Two siblings who conspired to smuggle illegal firearms into the Virgin Islands have been sentenced to lengthy federal prison sentences.
Shawn Bernard Tyson, 34, and Natasha France, 30, both of St. Thomas, were sentenced Tuesday for their roles in the gun trafficking scheme, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert.
Following their arrest in December 2018, prosecutors wrote that Tyson “is clearly undeterred by his previous conviction, as he has resumed engaging in the unlawful trafficking of firearms — as noted, to date, at least 60 guns have been linked to Tyson. While any firearm is a dangerous tool, the firearms that Tyson has been bringing into our territory — AK- and AR-style handguns, as well as conversion devices — are particularly lethal. Tyson is indeed a threat to the community.”
The siblings’ scheme is just one example of how firearms are illegally imported into the territory. V.I. Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor said at a news conference on Nov. 2 that officers have seized 142 illegal firearms so far this year.
In December 2019, a jury found Tyson guilty of being a felon in possession of ammunition and of mailing firearms, which made him subject to a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
While France had been headed to trial in late 2019, she pleaded guilty after jury selection to two counts of willfully transferring weapons out of state to an unlicensed person, three counts of unlawfully mailing firearms, and three counts of delivering firearms to a common carrier without written notice.
She was sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison “followed by three years of supervised release, for her convictions of willfully transferring weapons out of state to another unlicensed person, unlawfully mailing firearms, and delivering firearms to a common carrier without written notice,” according to the news release.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Molloy sentenced Tyson to the maximum possible sentence of 10 years behind bars.
Tyson’s criminal history includes a 2008 federal firearm trafficking conviction in the Virgin Islands. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in that case and his status as a felon means he is barred from possessing firearms. Despite having served prison time, Tyson resumed illegally manufacturing and trafficking high-powered weapons, using his sister and other licensed gun owners to make “straw purchases” to skirt the law.
The legal gun owners would purchase firearms in Georgia, which were then disassembled and shipped to the Virgin Islands through the U.S. Postal Service.
In October and November of 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who were screening mail on St. Thomas found several suspicious packages addressed to Tyson, with a return address for France in Georgia.
Federal agents found parts necessary to assemble five pistols and other miscellaneous firearm parts, including lower receivers with obliterated serial numbers.
Airline records showed Tyson had traveled from St. Thomas to Atlanta on Nov. 8, 2018, and returned on Nov. 17. During that time, Tyson “is captured on surveillance video at a number of different pawn shops with individuals who happened to purchase guns matching the very description of those listed above. In fact, at least one employee recalled that Tyson tendered cash to the individual who purchased the firearm in her name,” according to court records.
Officers also found incriminating items in France’s car, including two Mini Draco pistols obtained through straw purchases and the corresponding receipt from the pawn shop, a wealth of other receipts and documents linking the purchases and shipments of the various firearms and accessories, and “a number of Western Union and MoneyGram receipts for transfers to recipients, as well as from senders, in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” according to court records.
France was arrested by warrant in Georgia on Dec. 14, 2018. As federal investigators closed in, Tyson apparently fled on a boat to St. Martin undetected, and from there flew to Canada.
“On December 15, 2018, the defendant was caught trying to board a plane from Toronto to London. The defendant had flown from St. Martin to Toronto and had $10,000 cash on him,” according to court records.
At trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Massucco showed jurors fistfuls of evidence bags stuffed with ammunition, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Edwards presented photos showing a small arsenal of firearms that Tyson had smuggled into the territory through the mail.
In addition to in-person straw purchases at pawn shops and gun stores in Georgia, Tyson had also ordered various parts through online retailers, including more than 100 “auto-sears” that convert firearms into automatic weapons, according to courtroom testimony.