Start with the FedEx packages. Follow the trail. That’s what police in Colorado did. They wanted to learn how the gunman got his bullets, how he accumulated an arsenal of more than 6,000 rounds before he walked into an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July, where he fatally shot 12 people and wounded 58. Where did that ammunition come from?
The answer appeared to be an online company in St. Louis, a detail widely reported one year ago. But recently released search warrants and additional reporting by the Post-Dispatch have shed new light on the path traveled by those thousands of rounds.
The trail leads not to St. Louis but to Knoxville, Tenn., and on to Atlanta, to a secretive 4-year-old company considered to be among the nation’s top online ammunition dealers. Its founders — a pair of former real estate developers — sell bullets using far-flung P.O. boxes, different corporate identities and online marketing tactics that have offended even some firearm enthusiasts. By last summer, these entrepreneurs stood perfectly positioned to close on a quick, legal sale to a deranged killer.
The story of how the Aurora gunman got his 170 pounds of ammo — a transaction that received far less attention than how he obtained his firearms — is a journey into the divisive debate over gun violence, about how guns and ammo flow through the nation and the companies that profit along the way.
Each shooting briefly revives talk about banning certain guns or magazines while another often common feature goes overlooked: the ammo stockpiles. In Newtown, Conn., authorities are looking into how the gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School acquired more than 1,600 bullets. A thwarted plan by a former student to shoot up the University of Central Florida in Orlando earlier this year led police to 1,000 rounds of ammunition. And then there’s the 6,000 rounds in Aurora.
It wasn’t always possible for someone to buy so many bullets so quickly, with so little scrutiny. And it wasn’t always so difficult to track where those bullets came from.
It can feel like chasing a ghost.
Just try to follow the trail.
* * *
It begins with an FBI agent.
After the shooting, the agent found a black iPhone in a white Hyundai parked by the theater’s rear door, according to search warrants. The phone and vehicle belonged to James Holmes. Holmes, now 25, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and other crimes. His attorneys said in a court filing last week that Holmes committed the shooting during “a psychotic episode.” He is undergoing a mental health evaluation.
The phone was handed off to an Aurora police detective. He pulled digital photos from the device showing Holmes with wild orange-dyed hair. He also found mobile tracking data for a FedEx package. He called FedEx. Were there other shipments?
The detective got a tracking number. It still works today. Punch it in online. It shows that six boxes weighing a total of 170 pounds were shipped from Atlanta on June 29, 2012, and arrived in Aurora four days later. “JHolmes” signed for them. The boxes came from BulkAmmo.com, according to search warrants. Investigators also found BulkAmmo.com packing slips in the trash outside Holmes’ apartment.
At a press conference after the shooting, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said the suspect had purchased online more than 3,000 rounds of .223-caliber rifle ammunition, 3,000 handgun rounds and 300 shotgun shells. Those numbers alone generated headlines.
The gunman assembled his arsenal over several weeks, police said, and all the purchases were made legally. He started with tear gas canisters online and then a Glock handgun at a sporting goods store in Colorado. Days later, a 12-gauge shotgun and some ammo at another store. Then an AR-15 assault-style rifle. On June 28, he placed his order from BulkAmmo.com. He ordered a SWAT-style vest and magazine pouches from Chesterfield-based Tacticalgear.com. He then bought a second Glock.
On July 20, 2012, he burst into theater No. 9 during the midnight première of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Details about that night, limited by a court-imposed gag order, briefly emerged at a preliminary hearing in January.
Holmes carried an AR-15 with a 100-round drum magazine. He fired seemingly at random inside the darkened auditorium. His rifle jammed. He also had a shotgun and a handgun. Investigators would find 76 used ammunition casings and 224 live rounds inside the theater. It was not clear what happened to the rest of the stockpile. Police have not publicly identified the specific origin of the ammo Holmes used that night. The shooting was rapid. One 911 call from a moviegoer recorded 30 gunshots in 27 seconds. The AR-15 was loaded with special steel-core bullets, explaining how shots tore through seats and walls and multiple victims, authorities said.
The dead included Jessica Ghawi, 24, an aspiring sportscaster. And there was Jesse Childress, 29, a member of the Air Force hit when he dived in front of a friend. And Gordon Cowden, 51, who had taken his two teenage daughters to the movies that night. His daughters escaped unharmed.
Four shots struck little Veronica Moser-Sullivan. She was 6, the youngest victim. Her mother, Ashley Moser, who was pregnant, also was shot multiple times. She suffered a miscarriage and was paralyzed. Veronica’s funeral was delayed for three months until her mother was able to attend.
* * *
Bulkammo.com issued a brief statement after the shooting that it was “actively assisting in the investigation.” That was its last public comment.
BulkAmmo.com certainly gives the impression of being based in St. Louis. Its website lists a P.O. box in the city. So does its Facebook page. A press release announcing its opening in August 2010 carried a St. Louis dateline. The website has a “frequently asked questions” page that explains customers can’t pick up orders in St. Louis because “our warehouse is not set up to process walk-in orders or pickups.” Call the company’s 800 number and ask if BulkAmmo.com is based in St. Louis, and the customer service rep says, “Correct.”
But there is no St. Louis warehouse or office. A visit to the St. Louis mailing address takes you downtown, to the sprawling main post office on Market Street. Mail for Box 66738 is held in back, says a postal worker.
Box 66738 is rented by Earth Class Mail, according to a company representative. The Beaverton, Ore., firm has addresses in 19 cities where users can direct their mail, which is then picked up, scanned and posted online. This allows customers to have a “virtual presence,” the company says.
The Missouri secretary of state has no record of BulkAmmo.com. But Tennessee does. State records there show BulkAmmo.com is registered to a company that also operates under the names LuckyGunner.com, Ammoforsale.com and Ammo.net, among others.
These entities all sell ammunition online. Each deploys different online store layouts and often different prices. Each lists a business address that leads to an Earth Class Mail box in a different city, including St. Louis, Atlanta and Richmond, Va.
But records show these ammo retailers all are owned by one company — LuckyGunner LLC. Its mailing address is an Earth Class Mail box in New York City. The office address is in Knoxville.
Its annual report, filed with the state, lists two managers: Jordan Mollenhour and Dustin E. Gross.
Mollenhour, 31, a graduate of the University of Tennessee, is listed as LuckyGunner’s president. But his ties to the ammo business are harder to discern anywhere else. On his LinkedIn profile, he describes himself as a private investor. He lists his current employer as Business Services & Solutions LLC, another company he runs.
Gross, 32, also a University of Tennessee grad, does the same.
The two Knoxville residents registered LuckyGunner in Tennessee in March 2009, according to records. For several years before that, they ran Mollenhour Homes. A subdivision in south Knoxville bears the name Jordan Mollenhour. But the business seems to have slowed considerably. The homebuilder’s state registration expired in 2010. Mollenhour still has his real estate agent’s license. Gross’ license expired.
The pair have shifted from selling homes to selling ammo. Some staff joined them. For example, a woman who has identified herself online as handling marketing for LuckyGunner previously did the same thing for Mollenhour Homes.
Mollenhour and Gross, along with several others connected to LuckyGunner, did not respond to the Post-Dispatch’s calls for comment over several weeks. Messages also were left with representatives answering the retailers’ phones and with a company attorney.
Jordan Mollenhour’s father, Mike Mollenhour, a Knoxville attorney, promised to pass along a message to his son. No one called back.
But unlike his son, Mike Mollenhour has been vocal about his feelings about firearms. He once pushed for the repeal of a gun ban in Knoxville’s public parks. He writes a gun-rights blog, which until this month was hosted on LuckyGunner.com. (It’s now at virtualmilitia.com.) Go online and find it. Scroll back to an entry from July 20, 2012. It was written just hours after the slaughter in Aurora.
In the blog post, Mike Mollenhour decries the culture that allows “these murderous rampages” to occur. Stop looking to the failed institutions of power to keep you safe, he writes. Instead, arm yourself and practice head shots. Experts do not have the answers, he writes, challenging his readers to explain “what just happened out there.”
Maybe answers can be found in Knoxville.
* * *
Knoxville is an old city of 180,000 in a valley west of the Smoky Mountains. It lacks Nashville’s claim to music or Memphis’ barbecue. But it rallies around the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee. Even the city’s parking tickets are printed on paper of Volunteer orange. And the city’s skyline is defined by the Sunsphere, a giant gold ball built for the 1982 World’s Fair.
LuckyGunner’s business address on state paperwork is 448 North Cedar Bluff Road. That’s also the address provided to business directories and the Better Business Bureau, which gives the company an “A” rating.
The address leads to a UPS store in a strip mall, between a payday loan shop and a Subway. LuckyGunner rents box No. 201, top row, middle of a lobby wall. A clerk says he can’t reveal anything about who gets mail there.
A few miles up the road is the popular gun shop, Coal Creek Armory, where firearms are displayed in glass cases like jewelry. The dull thud of gunshots can be heard from an adjoining firing range. Ask a salesman if he knows anything about LuckyGunner.
“I’m aware of them,” he says. He met one of the owners a couple of years ago. Jordan, maybe. But that’s it. “As far as figuring out where they are located, they don’t have that on their website. And I don’t know.”
The city and county government have no record of LuckyGunner or its affiliated names. The company doesn’t have a business license, officials say. The Knoxville Chamber has no record. LuckyGunner advertises job openings (a recent one: purchasing manager, up to $90,000 a year, plus bonuses) but doesn’t say where the workplace is located. The company doesn’t appear to have a physical address.
The trail threatens to go cold.
But two years ago Business Services & Solutions LLC, the LuckyGunner’s founders’ other company, applied to qualify for an H1B visa, according to U.S. Department of Labor records. It wanted to hire a foreign worker to direct a conversion optimization program — online lingo for a programmer who can convert website visitors into paying customers. The application carried an address on Homberg Drive in Knoxville.
To get there, take the interstate into town, past the University of Tennessee campus, and down along Kingston Pike, a road lined with old million-dollar homes and several houses of worship, including the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The church sits close to a condo complex owned by Jordan Mollenhour and is just a few miles from the Homberg address.
At that church on July 27, 2008, a gunman opened fire with a shotgun during a children’s performance of “Annie Jr.” He killed two people and wounded seven. (A church member wryly noted that this didn’t even qualify as a mass shooting, typically defined as leaving at least four dead.) The shooter was armed with more than 70 shotgun shells. That was almost exactly five years ago, before LuckyGunner existed. Church members are still healing, says Pastor Chris Buice.
Inside this church, the pastor says, the nation’s debate over what to do about gun violence “is not a theoretical issue or a constitutional issue.” The congregation knows the debate’s human price. So Buice finds it alarming that ammo dealers would not be “open and accountable for their product.” It is, he says, the least they could do.
Continue driving down Kingston Pike, into the trendy Bearden area and turn down a small street, past the Nama sushi bar, to a single-story cement block building of about 5,000 square feet. The only sign outside says “Homberg Technology Suites.” The door is locked. Ring the bell. Wait. Finally a man opens the door. Ask him if this is LuckyGunner.
“Uh,” he says, looking inside the office. “Let me see if someone can help you.”
“Sure,” he says.
Two minutes later, another man comes out. He says his name is Craig. He says he does not work for LuckyGunner.
So, is LuckyGunner here?
“I can’t even confirm that you’re at the right place,” he says.
He promises to pass along your information to management.
No one ever calls.
But the office is too small to warehouse thousands of rounds. And that 170-pound shipment from BulkAmmo.com began its trip in Atlanta.
* * *
BulkAmmo.com’s website recently offered 1,000 rounds of .223 ammo (full metal jacket, boat tail) for $649, on sale. At LuckyGunner.com, five shotgun shells touted as being ideal for shooting down “Big Brother” drones could be had for $17.76. Ammo.net allows shoppers to donate to “pro-freedom” groups. Across all these sites, orders placed before 3 p.m. are shipped the next day.
So how do they do it?
LuckyGunner has a third partner, a high school pal of Dustin Gross, named Brian David Crane. Let him explain.
In 2010, he detailed the LuckyGunner model of success in a lengthy interview on Mixergy, a site about online startups.
Crane said the idea for creating an online ammo store came in late 2008. The U.S. economy was falling off a cliff. Barack Obama was about to be elected president. Ammo was getting hard to find. Crane said they sensed an opportunity. They didn’t want to make a political statement. They wanted to make money.
“So coming from a marketing background,” Crane said in that interview, “I’m kinda agnostic in the sense that there’s a need for it and you want to satisfy that need.”
The need was for bullets. They created a website with real-time inventory tracking. Customers could see exactly what was in stock. But what really set LuckyGunner apart, said Crane, was his skill at online sales and search engine optimization, also known as SEO, what he called “cool, ninja type marketing tricks.”
Google doesn’t accept ads for firearms or ammunition. A retailer needs other ways of showing up on that crucial first page of search results. That means gaming Google’s rankings. Crane said he did this by reaching out to gun bloggers — the people who run popular firearm websites. LuckyGunner asked bloggers for links back to the ammo retailer and sent out free samples of ammo in exchange for reviews and publicity.
LuckyGunner’s quick rise caught the attention of a competing retailer, who admits he knows little about the company. “They seem to know how to work SEO and all that stuff,” says Doug Delmic, manager of Target Sports USA in Farmington, Conn.
LuckyGunner won more favor with gun bloggers in 2009, when it rescued a gun raffle benefiting a soldiers’ charity after an online payment company refused to process donations. In 2011, LuckyGunner enticed gun bloggers from across the country to Knoxville for a day at the firing range with lots of free ammo.
But the company soon faced a backlash.
The author of one popular gun-blogging site discovered the similarities across LuckyGunner LLC’s family of websites. He felt he was being cheated. The ammo sites only appeared to be competing against each other. He also wondered if this was a ploy aimed at boosting search results. He wrote an angry post about it on his site, Wallsofthecity.net.
“I took exception purely on a trustworthy basis,” explains the blogger, an engineer in Knoxville who asked to be identified by only his screen name Linoge. “Other people didn’t seem as bothered by it. But I was.”
He stopped writing about LuckyGunner’s companies. He dropped them from his site. Several other gun bloggers did the same.
But that hasn’t seemed to slow the company down.
* * *
Bullets are big business. Nima Samadi knows all about it. He’s a senior analyst with the market research firm IBISWorld. He says the U.S. small arms ammunition manufacturing sector generates an estimated $4.6 billion a year in revenue. It’s been booming for years. But sales really soared after the Newtown shooting, Samadi says. “It’s been going gangbusters.”
Bullets can be hard to find today. Stores sometimes run out of entire stocks within hours. Online, people complain about surging prices. It reached the point that the U.S. House recently voted to prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from stockpiling ammunition amid worries the government was siphoning off the nation’s supply. Some gun-rights supporters believe that’s exactly what’s happening — it’s a plot to soak up all that ammo. “Back-door gun control,” they call it.
Bullet manufacturers such as Fiocchi Ammunition say demand is being driven purely by consumer hoarding. “There’s a shortage of everything,” marketing director David Shaw says.
* * *
But buying bullets, when you find them, is still much easier than buying a gun.
Federal law doesn’t require a background check to buy ammo. No need for a license to buy or sell. No limits on how much ammo can be bought. There is no federal requirement to keep sales records. The ammo marketplace is largely unregulated, except in a few cities and states, such as Illinois, where only licensed gun owners can buy ammo. Spurred by Newtown, the state of Connecticut later this year will begin requiring background checks for ammo sales.
Days after the Aurora shooting, then-U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and four co-sponsors introduced a bill to halt online ammo sales and to log sales of more than 1,000 bullets. The legislation went nowhere. Same thing happened to a similar bill in the U.S. House.
It wasn’t always this way. Federal law once banned interstate ammo sales conducted via the mail. You couldn’t order thousands of rounds and have it mailed to your doorstep. Retailers had to maintain records of their ammo sales. These laws were quieter features of the Gun Control Act of 1968, a bill that followed the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
The act remained on the books for nearly two decades, until the 1986 McClure-Volkmer Bill, co-sponsored by then-U.S. Rep. Harold Volkmer, a Democrat from Hannibal, Mo. That bill, also known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act and backed by the National Rifle Association, swept away many of the restrictions on guns and ammo.
The effect was immediate. Larry Potterfield, founder of MidwayUSA, a massive hunting and ammunition retailer in Columbia, Mo., (which provides a map online locating its warehouse, even though it is closed to the public) credits the 1986 bill with helping his company succeed.
Some researchers believe new regulations on ammunition could have a greater effect than gun-control laws. They argue bullets are “the actual agent of harm.” The gun is merely the delivery device. And the nation has hundreds of millions of guns. They last forever. Ammunition runs out.
“It’s a glaring omission,” says Josh Sugarman, founder of the Violence Policy Center, which lobbies for tighter gun laws.
“We don’t think people should be able to obtain deadly weapons such as ammunition, no questions asked, at the click of a mouse,” says Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
But gun rights supporters such as Linoge, the blogger in Knoxville, say online ammunition sales, in any quantity, are not the problem.
“No different than buying a battery or a water filter online,” he says.
He buys 1,000 rounds at a time simply because it is cheaper.
“To us,” he says of firearm enthusiasts, “a hundred rounds is just getting the gun warmed up.”
* * *
Two hundred miles south of Knoxville, on the western outskirts of Atlanta, not far from Fulton County Airport, sits a den of brick warehouses among lots of other warehouses, all dotted with loading bays for tractor trailers rolling in and out along Fulton Industrial Boulevard.
The door at one warehouse on Westgate Drive is locked. There is no sign outside. Knock. A woman answers. Ask her if LuckyGunner is based here.
“Yup. They are,” she says.
She then says “no comment” and locks the door. At a nearby loading bay, a FedEx truck waits for its next shipment. Look through the office’s glass door and see one wall covered by a white banner reading “Webgistix.”
Webgistix is a Las Vegas-based logistics company that helps online companies manage their supply chains, including warehousing and shipping. It announced last month it was being bought by Japanese online marketplace Rakuten Inc. for an undisclosed sum. A Webgistix spokesman declined to comment.
Fulton County had no record of business licenses being issued to LuckyGunner or Webgistix. Days after the Post-Dispatch’s visit, a county investigator visited the warehouse to find out why. The investigator was told LuckyGunner does not operate a business there, according to county investment officer Tammy Goebeler. But Webgistix, which said it ships merchandise for LuckyGunner, was cited for failing to have the proper credentials. The company is working to pay back taxes to the county.
Return to where the trail begins, to an order from Colorado for thousands of rounds of ammunition, placed from an online dealer claiming to be in St. Louis, but really based in Knoxville, a company that often ships from a warehouse outside Atlanta, a transaction that raised no red flags and was conducted across hundreds of miles, elusive and difficult to follow.
Go back to September, two months after the Aurora shooting. That month LuckyGunner received some good news. It was granted a federal license to sell firearms by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It’s now a licensed gun dealer. It’s not clear what LuckyGunner or any of its affiliated companies plan to do with these new powers. But the federal license provides a business address for LuckyGunner. It’s not in St. Louis. Or Knoxville. It’s at that warehouse in Atlanta.