Jamila V. Curtis has virtually no criminal record, but she was on the run Friday from local and federal authorities.
All because she allegedly bought a gun for someone who wasn't legally allowed to have one. It's what authorities call a “straw purchase'' of a firearm.
Curtis, 24, faces felony gun charges, punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison if she is arrested and convicted.
Federal law bars purchasing firearms from a dealer on behalf of another person.
“The law is very clear,” said Marino F. Vidoli, special agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “There's no misunderstanding it.”
Federal and local authorities said Friday that 12 people had been arrested and six more, including Curtis, were being sought as part of an effort to take gang members, their associates and illegal guns off Omaha streets.
The arrests were part of a nine-month investigation targeting some of north Omaha's most violent gangs.
Dubbed “Operation Wipe It Down” — that's street slang for the illegal exchange of guns — the sweep took aim at known gang members and those who helped arm them with handguns, rifles and shotguns.
Authorities said they have taken 45 guns off the streets and seized more than a pound of marijuana and about 72 grams of crack cocaine.
In several instances, the criminal charges are tied to guns bought within the city, said Vidoli and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
The alleged buyers often were girlfriends of gang members, they said, who bought guns from reputable firearms dealers. Some of these women had no major criminal history — such as a felony or domestic abuse conviction — that barred them from buying guns.
But once they turned the weapons over to their felon boyfriends, they became criminal suspects.
Authorities did not say for whom Curtis allegedly bought the gun, or where she purchased it.
Vidoli said gang members will often ask their girlfriends to buy weapons because they fear the firearms could otherwise be traced back to them.
“They don't want their name associated with the weapon,” Vidoli said.
The person who buys the gun might face additional charges if the weapon was used in a crime.
Said Vidoli: “If a gun is recovered in a crime and we trace the gun, we can trace it back to the original owner.”
Schmaderer said some of the people arrested are believed to have been involved in several of the city's unsolved shootings. None, however, has been charged in connection with a specific shooting.
The 18 people arrested or sought this week have a combined 15 felony and 49 misdemeanor convictions; 72 previous arrests; and 400 run-ins with law enforcement.
Some of the most violent face 20 years to life in prison if convicted of weapon-related charges, authorities said.
The investigation was conducted by ATF agents, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Omaha police. It's the second major operation of the year targeting purported gang members.
Last spring, police and federal officials rounded up nine suspected leaders of the 40th Avenue Crips and the 29th Street Gang as part of “Operation Purple Haze.'' All nine remain in custody and await trial on drug and gun charges.
The latest sweep began Thursday, with more than 50 police officers and federal agents serving search warrants on eight people. Four additional suspects were in custody late Friday.
Authorities wouldn't specify where the arrests occurred. But they said those named in the investigation have ties to gangs operating in north Omaha neighborhoods. More suspects could be identified as the operation continues.
“This is just the beginning,” Vidoli said. “By no means are we done.”
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Mayor Jean Stothert praised the agencies' work and asked for the public's help in locating the remaining fugitives.
“It's important now that the community provides law enforcement with information to arrest those still at large,” the mayor said.
Said Schmaderer: “If you're in a street gang and you're going to commit violent crimes, you're not only going to get the attention of Omaha police. You'll get the attention of our federal partners as well.”
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