Monday, March 14, 2016

Former Bald Knob chief pleads in gun case UPDATE

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2016 at 10:30 AM

The Searcy Daily Citizen reports that former Bald Knob police chief Erek Balentine is expected in federal court at 1:30 p.m. today to plead to a charge of possession of stolen property. The report was based on the newspaper's interview with Balentine's lawyer.

The charge concerns a firearm in possession of the police department that Balentine tried to sell, the newspaper said.

Balentine made news last year when he reported that his vehicle had been burned and painted with a pro-2nd Amendment message. This followed Balentine's arrest of a man who wore a holstered gun in a McDonald's. Balentine later resigned, citing concerns for his family's safety.

The gun charge arose from the investigation of the arson. His guilty plea, several have reported, is part of a settlement that means the federal government won't pursue any charges in the arson case.

He'll be sentenced later, after a probation office report.

UPDATE: The Justice Department news release indicates the plea deal included a decision not to pursue a charge against Balentine for fraud in an insurance claim on his burned truck. He agreed to pay $12,000 restitution.  The release:

Christopher R. Thyer, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Jeffrey Reed, Resident Agent in Charge for the Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), and Col. William J. Bryant of the Arkansas State Police, announced today that former Bald Knob Police Chief Erek Balentine, 31, of Bald Knob, pled guilty to a felony Information charging him with possessing a stolen firearm. In addition, he agreed to personally pay more than $12,000 in restitution relating to an incident in which his personal truck burned shortly prior to his resignation from the police department.

Today’s plea hearing took place in Little Rock before United States District Judge  Brian S. Miller. Judge Miller will sentence Balentine at a later date.

Balentine’s final day as Bald Knob police chief was October 5, 2015. In spring 2015, Balentine had a conversation with a former White County police officer who was interested in donating a shotgun to the Bald Knob Police Department. Bald Knob was attempting to raise money for a K-9 unit for the department, and the purpose of this firearm donation was to auction off the shotgun to obtain funds to retrofit a police car with a cage to hold the K-9 unit.

The former officer purchased the shotgun, a Beretta, Model A300, 12-gauge shotgun, for $1,199 and had it shipped to All Star Pawn in Bald Knob, a federal firearm licensee. The donor intended for All Star Pawn to hold the shotgun and make a legal transfer to the winner of the auction, after the police department had the funds. At no time was Balentine or anyone authorized to keep the shotgun for personal use prior to the auction.

On October 2, 2015, the last business day he was still police chief, Balentine retrieved the Beretta shotgun from All Star Pawn. On October 14, 2015, Arkansas State Police Corporal Mike McNeill received information that Balentine was attempting to sell the shotgun, which was still police property, to an individual with whom Balentine was acquainted. Earlier that day, Balentine sent this acquaintance a text message with a picture of the Beretta shotgun, still in its case, which stated, “brand new, I will take $800 for it.” Balentine also said that he needed the money for personal reasons.

After this communication agents observed Balentine go to his residence in Bald Knob and retrieve what appeared to be a gun in its case and proceed toward the location of the proposed gun transaction. Cpl. McNeill and ATF Special Agent David Oliver then initiated a traffic stop on Balentine, at which time he admitted he had a gun in the car.

The shotgun was never auctioned.

During the plea hearing, in addition to admitting to the facts of the stolen firearm, Balentine did not contest facts offered by the United States to support a restitution
payment of $12,968.71 to Progressive Insurance related to a fraudulent insurance claim for a vehicle fire. This restitution is designed to repay Progressive for insurance payments from the fire which destroyed Balentine’s 2007 Dodge Ram pickup truck.

The fire occurred at Balentine’s residence on September 24, 2015, and was immediately determined to be arson. At Monday’s plea hearing the United States—in providing a factual basis for the proposed restitution order—presented numerous examples of evidence which suggest that Balentine was a participant in causing the fire which resulted in the damage to his truck. The United States informed Judge Miller that it would not pursue charges before a Grand Jury for arson and mail fraud, and Balentine agreed to repay as restitution the money Progressive paid as a result of Balentine’s fraudulent insurance claim.

The charge of possession of a stolen firearm carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. The investigation was conducted by the Arkansas State Police and the ATF. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Chris Givens.

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