Calif. fire captain fights state assault rifle charges after ATF raids home

Sacramento Metro Fire Capt. Derik Oakes could lose his job if he's convicted of the three felonies stemming from the raid


Ryan Sabalow
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On July 18, 2019, federal agents with a warrant searched the El Dorado County home of a Sacramento Metro Fire captain looking for illegal machine gun parts.

It didn't take long to find a trove of weapons.

According to prosecutors, agents discovered part of an Uzi submachine gun, numerous high-capacity magazines and at least 19 assault rifles, as well as parts to four AR-10 rifles and two AK-47s. They also found two devices that can convert Glock pistols to fully automatic machine guns.

Capt. Derik Oakes, who continues to work for Sacramento Metro Fire, could lose his job if he's convicted of the three felonies stemming from the raid led by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Oakes has been urging prosecutors to consider his two decades of service and his lack of a criminal record and cut him a break. While federal agents lead the team that searched his house, he's being prosecuted in El Dorado County on state charges.

Oakes and his attorney say Oakes didn't know his collection of rifles, many of which he assembled himself at his home, were illegal under California's strict assault weapons laws.

California's assault weapons ban has recently been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge, though California is appealing that ruling, and the state law still applies to Oakes' case.

Oakes' Sacramento attorney, Adam Richards, argues that his client moved to El Dorado County specifically because it came with a "perceived adherence to the constitution and conservative values," and he's calling on prosecutors in the county to cut the firefighter a deal.

"There is no allegation that Mr. Oakes posed a threat to anyone or anything, nor is there a victim or harmed party in this case," Richards wrote in court documents. "Instead, this case derives solely from shockingly complex, draconian and arguably unconstitutional firearm statutes created by our beloved politicians in Sacramento."

Oakes is being backed by many of his fellow firefighters. More than a dozen of them wrote letters to the court in the hopes that local prosecutors would reduce or outright drop the charges.

Miles Perry, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case in El Dorado County, said he's willing to consider a misdemeanor plea deal that would allow Oakes to keep his job.

But it's clear to the prosecutor that Oakes is not just an ordinary gun collector. For one, Oakes appears to have etched fake serial numbers on some of the weapons, Perry said.

"He was actually essentially manufacturing these assault weapons and putting his own fake serial numbers on them," Perry said. "So that's a little different than just somebody who, let's say, law enforcement stops them and ... they get caught with (a gun) that may have features that would be legal in a state like Texas, but it's illegal in California."

Perry said Richards is using Oakes' case as a "publicity stunt ... to gain notoriety" for his law practice.

ATF sought machine gun kit

It was one gun part in particular that first brought federal agents to Oakes' home in Rescue two years ago.

Oakes purchased two "80% Glock Auto Switch" kits that can be used to convert a semi-automatic Glock handgun to fully automatic — making them an illegal machine gun under federal law, according to the ATF.

In court documents, Richards argues the kits were legal at the time Oakes purchased them online. He points to a memo the ATF issued in 2012 saying that while the switch kits were an "unfinished parts kit for a Glock machine gun conversion device," the part "had not reached the state of completion to be considered a firearm, thus it is not subject to the provisions" of the federal machine gun ban.

Nonetheless, federal firearms authorities declared the parts illegal in 2018. Agents began investigating an Oregon weapons manufacturer, JNC Manufacturing, for selling the switch kits.

The ATF obtained a list from the company of 240 names and addresses of people who had purchased them, according to a federal search warrant affidavit in Oakes' criminal court file in El Dorado County Superior Court.

Three ATF agents from the agency's Sacramento Field Office went to Oakes' home in Rescue in April 2019 to get him to hand over the illegal parts and issue a "warning notice."

"The agents rang the doorbell and could hear someone speaking faintly through a Ring camera mounted over the garage," ATF special agent Daniel Bietz wrote in the affidavit.

"The agents presented their badges to the remote video security device and identified themselves as law enforcement. When the ATF agents attempted to speak further a siren was activated. Whoever was controlling the doorbell appeared to be using the sound to drown out the Special Agents when they attempted to speak."

In an interview in Richards' office in Sacramento, Oakes said he was camping at the time, in a place with poor cell service, and didn't intentionally turn on the siren from his smartphone.

"It was an attempt to communicate with them," Oakes said. "They didn't really say anything. All we could do was see them and they flashed the badge and left and then just left the card on the door. And that was the extent of that."

Either way, a few days after the agents visited Oakes' home, Kimber Goddard, an attorney and Oakes' uncle, called the number on the card they left. He was eventually connected to Melissa Delvecchio, an ATF attorney, who hoped to "facilitate the return" of the conversion kit, according to the warrant.

Delvecchio "advised Goddard that his client was in possession of an illegal item and that ATF needed to seize it. Goddard replied something to the effect of, 'Says you.' "

The ATF agents contend that Goddard told Delvecchio that Oakes had "no interest in cooperating with the ATF."

In a sworn statement submitted to El Dorado Superior Court last month, Goddard contends he never said those things.

"I do not communicate with anyone, let alone counsel, in that matter," he wrote. "I did reiterate that Mr. Oakes did not have a machine gun."

Goddard argues that the ATF never told him what exactly they wanted from his nephew.

Goddard's letter was attached to a motion Richards filed in an attempt to quash the warrant and suppress the evidence seized during the raid on Oakes' home that followed later that summer.

Search of Oakes' home in El Dorado County

On July 18, 2019, ATF agents returned to Oakes' home with a warrant signed by a federal judge. They were accompanied by a California Highway Patrol officer and El Dorado County sheriff's deputies.

After the trove of weapons was discovered, he was charged in March 2020 with two felonies, one for possessing 17 of the illegal assault rifles and the Uzi, and another for illegally manufacturing two weapons, an AR-10 and an AK-47-style rifle.

During the raid, the officers also found a pair of metal knuckles, which are illegal to possess in California. Oakes has been charged with a felony for possessing those, though his attorney says he's not as concerned about that charge as he is about the two firearms counts.

"It's a bottle opener, a novelty that somebody had given to him as a gift a while back," Richards said.

Two years later, Oakes contends that he didn't realize his gun collection which he used for home defense, target practice and competitive shooting events was illegal, given that California's gun laws are constantly changing, being challenged and sometimes being overturned in court.

"There's not much education," Oakes said in an interview. "There's no direct, 'Here's what's legal; here's what's not,' and the rules are ever-changing. The goalpost keeps moving."

In court papers, prosecutors said Oakes "admitted that only two of his rifles were registered 'when he bought them' but later added that he didn't think any of his rifles were registered."

Several of the weapons had imitation serial numbers stamped on them that the ATF agents said corresponded to Oakes' and his wife's birthdays.

"The defendant claimed he thought it was legal to add his own serial numbers and change them because he built them himself," prosecutors wrote. "The defendant admitted that he knew 'things were bad' but that he tried to comply by adding his own serial numbers to the firearms. The defendant admitted he was looking for a 'fix' to try to make the guns legal without damaging them after he built them since it cost him money."

Perry, the El Dorado County prosecutor, said the ATF submitted the machine gun case to the U.S. Attorney's Office, but no federal charges have been filed for the illegal machine guns.

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento, declined to comment on whether there's still an ongoing investigation.

California assault weapon laws challenged

It's not completely illegal to own assault rifles in California, though they can't be sold in the state. Those who possessed the guns before various bans can still keep them, so long as they register the weapons with the state Department of Justice.

For instance, a 2016 law reclassified certain rifles as assault weapons if they had "bullet buttons," devices that allow a gun's ammunition magazine to quickly disengage with the use of a small tool, usually the tip of a bullet. The legislation banned selling the weapons, but it allowed those who had them before the ban to keep them so long as they registered their guns online.

But that registration system has been fraught with problems.

In March, the California Attorney General's Office quietly signed a settlement agreement in federal court admitting the agency's gun-registration website was so poorly designed that potentially thousands of Californians were unable to register their assault weapons and comply with state law.

Under the settlement, the California Department of Justice is required to notify each district attorney and law enforcement agency to put on hold "all pending investigations and prosecutions" for those suspected of failing to register their assault weapons.

The Department of Justice agreed to pay $151,000 for gun rights groups' legal fees, and it had to open a 120-day public notice period to reopen assault weapon registrations to give those who tried to register before a 2018 deadline to do so free from being penalized.

The settlement also requires the agency to provide gun owners with the option of filling out their registration on paper forms, instead of online.

Then, earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez in San Diego tossed California's prohibition on assault rifles entirely, calling an AR-15 "a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment," akin to a Swiss Army knife.

The Newsom administration is appealing the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has stayed Benitez's ruling. But with a majority of conservative judges now on the U.S. Supreme Court, gun rights advocates say California's assault weapons ban is likely on the way out.

"I think if you're a prosecutor in California, and you're continuing to try to imprison people for peaceful conduct for possession of assault weapons, you'd better think twice," said Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition, which has been following Oakes' case.

Outpouring of support from fellow firefighters

If Oakes is convicted of a felony, he'd be barred from being a firefighter, despite having no other criminal record. Metro Fire didn't return a message seeking comment on Oakes' case.

In court documents, Richards, Oakes' attorney, said the letters from his colleagues "demonstrate that Mr. Oakes is not only a hardworking, productive member of society, but that he is a true hero."

The letters describe Oakes as a public servant who goes out of his way to help his colleagues and the people he encounters on calls. One letter cites him saving the life of a sheriff's deputy who was seriously injured in a 2005 helicopter crash near Nimbus Dam near Folsom that killed two other deputies.

His court file also includes a commendation for when he brought ballerinas to the hospital room of a terminally ill 12-year-old girl after she had a medical emergency on the way to the ballet in 2012. It contains another commendation for a 2008 call in which Oakes rescued someone from a burning vehicle.

Ryan Basque, another Metro Fire captain, wrote that Oakes once purchased hundreds of dollars in presents for a family after their Christmas tree caught fire.

He described how Oakes once bought a woman an electric space heater after her gas lines had been shut off on a cold night. Without a stove to cook on, "he took the engine to Boston Market and again with his own money, he bought her one of almost everything on the menu so that she would have something warm and good to eat that night."

Another captain, Tim Beard, wrote that once when he suffered a critical brain bleed around Easter, Oakes never left his family's side, going so far as to bring his own family to San Francisco "and setting up an egg hunt at Golden Gate Park for my boys while I recovered in the hospital."

"I've never asked for help from anybody for anything in my life," Oakes said in an interview. "And to have the support from the people that I do — from my chain of command all the way up — I can't tell you what that means. It almost brings tears to my eyes, sometimes just thinking about the support."

After the charges were filed last year, the El Dorado District Attorney's Office initially refused to consider a plea deal that would reduce the charges to misdemeanors to allow Oakes to keep his job, Richards said.

But earlier this month, the district attorney's office told Richards that it was willing to consider a misdemeanor plea bargain.

"Obviously, any offer would involve destruction of any kind of assault weapons, contraband, things of that nature, so they wouldn't be returned to him," Perry, the deputy district attorney, told The Sacramento Bee.

In court papers, Richards said that Oakes has learned his lesson after his life was upended, and "that he will comply with the letter of our state's complex gun laws in the future."

"I learned real fast from my event that the only way you're going to actually know what is correct is to talk to legal counsel, like Mr. Richards here," Oakes said. "Many people think they're doing the right thing, and they find out in the flip of a switch: Oh, no, that's entirely wrong."

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(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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