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Feds cracking down on felons with guns in rural Alaska, 4 awaiting sentencing

Posted: July 23, 2011 - 11:42pm

ANCHORAGE — A ruckus at a home in an Alaska village and the discovery of a large cache of weapons led to the prosecution of a man in a federal crackdown on violent crime in rural Alaska.

Michael R. Stearns, 58, of Nikolai was sentenced this week to four years, nine months in prison for being a felon in possession of firearms. He had 24 loaded handguns and 59 rifles, and he wasn’t supposed to have any guns because of his status as a felon.

Stearns is the second person sent to prison this month as a result of the federal crackdown.

Kelly Cavanaugh, an assistant U.S. attorney hired under a federal grant to battle violent crime in rural Alaska, told the Anchorage Daily News that four more defendants are awaiting sentencing or trial and additional weapons cases are still being investigated.

“We’re not parachuting in there and arresting everybody who is a felon with a gun,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re are looking at specific people that are specific problems to villages or that we think might have the potential to be a problem, like Mr. Stearns.”

In one case, Jimmy Lee Coffin, now 24, scared residents last August in Noorvik, a village of more than 650 people near Kotzebue, prosecutors said. He hit the village police officer in the head, stole guns, threatened to shoot troopers, and holed up until the troopers’ Special Emergency Reaction Team arrived, prosecutors said in a memo.

It was almost a replay of a standoff that happened when he was 18. In the recent federal weapons case, Coffin was sentenced to three years, four months, in prison. He also must serve time in a companion state case.

At Stearns’ sentencing, a picture of his bedroom was shown. There was a nightstand loaded with more than a dozen handguns. Two rifles had been modified to make them fully automatic.

“His bedroom was floor to ceiling with firearms,” Cavanaugh said.

Stearns pleaded guilty in March. At his sentencing this week, he told the judge that the guns belonged to his wife.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess said that didn’t matter, according to a recounting of the hearing by the Justice Department. Stearns obviously had “dominion and control” over guns in his bedroom and at any rate had directed his wife to buy the firearms, Burgess said.

According to Cavanaugh, Stearns said he hunted some. But he never explained why he had so many guns, or why the handguns were all loaded.

Stearns’ prior felonies date back 20 years or more and all were out of Yreka, Calif. One was a 1991 case of a felon in possession of a firearm.

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