HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Federal authorities are trying to figure out how at least a dozen fully-automatic M16s ended up among military surplus equipment sold to a Houston couple.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) executed a search warrant in a Richmond-area storage facility on Monday afternoon. However, that only came after the couple voluntarily notified authorities of their highly-unusual find.
Last week, the couple, who run a side hustle of buying surplus lots, dividing up the products, and reselling them on eBay, received delivery of 108 storage cases sold by a government surplus website. Over the weekend, a friend helped the couple stack and store the cases. As a thank you, they gave one of the cases to the friend.
When that friend opened the case, he realized it was not empty. Inside were 12 fully-automatic M-16s, all of them still with various tags designating the military branch and name of service members who handled the weapons.
"We just purchased these cases. We never expected anything in there," said the husband, who did not want to be identified. "Supposedly, the sender should check every single box to make sure there's nothing dangerous or anything."
"It's just a case, everybody can buy it online," the wife said.
Unsure of what to do, the couple reported the M-16s to authorities. Within hours, ATF and FBI agents seized the one open box with the 12 weapons. Shortly thereafter, the ATF obtained a search warrant for the couple's storage unit. They spent most of Monday on location, going through the boxes.
ABC13 was the only news outlet on scene. We observed agents opening, closing, and stacking multiple gun cases.
"It's incredible. It's surreal," said Greg Fremin, a one-time Houston police captain and Marine.
ABC13 reached out to Fremin, who is now a faculty member at Sam Houston State University, about how dangerous it is to have random military equipment floating around.
"It's unbelievable to think military-grade weapons would be shipped in containers across state lines. It's pretty shocking," Fremin said. "One of the strictest things we have in the military is weapons accountability. So these weapons are missing somewhere from a U.S. armory, and somebody doesn't know it. That's the scary thing about that for the U.S. military right now."
He continued, "For these boxes to have M16s in them and be shipped to a public destination, not only is it shocking it's a federal crime."
Exactly who's legally responsible for the gross mistake is uncertain. ABC13 contacted the online website that sold the gun cases. The company has since pulled all the other cases that were also for sale offline as it conducts an internal investigation. A representative from the company told ABC13 that it directly contracts with the Department of Defense to sell surplus equipment, which would not include any weapons.
The ATF confirms it's investigating along with the FBI but will not say how many weapons were recovered. ABC13 can confirm the number is at least a dozen, but unknown how many other boxes also contained M16s.
According to federal firearms standards, the weapons are considered fully automatic, though the guns do have several iterations.
"We are good citizens" the wife said, adding she's now reluctant to buy military surplus equipment and fearful to run afoul of the law.