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They wanted to please their partners.

One woman led an afterschool program. Another helped manage her daughter's child-care center. A third worked as a Hennepin County corrections officer. Their spotless records gave the men in their lives — felons who weren't legally allowed to possess a firearm — access to guns.

Over the past decade, federal agents and prosecutors in Minnesota have gone after those responsible for putting guns in the hands of people barred from owning them. This is often through "straw purchasing," when a person who's legally able to buy a gun lies on federal paperwork and then hands the firearm to someone prohibited from possessing guns or ammunition.

The practice can have catastrophic consequences — such as the February killings of three first responders in Burnsville by Shannon Cortez Gooden. A federal grand jury indicted Gooden's live-in girlfriend, Ashley Dyrdahl, a month later on charges that include straw purchasing for allegedly buying the guns Gooden used in the shootout. He later turned a gun on himself.

"Thanks for making me so happy," Gooden texted Dyrdahl one afternoon from a firing range, boasting about the high-powered ammunition he would use to kill two police officers and a firefighter-paramedic days later.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, whose office is prosecuting Dyrdahl, said in a recent interview that the nature of straw purchasing in Minnesota is evolving. New court filings describe federal agents investigating a new conspiracy to unleash dozens of firearms on the streets of Minneapolis.

But Dyrdahl's case fits a pattern that has repeated itself for at least a decade: A Star Tribune review of more than two dozen such cases charged since 2014 found that a majority involve women connected to an intimate partner, close friend or relative who leaned on them to get their guns. And many of their cases reveal backdrops of trauma or domestic violence.

I was in a physically and verbally abusive relationship at the time, one woman explained to a judge.

The attorney for another argued: She was in a relationship with a person who emotionally exploited her to purchase firearms because he could not.

You have gone through trauma that's extreme, a judge observed before sentencing one woman.

"Firearms are themselves tools of abuse, manipulation and coercion, and so it makes sense that prohibited persons would use abuse, manipulation and coercion to try to circumvent prohibitions and access them," said James Densley, co-director of the Violence Prevention Project, a nonprofit based at Hamline University that studies gun violence. "In the end, prohibited persons are prohibited for a reason. Their intimate partners often find themselves embedded in criminal networks by default."

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announces on March 14 that his office is charging Ashley Anne Dyrdahl for purchasing the firearms used in the deadly Burnsville first responder shooting.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announces on March 14 that his office is charging Ashley Anne Dyrdahl for purchasing the firearms used in the deadly Burnsville first responder shooting.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Duress defense?

Dyrdahl is the second person charged in Minnesota under a federal straw purchasing statute approved by Congress in 2022. Before then, prosecutors had to charge people suspected of straw purchasing by using other statutes, such as those focused on making false statements on federally required gun sale paperwork. Luger described the straw purchasing statute, passed as part of the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, as important because it names the crime — not unlike laws focused on sex trafficking, money laundering and carjacking.

"The one question that I get asked most often at community meetings is where are these weapons coming from?" Luger said. "And it was clear really two years ago when we started that straw purchasing was an important part of the problem."

The first person charged in Minnesota under the new statute aided and abetted his girlfriend to become a straw purchaser on his behalf. Torrence Ricardo Finley, 33, of St. Paul, had nine prior felony convictions related to domestic violence and was on supervised release for threatening to kill a woman when his girlfriend made the gun purchases for him.

Finley was sentenced to 68 months in federal prison last year after pleading guilty.

When Luger announced Dyrdahl's charges in March, he was asked by reporters whether he thought she would mount a defense alleging that she was under duress or coerced into buying Gooden's guns. At the time, Luger pointed to evidence including text exchanges between the couple that Dyrdahl "knowingly and intentionally" lied to federally licensed gun sellers to get her boyfriend pistols and AR-15-style rifles.

Messages were left seeking comment from Dyrdahl's attorney. The Burnsville mother of four has yet to formally enter a plea and is still awaiting a trial date.

Investigators also examine whether the guns are used in violent crimes and, if so, how soon after their original purchase. The Burnsville shootings are among the highest-profile examples of such a case in recent years. In 2021, federal authorities charged the straw purchaser responsible for buying a pistol later used in the Truck Park bar mass shooting in St. Paul, which killed one woman and injured 13 others.

"It's a totality and sometimes one factor is stronger than another," Luger said in an interview. "Sometimes the nature of the crime is such that even a strong factor such as coercion just doesn't rise to the level of importance at charging or sentencing depending on the crime. Each case has to stand or fall on its own facts in that regard."

Meggie Royer, prevention program manager for Violence Free Minnesota, said that people in abusive relationships often feel they have few choices. People might comply with an abusive partner's wishes because of threats to them or their children, Royer said, or they might remember previous abuse after rebuffing the partner's demands.

At least one ex-girlfriend of Gooden's has spoken publicly about suffering abuse at his hands.

"I think people should take a step back and remember that history of violence," Royer said. "I don't think it's fair to be solely punishing a victim survivor for the actions of somebody who had a long history of violence against multiple women."

Backdrops of abuse

Court records, often in the form of defense attorneys pleading for leniency, help illustrate how numerous Minnesota women became felons while trying to buy guns for their partners.

Jacquelyn Burnes grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Maple Grove with two loving parents who preached the importance of church and community. She earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, spent six years at a process server company providing legal support services, and volunteered at a halfway house. She wanted to one day work in child protective services or juvenile justice.

Burnes escaped an abusive relationship that ended when she called police after her boyfriend strangled her. Filled with grief over her father's death in 2013, and still "in a bad place" with her ex-boyfriend, she threw herself into work by splitting time as a Hennepin County correctional officer and working at the process server company.

At the jail, she was drawn to Diontre Ramone Hill, later explaining in court documents that her recent traumas made her vulnerable to his influence. Burnes and Angela Carter, who was romantically involved with another co-defendant, Keniko Bland, were later charged after buying guns and ammunition for the men, who were both legally prohibited from having them. A judge later sentenced Burnes to 13 months in prison.

Daisha Sharpe often helped her grandmother and disabled uncle with household chores. She dreamed of working in pediatrics, and led the after-school program at Hancock Recreation Center in St. Paul.

When she was a freshman in high school, she started dating Charles Campbell. She described him as "edgy, attractive, charismatic and street savvy." But he was also "emotionally abusive, manipulative, unfaithful, and reckless," according to court filings.

"This relationship began to define more and more of Daisha's life as she defended his behavior and poor decisions to people around her who were concerned about her well-being," wrote her attorney, Joshua Johnson, in a 2019 filing. "As is common in abusive relationships, Daisha prioritized what Charles wanted, neglecting her own interests and better judgment in the process."

She helped Campbell buy and resell at least 15 guns in 10 months in 2018. Police recovered multiple firearms trafficked by the pair at crime scenes or in the possession of felons. One gun was recovered at the scene of a gang shootout on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Sharpe received a 13-month prison sentence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Shnider, who prosecuted the case, countered that Sharpe "was free at any moment to disengage from this conduct, and from the toxic relationship giving rise to it" but instead continued to help Campbell in his "dangerous and unlawful enterprise."

Shnider acknowledged that Sharpe did not appear to have been the driving force behind the scheme. Her involvement was instead "borne from a misguided devotion" to Campbell and "the belief, with each gun purchased, that she was helping him get on his feet."

Samantha Laska was just 21 when she bought her boyfriend a gun. By then, she'd already become an assistant director of a child care center and preschool where she'd started working in order to be with her daughter more.

Laska first met Tyreas Tyron Brown at a homecoming dance in high school. They later reconnected through a mutual friend, and her young daughter was instantly attached to him. This strengthened Laska's attachment to Brown, her attorney explained in court filings. Laska had just left a physically abusive relationship and hoped Brown would become the father figure missing from her daughter's life. Their relationship lasted just six months, time often spent in a "puppy love" phase that made his infidelity and other red flags easier to dismiss.

"She tried to weather those issues for the sake of her daughter," wrote Lisa Lopez, Laska's attorney. "After all, Samantha knew how painful it was to lose the men in her life."

Lopez continued: "Trying to make the relationship work, Samantha did things she shouldn't have. She tolerated cheating. And when Brown asked her to buy him a gun, she did it."

Laska received three years of probation in her case.

Of the nearly two dozen federal cases involving straw purchasing filed since 2014 and reviewed by the Star Tribune, five resulted in probation terms of between six months and three years. Those sentenced to prison received penalties of one month to 68 months, with an average prison sentence of just under two years.

Motivated by the Burnsville shootings, the Legislature this month passed a bill that elevated the state straw purchasing statute from a gross misdemeanor to a felony, while increasing the potential penalties. However, most cases of straw purchases end up in federal court. Since 2014, there have been nine cases brought under the state statute, with just one of them — a 2017 Crow Wing County case — yielding a conviction.

State Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, sponsored a bill increasing penalties for straw buyers.
State Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, sponsored a bill increasing penalties for straw buyers.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

A law with more teeth

Erica MacDonald, a former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota who now works in private practice, led an office that prosecuted at least half a dozen straw purchaser cases during her tenure from 2018 to 2021.

During the Trump administration, under which MacDonald served, she said the Justice Department made a "significant push" to prosecute such cases and attempt to deter people from putting guns in the hands of people who shouldn't own them.

"Some things can be a mitigating factor or can provide an explanation but not provide an excuse," MacDonald said. "There are facts and circumstances that can tend to provide an explanation for why somebody engaged in certain conduct, but it doesn't arise to legal defense such that it could prevent a finding of guilt or non-guilt. So in a lot of these straw purchasing cases, duress is not going to be available."

Travis Riddle, special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul office, said he has never seen a case of someone coerced into straw buying.

"It's always done willingly," he said.

The new straw purchasing law being used to prosecute Dyrdahl has considerably more teeth than charges used to prosecute previous such cases, Riddle said. Now, people charged under that federal statute face the possibility of up to 15 years in prison.

"Previously, ... that deterrence really wasn't there," Riddle said.

The new law can also be used to open broader investigations, such as the racketeering conspiracy probes Luger has revived to go after Minneapolis street gangs. It allows the government to seize profits linked to straw purchasing or other forms of firearms trafficking and may signal a shift in the types of straw purchasing cases to be charged in Minnesota and elsewhere.

"It allows you to throw out a bigger net when it comes to not only the individuals in that organization but potentially the individuals that are supplying the firearms to those organizations who possibly would fly under the radar with not much of a possibility of being prosecuted," Riddle said.

That appears to be happening now, according to two recently filed criminal complaints and search warrant affidavits: ATF agents last month arrested two men connected to an investigation into a suspected straw purchaser who bought 32 firearms between December 2023 and March.

"What we — meaning ATF, this office, other law enforcement agencies — have seen is that as the proliferation of weapons on the street has grown, the nature of straw purchasing has grown and changed with it," Luger said. "To the extent that much of it was friend to friend or intimate partner-related, it has grown far beyond that, and we are looking carefully at what can be done to address straw purchasing beyond the intimate partner type that we have seen traditionally in the past."