As far as federal authorities know, Willie Biles never shot anyone with the many handguns he purchased legally from Indiana gun shops.
But it could be years before all the damage is tallied from criminal acts resulting from his reckless resale of the weapons that wound up in the hands of Chicago hoodlums.
U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis reminded Biles of that before sentencing him Thursday to two years in prison.
“You had absolutely no idea where those guns were going, how they would be used or where they would end up,” the judge said, calling Biles “exceedingly irresponsible.”
Ellis said she would have sentenced him without hesitation to the five-year maximum prison term sought by federal prosecutors if not for the fact he suffers from end-stage renal disease that might require a kidney transplant.
It was more compassion than Biles deserved.
Yet it’s the frightening simplicity of Biles’ crime that compels me to write about him, not any imbalance in the scales of justice.
As the death toll from Chicago street violence mounts unabated, we search for answers in the abundance of handguns, many of us no doubt imagining sophisticated arms dealers distributing large caches of weapons.
The truth, I’m afraid, looks more like Biles, an unemployed mope with no prior criminal record of note who will turn 45 in the coming week.
By his own admission, when Biles needed to make money, the Indianapolis resident would visit a licensed gun dealer in that state and buy some cheap handguns.
By law, he could buy as many as he wanted as long as he filled out the paperwork that said he was purchasing them for his own use.
Then, Biles would throw the guns in a duffel bag and hop on the Megabus to Chicago, where prosecutors say he resold them at markups of more than 200 percent, operating from the front porch of his brother’s home near Chicago Avenue and Central Avenue.
The guns were bought by people happy to pay the exorbitant price to evade laws intended to keep firearms out of the wrong hands, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Parente, who noted that buying from Biles meant “no background checks, no waiting periods, no paper trail.”
Of the 29 guns Biles is known to have purchased, prosecutors said 12 have so far been recovered from crime scenes — including one used in the attempted murder of a police officer.
The officer was running after a carjacking suspect when the man turned, pointed a loaded gun at his chest and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for the police officer, the gun jammed.
In another case Parente described, police responding to a tip arrested a man, with a Halloween mask and a gun in his pocket, who told them he was waiting to kill someone who had beaten up his brother.
Both guns were traced having been legally purchased earlier by Biles, as were other guns recovered from documented gang members, convicted felons and drug stash houses.
That still leaves 17 guns unaccounted for, any of which could also be used in a crime, if they haven’t already, the judge said.
The defense argued that Biles thought he was within his legal rights to sell the guns, but a jury convicted him in May.
In a rambling, dissembling presentation at Thursday’s sentencing, Biles said he “was never trying to hurt anybody.” He said he resold some of the guns in Indiana, not Chicago, as if that would keep them from turning up here.
“I would not put guns in my names to sell to gang-bangers,” he said.
Biles also denied that his trips to Chicago on Megabus — prosecutors documented six such trips — were always for the purpose of selling guns. Sometimes, the West Side native said, he was just visiting family.
David Coulson, spokesman for the Chicago office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told me Biles is typical of the straw purchasers involved with most of the guns recovered from Illinois crime scenes, the only difference being that he accounted for higher volume than most.
“We see this often where obviously there’s a market in Chicago for guns,” Coulson said. “Maybe they start with one or two, and then they see they can make money.”
Biles’ lawyer, Candace Jackson, tried to spin that as part of the defense.
“There are a lot of people in Indiana selling guns for profit,” Jackson said. “Not everybody’s getting caught.”
Outside on Dearborn Street afterward, I asked Biles how he supposed all those guns came to be in the bad guys’ possession. But he pulled his Superman hoodie over his head and fled into traffic.
The judge told Biles said she didn’t want to set a prison term that could turn into a death sentence by denying him proper medical treatment.
It would be a miracle if Biles hasn’t already played a role in passing that very sentence on some Chicagoans.