Down and Out

A sampling of Project Exile convictions.

Thirty-six and a half months per bullet.

That's what Joseph R. Morrison got when he was sentenced March 1 to five years and three months in federal prison for illegal possession of two .308-caliber rifle rounds. The details of his case are as follows: On June 21, 2001, Morrison contracted a nasty case of road rage on Highway 285 near Centerville. During an altercation on the side of the highway, he put a homemade "zip gun" to the scalp of another motorist and asked, rather rhetorically, "Do you want me to blow your head off?"

The other man flagged down a passing highway patrolman, who arrested Morrison and searched his vehicle, finding a pair of bullets that fit the single-shot zip gun.

Morrison had four South Carolina felony convictions on his record -- two for domestic violence, one for assault and battery, and one for malicious destruction of property -- making him an ideal candidate for Project Exile prosecution.

When an ATF agent test-fired the zip gun -- which was made of threaded plumbing fittings, with a spring for a hammer and a chopped piece of a key ring for a firing pin -- it didn't work. That would normally have been a moot point, because for a gun to fall under the jurisdiction of federal firearms laws, it needs first to have been involved in interstate transport. And in 99 percent of Colorado Exile cases, the firearms involved have, in fact, been manufactured in other states or countries before finding their way to Colorado. But in this situation, Morrison had made the gun himself.

So instead of charging him with illegal possession of a firearm, Exile prosecutors creatively employed a seldom-used provision of federal law that prohibits felons from possessing ammunition. Morrison pleaded not guilty. A jury convicted him earlier this year; he's scheduled for release in 2007.

Unusual as his case may be, Morrison seems to represent exactly the kind of criminal a program that targets gun violence would want to exile -- that is, a felon with a documented history of violence, who comes to the attention of prosecutors because he uses a gun to threaten or harm another person. As it turns out, Morrison is an exception among Project Exile felons, most of whom are caught in possession of a firearm not because they actually use it on another person, but because they are bad drivers, or passengers in the wrong car at the wrong time.

A sampling of cases:

• On May 8, 1999, Dale American Horse, a Bureau of Indian Affairs peace officer assigned to the Ute Mountain Agency, was on a routine patrol of Rustling Willow Road in Towaoc, Colorado, when he stopped a red pickup truck with expired tags. The driver of the truck, Frank Johnson, appeared drunk, and there was a marijuana pipe on his seat. Officer American Horse searched the truck and found a .38-caliber revolver zippered inside a case under the driver's seat, along with a box of shells. Johnson, now 51, had four previous felonies on his record: breaking and entering (1982), burglary and escape from jail (1987), and battery on a police officer (1996). Charged under Project Exile as one of the program's first five cases, Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 77 months in federal prison -- fourteen more than Joseph Morrison.

• In the early hours of March 1, 2001, Richard Cruickshank, then 36, rolled his Ford Expedition on West 90th Place in Westminster. As rescue workers pried Cruickshank from his damaged SUV, a Westminster police officer saw a .45-caliber pistol tumble from the waistband of the injured driver's pants. The officer ran Cruickshank's name through a database and found previous felony convictions for being a habitual traffic offender in 1991, second-degree burglary in 1993, and possession of a controlled substance in 1998. Cruickshank pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 months.

• Just after 6 a.m. on July 11, 2000, a Colorado Springs police officer manning a traffic radar station on Highway 24 clocked a motorcycle driven by Jacob Lee Sorenson at 88 miles per hour. Less than a minute later, Sorenson, then 25, failed to negotiate a turn and flew off the road. He survived, but amid the scattered wreckage of his motorcycle, the officer found a Colt .357 revolver. A check of Sorenson's criminal record revealed a 1996 felony conviction for menacing. Prosecuted under a Project Exile case, he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 41 months.

• Also in July 2000, a Denver cop followed a gold Nissan Altima traveling at a high rate of speed on Federal Boulevard near Tenth Avenue. When the officer turned on his lights, he saw Adam Michael Bonillas, who was in the front passenger seat, toss a marijuana joint out the window. A search of the car turned up a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol under the passenger seat. Bonillas said the gun was his. He had served three years in state prison for a 1996 conviction in Arizona for aggravated assault with a firearm. Among the minority of Project Exile defendants with a proven history of gun violence, Bonillas received a relatively light sentence of thirty months.

• Floyd Zimmerman wasn't so lucky. On May 9, 2000, he was pulled over by a Denver police officer for failing to properly signal a turn onto 35th Avenue. When Zimmerman failed to produce proof of insurance, the officer searched his car and found a 9mm pistol under the front seat. Zimmerman's only felony record was a 1997 conviction for possession of a controlled substance, yet he was sentenced to forty months in federal prison.

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