The Street

Tales of tragic stupidity and opportunistic thieves

Lethal Weapon 1

Gun Safety Rule No. 1: Never point the muzzle of a gun at something you don't want to shoot.

Like your left hand, for instance. Or the person walking behind you.

But that's what happened last week in west Phoenix when a local firearms expert made a tragically ironic mistake while giving an impromptu gun-safety demonstration.

Jeffrey Duane Gruette, 48, apparently was handling a pistol brought to him by another man who wanted him to take a look at it. Police say Gruette was considered the "go-to guy" for guns in the neighborhood near 40th Avenue and Encanto Boulevard. His house includes a complete reloading room for recycling ammunition, much more extensive than just simple reloading equipment. "It seems like firearms were a big part of his life," says Phoenix Police Sergeant Randy Force, always good for an understatement.

Somehow, the gun discharged as Gruette was showing how to handle it properly. This is where this story gets really ugly. For some reason, the gun barrel was pointing at Gruette's left hand at the time it discharged. And this bullet seemed to have a mind of its own.

It traveled through the center of Gruette's hand, then nailed his live-in girlfriend in the left ear as she just happened to be walking behind him toting a plate of food. Makes one think twice about scoffing anymore at the JFK "magic bullet" theory.

Alice Colvin, 52, died from the injury. Gruette was treated for his wound, and released from a local hospital. Police are still investigating, but no one expects felony charges to be filed because of a lack of intent.

Lethal Weapon 2

Gun Safety Rule No. 2: Keep guns out of the hands of children.

A south Phoenix father failed to heed that popular public service message, and he nearly paid for his mistake with his life, shot in the chest by his 3-year-old son.

The shooting took place at their Pima Street home. The father, 26-year-old Miguel Parra, and little Jose had just gotten home. Parra laid the .22 Colt Woodsman pistol he often carried with him on the kitchen table.

The boy's mother (Parra's girlfriend) was washing dishes. The child got the gun off the table and, holding it with both hands, shot his dad who was standing by the sink. Parra stumbled out of the house, bleeding.

Jose, trying to be helpful, ran out after Dad with a roll of toilet paper. Like most youngsters, he insisted at first he didn't do it, telling police repeatedly, "It wasn't me." When someone finally asked, "Who let the bullet out of the gun?" Jose finally came clean: "Me."

Although police initially questioned the boy's mother about whether she might have fired the gun during an argument, officers later concluded that the child had pulled the trigger.

That's because investigators found a photo of Miguel and Jose, the proud father smiling at his son. The kid was holding a handgun.

Smoke Rings

Local thieves are taking advantage of a recent increase in taxes on cigarettes, fueling a sizzling black market in stolen smokes.

One night last week, thieves walked into a Circle K on North 32nd Street and walked out with about 150 cartons of cancer sticks, valued at about $6,000. One of the three robbers displayed the butt of a gun under his shirt and told the clerk to stay out of it. The trio then snagged a number of large boxes containing cartons of cigarettes and fled. This all happened about 3:45 a.m.

Very quick. And very lucrative, according to Phoenix Police Sergeant Dave Lake, who over the past year or so has become an expert in the burgeoning business of cigarette thefts. (He doesn't smoke himself.)

Last year, Lake and his crew busted a ring of thieves operating in south Phoenix after the cops spearheaded a Valleywide information-sharing effort on convenience-store robberies. Both sides were sophisticated: The bad guys were hitting 10 stores a night at their peak, using cell phones, surveillance cars and getaway drivers to help in the heists. The good guys (yes, the cops) countered that with a Web site complete with pictures of the supposed cigarette crooks.

But Lake says it seems a new smoke ring has developed and is working north Phoenix. He won't say a lot more about that particular group right now. Probably trying to smoke them out.

"This is a nationwide epidemic," Lake says, adding that stolen cigarettes are big business any place you have a high-tax state next to a low-tax state. Thieves just love to collect bushels of cigarettes and sell them across state lines. The lower-tier robbers are more prone to walk local neighborhoods peddling them for less than what you'd pay in a store. Lake says some people steal cigarettes to trade them for illegal drugs; often the ringleaders will recruit help from drug users who participate in the rip-offs to get more drugs. Some teamwork.

Cigarette thefts tend to skyrocket as the price of cigarettes rises (seems like that's a constant these days, such as the recent $1.25 a pack hike in taxes here). Since a carton sells for $30 to $50 now depending on the brand, cigarettes have become an expensive addiction. These thieves have been making off with dozens of cartons at a time, often stuffing them into big garbage bags they take from shelves at a store.

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