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Riding Shotgun

Jay Bevenour

Holiday-season installments in the ever-popular series of late-night television advertisements for Rocky's Autos have featured the Shagman character, costumed as a pilgrim and chasing a turkey through rows of used cars with a blunderbuss musket in hand. Given the pending federal firearms charges against Rocky's Autos co-owner John Rothrock, arming the actor with a well-oiled submachine gun might have been more appropriate.

Rothrock, 34, is facing multiple felony counts for allegedly possessing unregistered exotic weaponry and illegally converting semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic machine guns. Though no charges have been filed, sources inside the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver say an indictment is imminent.

Rothrock and his attorney, Forest Lewis, both refused to comment for this story. But friends of Rothrock's, including a Longmont gun dealer who has sold him weapons, say the son of Rocky's Autos founder David Rothrock is under intense pressure from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to introduce undercover agents to local gun dealers in exchange for protection from prosecution. They say Rothrock has so far refused.

"John told me directly that the night they raided his house, [agent] Jerry Petrilli showed John a list with the names of five gun dealers John had bought guns from, including mine," says Bob Glass, a federally licensed gun dealer and Libertarian Party activist who describes Rothrock as a good friend and a good customer.

"The BATF told John, 'You help us get these people, and we'll make this all go away. If you don't, we're going to nail you,'" Glass adds. "And that threat was confirmed a few weeks later when John and his attorney met with the BATF to ask what was going on. The BATF told them they wanted John to go around and introduce some agents as friends of his, and maybe in the future to secretly record some conversations, and John told them, 'Hell no,' and walked out of the meeting. They've basically been holding these charges over his head like the blade of a guillotine."

Petrilli, the resident agent in charge of Denver's ATF field office, confirmed that he led a recent raid of Rothrock's home, but he flatly denied brandishing a list of gun dealers or personally hitting up Rothrock with any sort of deal. "No, that didn't happen," Petrilli says. "Any offer like that would have to come from the United States attorney, anyway. I can't make those kind of offers."

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, wouldn't comment on whether Rothrock had been offered a deal.

According to court documents made public October 29, a federal investigation of Rothrock was launched nearly a year ago. It began after Rothrock accidentally left a message on the answering machine of Westminster gun-store owner Sue Frederiksen on November 25, 2000. In the message, which Rothrock apparently intended to leave on the voice mail of Rocky's Autos vice president and chief sales manager Mark Salak, Rothrock allegedly said that he was on his way to Longmont to pick up parts to illegally convert AK-47 rifles.

Frederiksen, who owned and operated S&S Firearms with her husband, Steen, gave a copy of the message to federal authorities. During a subsequent interview, she told them she met Rothrock last summer when he enrolled in an NRA Personal Protection Class offered by S&S Firearms. While attending the class, she said, Rothrock asked her about buying firearms from out-of-state suppliers through her store. Over the next five months, Frederiksen said, she sold Rothrock more than twenty firearms obtained out of state.

S&S Firearms was located in Westminster, a short drive from Rocky's Autos, at 6350 Federal Boulevard. The store has since closed, and the Frederiksens could not be reached for comment.

The next move in the ATF's investigation of Rothrock was to convince one of his best friends to betray him.

Rothrock started collecting guns before he was old enough to legally buy beer; by this spring, he had accumulated an extravagant arsenal, according to court documents. Like any hobbyist, he enjoyed discussing his passion with those who shared his interest, including his close friend of nine years, Mark Salak. This past April and May, Salak and Rothrock had many conversations about guns inside the offices of the car dealership Rothrock's father founded in 1982. Salak, however, was wearing a wire and passing tapes of their talks to ATF agents.

"The million-dollar question right now is what the feds had on Mark Salak, because they flipped him," says Glass.

Petrilli refused to comment on any aspect of Salak's role in the investigation.

Salak, who also could not be reached for comment, no longer works for Rocky's Autos. During the conversations that he recorded, which are detailed in the court documents, Rothrock allegedly discussed knowingly violating federal firearms laws. Rothrock also talked often and at length about his efforts to illegally convert semi-automatic assault rifles to fully automatic ones and about having owned a semi-automatic, twelve-shot revolving-cylinder "Street Sweeper" shotgun for the last fifteen years. Street Sweepers are classified as destructive devices by the federal government and are illegal to possess without a federal permit, which Rothrock did not have.

"Rothrock went on to tell Salak that a gun dealer looked at [the Street Sweeper] and told him it was illegal to possess, but he keeps it anyway in his safe," an ATF agent reports in the court documents. "In addition, Rothrock told Salak that the parts to convert guns to fully automatic would be easy to sell to gang members because gang members want fully automatic guns." (The parts that are needed to convert guns to fully automatic weapons, including special trigger mechanisms, are illegal for most people to buy and sell in this country.)

Glass believes the comment about the gang members was uttered in jest. "You can't hear tone of voice in a black-and-white transcript of a conversation," he says. "John is a well-off guy; his house is a mansion. The idea that he would be trying to make money selling machine-gun parts to gang members is simply ridiculous."

Petrilli says his agency uncovered no evidence of Rothrock's dealing with street gangs. He didn't want to speculate whether Rothrock was joking or not, however. "I have no idea what he was thinking or what he has actually done that we can't prove yet," he says.

Salak also told ATF agents that early this year, he personally witnessed Rothrock insert parts into an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to convert it to fully automatic. Salak said he saw Rothrock then fire the weapon, adding that he fired it himself. He went on to tell agents that he had been a guest in Rothrock's home at least ten times and that he had seen a Steyr 9mm pistol, which had also been illegally converted to fully automatic. Salak told agents that on several occasions, he saw the Steyr machine pistol in Rothrock's truck between the front seat and the console and that "Rothrock keeps the pistol with him wherever he goes."

On May 24, a joint task force of ATF agents and state police officers raided Rothrock's home in Golden. Although they didn't find the Steyr machine pistol or any other illegal automatic weapons, they did find "numerous machine gun parts" and the Street Sweeper shotgun. Inside a Ford pickup in Rothrock's garage, agents found body armor, knives, night-vision goggles, ammunition and numerous firearms -- all legal -- as well as a Heckler & Koch SP-89 pistol inside a black bag that also contained a compatible rifle stock and fore-end grip. The ATF determined that the pistol with attachable stock was a "short-barreled rifle" that was unregistered and therefore illegal.

The truck, owned by Rocky's Autos, was seized by the ATF on the grounds that it was used to transport illegal weapons. Because charges against Rothrock have yet to be filed, the details of the investigation that led to the search of his home have been presented only in an ATF forfeiture complaint with the curious case title "United States of America versus 1999 Ford F250 Truck."

Dorschner, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, would only discuss the case in general terms. "Under the new federal forfeiture laws, we were coming up against the deadline with filing for the truck," he says. "The statute of limitations for the relevant criminal charges is still several years out. If and when charges are filed in this case, in all likelihood, it will be sooner than that. But I can't say exactly when. The investigation is still in progress."