A Harnett County man with military ties is in federal custody after being charged with illegally shipping guns to China.
Joseph Debose, 29, was arrested May 20 in a sting operation by federal agents in Smithfield, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, N.Y. Debose is accused of helping two Chinese nationals, Zhifu Lin and Lilan Li, smuggle weapons from the U.S. into China. Lin and Li also are charged.
Debose is a former Marine and a current member of a unit of the West Virginia National Guard who had hopes of joining the Army’s Special Forces.
According to the indictment, Debose was involved in the shipment of several parcels of weapons to China between December 2010 and April 2012. He is not licensed to export weapons, investigators say.
According to the complaint, Debose bought weapons and resold them to Chinese nationals living in the United States for illegal shipment overseas.
The smuggling operation came to light when Chinese officials in Shanghai intercepted a package last fall shipped from Queens, N.Y., via UPS that contained a Beretta 9 mm semiautomatic handgun and eight other firearms concealed inside a speaker housing. UPS contacted U.S. law enforcement officials, and Homeland Security Investigations got involved.
Serial numbers on the weapons had been partially obliterated, the complaint says, but were reconstructed with a microscope, and the Beretta was traced to North Carolina.
After he learned the package had been intercepted, investigators say, Debose contacted the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office and reported that several weapons had been stolen from his garage, including a Beretta and others that matched those stowed inside the speaker housing.
Security tape from the UPS office helped investigators identify two men who had shipped the package. Both later cooperated with investigators, the complaint says, and identified Debose as the person who provided the weapons. Over the course of more than a year, the men said, Debose had sold them weapons on numerous occasions, including semiautomatic pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns and military-style assault weapons, knowing they were being shipped to customers in China.
The complaint says investigators have phone recordings in which Debose discussed weapons deals with the men, and a text message from May 11, in which Debose wrote, “So far I have a CZ 527, 4 Glock 19s, 1 M4, and 2 wood Rem. 870’s. This week I will get two P22 and a tactical shotgun. Is there anything else you need?”
The complaint doesn’t indicate who the guns were intended for in China, where firearms are tightly regulated.
Debose was arrested in a sting when he arrived in Smithfield with a shipment of firearms he thought were to be exported, the government says. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he was carrying a loaded .45-caliber pistol and 12 other firearms at the time of his arrest.
If convicted, Debose and the other defendants could face up to 20 years each in prison.
There is no indication that any of the weapons belonged to the military.
Debose joined the West Virginia National Guard the same month the government alleges the smuggling began. Guard spokesman Lt. Col. David Lester said Debose left the Marine Corps in hopes of joining the Army’s Special Forces by way of the National Guard. West Virginia has one of the few National Guard Special Forces units in the country, and Debose was a member. Many of the group’s members live out of state, Lester said.
He said Staff Sgt. Debose’s security clearance came through last month and that next month he was expected to begin Special Forces training at Fort Bragg. Once he completed the training, he planned to return to active duty.