “I inherited this case. I can certainly look.” 

McGlynn said a Zastava could easily be converted to fully automatic. 

“I need to know more about where this Zastava came from and who’s going to be held accountable,” McGlynn said. 

McGlynn asked if it was stolen, and she said yes. 

He said he didn’t know why the young lady was charged and Williams wasn’t. 

If he were to accept the plea agreement, McGlynn said the state would hold nobody accountable so long as she complied with a couple of classes for mild cannabis addiction. 

“I don’t want people pleading to crimes they didn’t commit,” he said. 

He called recess and told Mazzotti to search a little more about what her office did. 

When she returned, he said he was concerned that the defendant before him, Moorehead, might not be the most culpable individual in the transaction of events. 

“I did not want to have the potential of something more serious going unpunished by her taking the fall for maybe more serious criminality by the other individual there,” McGlynn said. 

Mazzotti said Williams would be charged as soon as she got back to her office. 

McGlynn said, “Unfortunately my fears have proven to be well founded.” 

Mazzotti dismissed the Zastava count, and Moorehead pleaded guilty. 

The result vindicated the arresting officers. 

Chief Van Hook said, “We felt we met our burden. The fact that we apply for a warrant shows we think there is probable cause.” 

He said the county sometimes takes applications under advisement. 

“Sometimes we get a list of things we need to do, but we didn’t (in this case),” he said.   

He said throughout his career, he has heard supervisors call prosecutors about cases they declined, but prosecutors' decisions never changed.

If a decision is made to issue a warrant a year after an arrest, Van Hook said it presents greater challenge for public safety officers to locate a suspect and take them into custody. He said there are additional safety issues when trying to arrest someone with a background such as Williams'.

He said it’s highly unusual to see a destruction order for weapons in an open investigation.

“If a weapon is used in a homicide, you have to save the evidence forever,” he said. “It can never be destroyed.” 

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