Ex-East Coast employee pleads guilty to gun thefts

A former employee of the now defunct East Coast Gun Sales pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing firearms and cash to buy drugs.

Justin D. McElheny, 35, of 300 Hopkins St., Irvona, pleaded guilty to charges of theft from a federal firearms licensee and unlawful possession of firearms by a user of unlawful controlled substances.

Police said McElheny stole cash and 72 firearms, including pistols, revolvers and rifles, from the store between December 2007 and Oct. 15, 2011, when he was fired. The store moved from Duncansville to Altoona in 2011.

McElheny pocketed cash and money orders while using customers’ credit cards to purchase guns, police said.

He then used the money to purchase prescription drugs and other items, including a Parker crossbow and two Marline firearms, police said.

“One of the ways illegal guns get into the hands of criminals is when illegal drug users trade guns that have been bought or stolen for controlled substances,” said U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton in a press release. “In this case, the defendant was a prescription drug abuser who stole 72 firearms from his employer, a federally licensed firearms dealer, and either sold them for cash to purchase drugs or traded them to acquire drugs.”

Hickton added, “Fortunately, the vast majority of the firearms have been recovered.”

McElheny was in possession of prescription pills, including Percocet, OxyContin, Roxicet and Vicodin, while in possession of the stolen firearms, police said.

McElheny could be sentenced to pay a $500,000 fine, serve a prison sentence of up to 20 years or both, Hickton said.

His attorney, Thomas M. Dickey, said McElheny is remorseful for what happened. His client was cooperative with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials during the yearlong investigation and helped recover most of the stolen and traded firearms, Dickey said.

The guilty plea was in McElheny’s best interest, Dickey said. As part of the plea, Dickey said he did not anticipate his client facing additional drug charges.

Police said McElheny traded the weapons for prescription drugs and also sold the firearms through GunBroker.com.

For online sales, McElheny asked customers to write checks and money orders in his name, instead of East Coast Gun Sales.

McElheny used customers’ credit card numbers in numerous fraudulent purchases in the store after telling co-workers he had either forgotten or did not have his physical credit card, police said.

McElheny is a relative of East Coast owners, James and Deborah Faith, police said.

Attempts to reach the Faiths were unsuccessful Wednesday.

McElheny is free on $25,000 unsecured bond until his sentencing on June 27.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.