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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- For using a handgun to rob a credit union, shoe store and pizza parlor, Wally Martinez was sentenced to 55 years in prison just on the gun violations. It was the longest firearms sentence doled out since U.S. Attorney Paul Warner's office started "Project Safe Neighborhoods" four years ago.
Prosecutors handled 400 of the cases last year, up from 300 indictments the year before, and informants say the word is getting out to felons on the street: Don't mess with firearms.
In a radio advertisement playing in Utah on behalf of Project Safe Neighborhoods, Martinez's mother conveys the grief of having a son sentenced to 65 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
"The first words out of his mouth were 'Mom, they killed me,' she says, her voice breaking into a sob. "My son will die there and I think what an awful way to die -- in a prison."
Martinez, 25, has been in prison since September 2002.
Repeat gun-law violators have never had it so tough.
Officers throughout Utah are funneling gun-law violations through the federal court system at unprecedented rates under Project Safe Neighborhoods.
On average, one person a day is being sent to federal prison for gun crimes in Utah, with some of the most violent offenders facing 50 or more years without the possibility of parole. The average sentence is 31/2 years.
Before the project took hold, many of these cases were passed back to the state court system. But since its inception, federal gun prosecutions have increased 68 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The federal prosecutions have saved Utah $4.5 million in prison costs. Utah doesn't have a federal prison and most federal inmates are sent outside Utah to serve their prison terms.
Utah's task force differs from others across the nation because it involves the entire state instead of just a major city or a highly-populated area, said Jeff Sarnacki, resident agent in charge of the Utah office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Task force members, including commander Larry Marx, have conducted training sessions with each of the 110 police agencies in Utah, and cases have originated from small communities such as Delta, Mount Pleasant, Salina and Ivins.
"Those people were infecting our community, and the federal system is actually going to make them go elsewhere," Uintah County Sheriff's Sgt. Keith Campbell said. "There is not much of a deterrent in the state system. But in the federal system the word is getting out."
Campbell's first case as a task-force member involved Michael Nelson Swett, 46, who was convicted of handing a SKS rifle to Lee Roy Wood, who used it to kill Roosevelt Police Chief Cecil Gurr on July 6, 2001. Swett was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of a gun by a restricted person and giving a gun to a convicted felon.
Many people in Utah are unaware of the hard time criminals face if convicted of a gun crime, say federal law enforcement officials.
A recent survey conducted by state and federal officials shows that 55 percent of respondents didn't know defendants convicted of a federal gun crime have no possibility of receiving parole. And 40 percent of respondents who own guns mistakenly thought it was legal for a person convicted of domestic violence to carry a firearm.
The U.S. Attorney's Office of Utah and the ATF produced a video about the project which is shown to felons as they leave the state prison.
"I'm a prosecutor. I'm not a social worker, and as such, if you violate federal gun laws, you will be prosecuted," Warner warns felons in the video. "There will be no leniency."
Warner has created a nine-member prosecution team to focus solely on such crimes, though some cases are prosecuted on the state level with the assistance of county attorneys. All cases are evaluated by a team of state and federal prosecutors to determine what charges will be filed and what court they will be filed in. Hundreds of cases are still pending.
Marx expects the number of indictments will continue to rise in the short term, but hopes the statistics will start to decline once word of the program spreads throughout crime circles.
The majority of indictments in 2003 involved a felon in possession of a firearm. The next most common violation was a drug user in possession of a firearm. Other common crimes include using a firearm in a violent crime, lying on federal forms to buy a gun and being an undocumented immigrant in possession of a gun.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)