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Off-Duty Cop Killed by Weapon Bought by Straw Purchaser, Lawsuit Claims

By Erica Demarest | April 24, 2013 2:20pm | Updated on April 24, 2013 2:21pm

RIVER NORTH — The gun used to kill an off-duty Chicago police officer in 2010 was obtained through a straw purchase, a lawsuit filed Wednesday claims.

The suit filed in Mississippi claims that the off-duty officer and Iraq war veteran Thomas Wortham IV was leaving his parents’ Chatham home on May 19 that year when several gang members tried to steal his motorcycle. Wortham pulled his weapon and was killed in the ensuing gunfire.

Wednesday’s lawsuit targets a Mississippi pawnshop and two gun traffickers who allegedly sold the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun that killed Wortham.

“Ed’s Pawn Shop sold at least eight semiautomatic guns to a gun trafficking ring through straw purchases,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed the suit. “Those guns were sold to armed gang members on the streets of Chicago. Those gang members killed Thomas Wortham.”

The suit names Michael Elliot, who allegedly bought the gun from Ed’s Pawn Shop and Salvage Yard in Byhalia, Miss.; pawnshop owner Bruce Archer; and Quawi Gates, who allegedly ran a gun trafficking ring from Mississippi.

In 2007, Elliott entered Ed’s Pawn Shop and bought the Smith & Wesson that would eventually kill Wortham, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. In exchange for $100, Elliott gave the weapon to Gates, who then sold it to Chicago gang members.

Elliott pleaded guilty to the straw purchase and served a six-month prison term.

Gates pleaded guilty to several counts of gun trafficking. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison.

“Straw purchasing is a serious problem,” Lowy said. “We’re sending a message to gun sellers around the country. If they choose to put profits over people, we’ll come after them.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Wortham’s parents, who said their goal is to restrict illegal gun activity.

“Our lives have been changed forever,” mother Carolyn Wortham said. “I have to live with what happened to my son every day for the rest of my life. I don’t ever want any other mother to have to go through this.”

On the day Wortham was killed, he had been visiting his parents to show them photos from a recent trip to Washington D.C. and New York. When he tried to leave, two men emerged from a nearby car and pulled guns, the suit said.

When Wortham told the men he was a police officer and showed them his service weapon, an exchange of fire ensued. His father, retired police officer Thomas Wortham III, retrieved his own weapon and opened fire, killing one of the attackers.

“Tommy was taken from us way too early,” Thomas Wortham III, who served as a Chicago police officer for 32 years, said. “He was shot and killed outside my door by criminals who never should’ve gotten hold of lethal weapons.”

Lowy said he hopes the suit will deter future straw purchases.

“What happened on Capital Hill last week [when the U.S. Senate voted against background checks] emphasizes how important something like this is,” Lowy said. “People in Chicago cannot wait for Congress to take action to stop gun violence. ... We certainly can’t hold our breath.”