Commentary

Milwaukee’s sister city sent the gun that killed Sandra Parks

January 25, 2024 5:15 am
Bernice Parks, whose 13-year-old daughter, Sandra, was killed by a stray bullet that struck her after piercing a window to her home is shown at a Memorial Concert for Milwaukee's Killing of Innocents Friday, December 21, 2018 at All People's Lutheran Church, 2600 N. 2nd St. in Milwaukee, Wis. | Photo by Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. PHOTO MAY NOT BE REPUBLISHED

Bernice Parks, whose 13-year-old daughter, Sandra, was killed by a stray bullet that struck her after piercing a window to her home is shown at a Memorial Concert for Milwaukee’s Killing of Innocents Friday, December 21, 2018 at All People’s Lutheran Church, 2600 N. 2nd St. in Milwaukee, Wis. | Photo by Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. PHOTO USED BY PERMISSION MAY NOT BE REPUBLISHED

When I first learned about the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Sandra Parks in 2018, one of the most urgent questions I had was about the origin of the AK-47 style weapon that ended the Milwaukee eighth-grader’s life.

More specifically, I wanted to know how the weapon got into the hands of a convicted felon who used it in a vendetta to recklessly fire six shots into Sandra’s home on N. 13th St., where one of the bullets shattered her bedroom window and struck her in the upper body.

Those questions were all the more pressing given the fact that Sandra’s killing had made headlines around the world. This was due to the fact that two years prior to being fatally shot, Sandra had written an award-winning essay in which she decried the very gun violence that ultimately claimed her life.

“In the city in which I live, I hear and see examples of chaos almost every day,” Sandra stated in her essay, which won third place in Milwaukee’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. writing contest. “Little children are victims of senseless gun violence.”After months of haggling, Milwaukee police finally released records showing that the gun used to kill Sandra Parks was made nearly 5,000 miles away by Zastava Arms, a military weapons manufacturer in Kragujevac, Serbia. Just as Sandra’s story had global appeal, my investigation found that the story of the gun that was used in her slaying was international as well.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I read that Milwaukee leaders are set to formalize a “sister city” relationship with Kragujevac, Serbia. The ceremony is scheduled to take place at 11:30 a.m. Central Standard Time on Friday, Jan. 26 in the Common Council Chambers at Milwaukee’s City Hall.

As an investigative reporter with a keen interest in gun trace data and an abiding affinity for my native Milwaukee, the city’s pending sister city relationship with Kragujevac struck me as a prime opportunity to revisit what I found out about the origin of the gun used in Sandra’s tragic death. Somehow I thought Milwaukee’s elected officials – who profess to want to make the city “safer and safer”  – would be interested in discussing potential policies and strategies to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

I was sadly mistaken.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson – through a spokesman – cast aspersions on my inquiry into whether his administration would use its new sister city relationship with Kragujevac to explore ways to stem the flow of assault-style weapons from Serbia onto the streets of Milwaukee, even though federal data show Serbia exported nearly 47,000 guns to the U.S. in 2020 alone.

“It is invidious disparagement to link the Milwaukee and Kragujevac sister city relationship with the criminal abuse of automatic weapons from a Serbian military arms manufacturer,” a spokesman for the mayor told me in a statement.

“Weapons like those manufactured by Zastava Arms have been used to commit horrific crimes in this country including the death of Sandra Parks here in Milwaukee more than five years ago,” the spokesman said. “Would Milwaukee be safer if criminals did not possess automatic weapons?  Of course. Would chastising the leaders of a sister city make us safer? No.”

To be clear, I never suggested that anyone from Milwaukee “chastise” anyone from Kragujevac. I simply asked the mayor: “Since fighting gun violence is one of Milwaukee’s top priorities, what, if any, role do you envision or would you welcome for Kragujevac’s municipal government and Zastava’s corporate leadership in aiding Milwaukee as their ‘sister city’ in this cause?”

I also asked Mayor Johnson if he was going to ask Zastava and Kragujevac city leaders for information on how many of Zastava’s weapons have contributed to the carnage we see in Milwaukee. 

“Are you interested in knowing and do you care?” I asked. After all, if Milwaukee and Kragujevac are gonna be “sisters,” they ought to be able to have those kinds of difficult “family” discussions.

Mayor Johnson isn’t the only one who expressed zero interest in talking to Kragujevac officials about ways to stop Serbian weapons from being used to wreak havoc in U.S. cities.

Alderpersons Russell Stamper, Jr. and  Marina Dimitrijevic – co-chairs of Milwaukee’s sister cities committee – both ignored my repeated requests for comment, which I made via email, phone calls and text messages.

Kragujevac Mayor Nikola Daŝić from Kragujevac also did not respond to an email request for comment.

Ald. Stamper’s silence is particularly disquieting given the fact that the home where Sandra was killed is located within his aldermanic district, which he represented at the time of her death. What’s more, Ald. Stamper’s biography states that he “mentors many youth in the city of Milwaukee” and is “committed to cultivating opportunities that will improve the quality of life for young people.”

Stamper also seeks to distinguish himself from his Common Council colleagues by styling himself as a politician who represents those who’ve been shut out of equal opportunity. You’d expect a little more than silence.

How the gun that was used to kill Sandra Parks ended up in the hands of her killer is anyone’s guess.

When I first filed an open records request for the trace report on the gun, the Milwaukee Police Department denied it, saying the report had been provided “confidentially” by the ATF.

Any “unauthorized redisclosure” of the trace report, the police department told me, would impair the department’s “future ability to obtain firearms trace information from ATF.” They also told me it would “significantly impair other cooperative law enforcement efforts between MPD and ATF.”

I didn’t accept that explanation. So I decided to seek help from a Wisconsin law firm that regularly helps journalists obtain public records. Fortunately, the firm took my case for free.

In the course of working on my case, I discovered that while the Milwaukee Police Department was denying me gun trace information for the gun in Sandra’s case, somehow several Milwaukee police officers who had been shot in the line of duty were able to get enough information to file several negligence lawsuits against the gun shops that sold the guns that were used to shoot the officers.

In fact, in 2015, two Milwaukee police officers — Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch — won a landmark case in which a jury ordered a gun shop to pay the injured officers nearly $6 million after finding the store liable for negligence. The officers later settled for $1 million to avoid lengthy appeals.

At least the officers got their day in court. The rest of America is being denied information that could help them take action and seek justice against negligent gun dealers. That’s because Congress –—at the behest of the gun lobby — has been engaged in an ongoing coverup of data that could show links between the gun industry and the illicit gun market, which is helping to fuel the American carnage that city leaders say they are trying to end.

The federal cover up began around 2004 as cities like Chicago had been preparing to pursue public nuisance lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, distributors, dealers and importers.

A Republican congressman from Kansas, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, came up with a solution to stop the cities from taking the gun industry to court. It was done by placing a “gun rider” on an appropriations bill. The rider — now known as the “Tiahrt Amendment” — restricts gun trace data from being released to the public or being used in lawsuits. Those provisions are just what was wanted by America’s powerful gun lobby, which has spent millions of dollars bending the ears of mostly Republican Congressmen, and $1.8 million in 2023 alone.

Congress left little doubt about the intent behind the Tiahrt Amendment, which states that ATF trace data “shall be inadmissible in evidence, and shall not be used, relied on, or disclosed in any manner, nor shall testimony or other evidence be permitted based on the data, in a civil action in any State (including the District of Columbia) or Federal court.”

Metaphorically, if America’s gun industry was a single gun, the Tiahrt Amendment would be its silencer.

The police records that I obtained only indicate that the gun was made by Zastava in Serbia and imported into the U.S. by Century Arms International, a military surplus weapons outlet located in a small town in Vermont.

Of the two rifles that police recovered from Isaac Barnes, the Milwaukee man ultimately convicted in Sandra’s death, one had a serial number that had been scratched off. The other — the one that ballistics tests identified as the weapon that fired the bullets that took Sandra’s life — is a rifle known as a PAP M92 PV.

The gun’s serial number is MA2PV060327. The cartridges it fires are 7.62x39mm in caliber. That’s about the length of an AAA battery, but slightly thinner. 

Both Zastava and Century Arms International have been in the news after weapons they handled or manufactured or modified wound up being used in mass shootings. For instance, weapons handled by Century were used in the Garlic festival shooting of 2019. Zastava-made firearms were used in the Paris attacks of 2015.

But how the rifle that was used in Sandra’s case ended up in Wisconsin was not revealed. Isaac Barnes, the man convicted in Sandra’s death, refused to tell me how he acquired the weapon, instead choosing to honor the “street code” that says you don’t tell on your partners in crime.

“I got my firearm off the streets,” Barnes told me during a videoconference interview that I recorded. “I got that firearm for four hundred bucks.”

I asked why he needed so much firepower.

“It’s a lot of things going down in Milwaukee,” Barnes said. “It’s like with one of those you could just kill the whole situation. More bullets. More firepower. That’s just how I see it.”

Barnes expressed remorse for the death of Sandra Parks and said he was aiming at someone else whom he claims had shot at him. That person died in 2023, court records show.

“It just hurt just to know that a little girl lost her life for no reason and I was the one that did that,” Barnes told me. “That bothers me. That hurts my soul, man.”

Even the small amount of information that I got from the police about the gun provides some insight. For instance, of the 6.8 million foreign-made firearms imported into the U.S. in 2020, 46,799 – a little more than half a percent – came from Serbia, according to the ATF.

Based on those statistics, one could argue that Serbian-made weapons have a less than 1% chance of being used in a crime in the U.S., and an even smaller chance of being used in a homicide in Milwaukee. Then again, there was an infinitesimally small chance that a Serbian-made weapon would be used to fire a bullet that would find its way into the bedroom of a 13-year-old Milwaukee girl who decried gun violence in an award-winning essay. But here we are.

The surreal story of Sandra’s death made her a martyr in the battle to curb gun violence. But whether it will spur any significant political action remains to be seen. So far it hasn’t.

And based on Milwaukee’s elected officials’ reluctance to have a substantive conversation about the rifle that found its way from Kragujevac to a Milwaukee neighborhood, I don’t think it ever will.

Mayor Johnson doesn’t have to sit idly by and not ask questions about the origin of the guns that are killing kids in Milwaukee. He could follow the example of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who recently sued the ATF for gun trace data on the top ten sources of guns being used in homicides and other crimes committed in the City of Baltimore.

Instead, Mayor Johnson and Alderman Stamper seem determined to  protect some sort of make-believe “sister” relationship with a Serbian city 5,000 miles away. Meanwhile, real-life sisters like Sandra Parks have to live in fear of bullets that could shatter their bedroom window without warning and end their precious lives.

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Jamaal Abdul-Alim
Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is an award-winning journalist who hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He broke into the news business as a crime reporter at the old Milwaukee Sentinel during his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee ('96). He covered higher education for more than a decade, mostly as a freelancer in Washington, D.C., during the Obama and Trump administrations. His articles have appeared in publications that range from The Wall Street Journal to US News & World Report.

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