A serial-killer suspect accused of murdering at least six people in Northern California was using an untraceable “ghost gun,” and was carrying the weapon when he was arrested last weekend while “out hunting” for another victim, police say.
The suspect, 43-year-old Wesley Brownlee, is accused of a string of shootings dating back to April 2021 around the cities of Stockton and Oakland, California. Five of the victims were Latino men, and many were also unhoused and living in encampments.
Brownlee was arrested around 2 a.m. local time Saturday when police spotted him cruising around Stockton with a mask and gun in his possession.
“Our surveillance team followed this person while he was driving,” Stockton police Chief Stanley McFadden said at a news conference announcing the arrest. “We watched his patterns and determined early this morning he was on a mission to kill. He was out hunting.”
Brownlee is currently charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of illegal possession of ammunition. Prosecutors in San Joaquin County have said the investigation is still ongoing, and they intend to file additional murder charges.
Brownlee has not yet entered a plea in response to the charges, and his court-appointed attorney did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News. He could face life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.
A photo released by Stockton police of Brownlee’s alleged weapon shows what appears to be a Glock 19-style 9mm pistol assembled from a part manufactured by Polymer80, a Nevada-based company that has become synonymous with so-called ghost guns in recent years.
Polymer80 pioneered a now-banned product dubbed the “Buy, Build, Shoot” kit, which included a pistol frame and other parts and tools needed for making a do-it-yourself handgun. Assembling the gun takes as little as half an hour, according to law enforcement officials, resulting in a semi-automatic pistol that—unlike a factory-made weapon—does not have a serial number that allows police to easily determine where it was made and sold.
Because unfinished frames and parts are not technically considered firearms under federal law, buyers are not required to undergo a background check, which police and gun control advocates say is appealing for criminals.
Polymer80 did not respond to a request for comment, and attorneys that represent the company in civil lawsuits did not address questions about Brownlee’s gun in an email sent by VICE News.
Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said he was not surprised to learn that Brownlee—who has felony drug convictions that prohibit him from legally owning firearms—allegedly used a ghost gun.
“It’s not the first and it sadly won’t be the last time, but these are the kinds of people who can’t otherwise get their hands on firearms,” Skaggs said. “They fail a background check, so they turn to ghost guns. We see that all the time.”
It’s still unclear exactly when and how Brownlee acquired his ghost gun. Joe Silva, a spokesperson for the Stockton Police Department, declined to provide further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
Police have said, however, that ballistics evidence matches the gun found on Brownlee to bullets fired in six homicides and one attempted murder where the victim survived. Prosecutors have also said cellphone data puts Brownlee in the vicinity of at least three of his six alleged murders, along with the attempted shooting.
Brownlee’s killing spree allegedly began on April 10, 2021, in Alameda County, and continued with a string murders the following year around Stockton, with multiple victims turning up this year in July, August, and as recently as Sept. 27. Police have said they are still looking for unsolved shootings that fit the same pattern and might be linked to Brownlee.
Police detectives began to suspect the killings were linked when they saw surveillance videos with “the same person with the dark clothing and a distinctive walk” at each of the crime scenes. Brownlee is now being held at the San Joaquin County jail without bail ahead of his next court appearance, set for Nov. 14.
Prosecutors have said Brownlee worked as an interstate truck driver who “recently moved” from the Bay Area to Stockton, where he has family. He has a criminal history dating back to his teenage years. He was first arrested as a 15-year-old in 1994 along with two other boys and charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl, according to court records reviewed by San Jose’s Mercury News. Brownlee’s mother reportedly maintained his innocence at the time, and a probation report later found that Brownlee “apparently suffers both innate mental limitation and psychological stress” stemming from his brother being shot to death in 1995.
Brownlee was arrested again as an 18-year-old in 1997 for possessing 67 bindles of crack cocaine, and the following year he violated his probation when he was caught selling cocaine to an undercover cop. After serving two years in state prison, Brownlee was reportedly arrested again in Alameda County in 2014 for allegedly selling drugs in a location just one block from where his brother was killed nearly 20 years earlier and within a mile of where his first alleged victim, Juan Vasquez Serrano, was shot and killed in 2021.
The alleged use of a ghost gun in the murders would fit a broader pattern of criminals turning to untraceable firearms in recent years. Earlier this year, VICE News obtained public records from police departments around the country showing more than 8,500 ghost guns recovered since 2016, with the vast majority found in the last three years.
Silva told VICE News that Stockton police do not collect data on recoveries of unserialized and home-built firearms but added, “We have been seeing more ghost guns in recent years.”
The Department of Justice has also released its own national statistics on ghost guns, reporting over 45,000 “privately made firearms” recovered since 2016, including in 692 guns linked to murder or attempted homicide investigations. The federal data shows ghost gun recoveries spiking by more than 90 percent last year and 1,000 percent over the last five years.
President Joe Biden and the federal law enforcement agency tasked with regulating firearms have responded to the surge in ghost guns with new rules that redefine when unfinished parts and tools cross the line into becoming a firearm. The firearms industry has responded with lawsuits challenging the changes, and gun enthusiasts have already developed workarounds that allow easy access to tools known as jigs and other items required for home gun building.
And while Brownlee apparently used a weapon made from pre-made ghost gun parts, it’s possible to use a 3D printer to make the same type of Glock 19-style pistol frame essentially from scratch, making it extremely difficult to police and regulate.
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