CHICAGO _ As he sold four handguns in a South Side parking lot last year, Levaine Tanksley boasted to his customer that there were plenty more illicit weapons available, investigators say.
"Twenty-five more in four hours," Tanksley told his customer, who was secretly working for law enforcement and recording the conversation. "Give me $5,000 and you can put your order in then. I'll get you whatever, give me a list."
As Tanksley, who police say has ties to a Chicago street gang, made his sales pitch, David Lewisbey was stocking up on more weapons at a gun show 40 miles away in Crown Point, Ind., one of several trips he made across the state border and back in little more than a day, according to federal authorities. Five hours later, Lewisbey, an unlikely gun trafficker then enrolled in college, was back in Chicago as Tanksley made good on his promise and sold the informant nine more guns, authorities allege.
A federal indictment charges the two with illegally selling 43 firearms to the government informant in just under 26 hours, a volume made possible by gun shows and less restrictive state laws in Indiana, by far the No. 1 source of out-of-state guns used in crimes in Cook County. Private gun sales in Indiana don't require background checks, a waiting period or even a record of the transaction.
The scheme exposed by law enforcement illustrates the tidal wave of illegal guns confronting Chicago police as they battle surging numbers of homicides and shootings. With the country poised to respond to gun violence stretching from a first-grade classroom in Newtown, Conn., to Harsh Park on Chicago's South Side, allegations of the duo's lucrative enterprise provide a textbook example of how criminals can exploit existing gun laws to put society's most vulnerable at even greater risk.
"(Lewisbey) would go travel to Indiana, to these gun shows where he would load up literally a duffel bag, go from table to table paying in cash, large amounts of cash ... before returning right into the worst neighborhoods of Chicago," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Parente said at a recent detention hearing in federal court. "He would sell them literally in the back alley and on the side streets."
K's Merchandise, a big-box department store on a busy commercial strip outside Fort Wayne, Ind., has been shut for some time. But on a recent Friday, a crowd swelled inside as shoppers slowly browsed hundreds of tables under bright fluorescent lights.
Gone were jewelry cases and electronics. Instead, spit-shined Sig Sauers, Glocks, Berettas and Rugers were spread across tables in neat rows. For collectors, there were novelties like an 1881 French pistol, Dirty Harry-style .44 Magnums and a Browning small enough to tuck into a palm. Rifles were perched on racks with care. One man walked the floor with an AR-15 slung on his back, a white flag poking out of the barrel offering it up for sale.
Some customers gripped the handguns for a feel and chatted with friendly, folksy sellers. Families strolled among the mostly male crowd, and there was a gathering space in the back to grab coffee, a chocolate bar or a hot dog.
The atmosphere was friendly and small-town _ almost like a farmers market.
Tucked among many of the weapons displays were signs in bold lettering that read "Private Sales," "Cash Only" or "Private Collections."
The signs signaled to shoppers that there wouldn't necessarily be a background check or paperwork involved in a purchase, a crucial element for an illegal gun-trafficking scheme and thus a highly troubling aspect of gun shows for law enforcement and gun-control advocates alike.
Some shows insist on background checks even for private transfers, but law enforcement experts said buyers and sellers commonly move transactions to the parking lot.
"They are like an arms bazaar," said Paul Helmke, Fort Wayne's former mayor and onetime president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We make it very, very easy for dangerous people to get guns."
According to federal law, dealers who hold a federal firearms license must run a phone background check on gun buyers and have customers fill out Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Form 4473, promising they have no criminal background or mental illness, said ATF spokesman Thomas Ahern. But an Indiana resident who wants to sell or transfer a gun from his or her private collection only needs to see an Indiana state ID first. There is no limit to how many guns can be transferred.
And even dealers in Indiana don't have to make customers wait to take possession of a handgun. Illinois, by contrast, mandates a 72-hour waiting period.
According to court documents, Lewisbey met a gun seller at the Indianapolis 1500 Gun and Knife Show in March 2012 and bought six guns after showing an Indiana state ID _ although prosecutors believe the document was fake because Lewisbey lived in Illinois. Over the next two months, Lewisbey bought 30 to 40 more guns from the same person, including two exchanges at McDonald's parking lots in Indiana, the charges alleged.
Then, over a 26-hour period on April 22 and 23, Lewisbey teamed up with Tanksley to make five different sales to the informant, collecting $38,000 in cash in all, authorities said.
Lewisbey and Tanksley have both pleaded not guilty.
The number of guns Tanksley had access to stunned veteran law enforcement officers. Some believe it is one of the larger gun-running cases in recent history in Chicago. A task force including Chicago police officers, Illinois State Police troopers and ATF agents unraveled the scheme.
The trail led them straight over the border to Indiana, which has drawn increasing attention from law enforcement here.
"If you take the next five states after Indiana and add them up, they still don't equal the amount of guns that have come from Indiana," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who recently headed a "gun summit" in Gary that drew more than 25 Illinois and Indiana law enforcement agencies to talk about how to stem the tide.
"There is no law prohibiting us from having a covert presence at these shows, looking for license plates, trying to identify patterns (and) people selling out of their car trunks," Dart said. "The Constitution doesn't require us to close our eyes and jam our heads in the sand."
According to the federal charges, Lewisbey's cellphone was pinging off cell towers in Indiana on days that Tanksley was selling guns in Chicago _ either at a Chinatown parking lot or near a home in the 6800 block of South Langley Avenue. A van rented by Lewisbey was also spotted on Langley on the days of sales, authorities said.
Traces done on the 43 guns revealed that half were bought in Indiana _ 13 of them by the Indiana seller Lewisbey had met in March.
But that is believed to be the tip of Lewisbey's trafficking scheme, authorities said. Parente, in arguing that Lewisbey be held without bail, said he had been active for four years and had more than one source at the gun shows.
Lewisbey's attorney conceded that the volume of guns involved in the scheme is troubling, but he said the government has not provided evidence that Lewisbey supplied the guns to Tanksley.
"He rented a van, but we don't know who drove it. Nobody saw him with the cellphone. Nobody saw him in the van," said attorney John Beal. "It's truly not clear to me that (Lewisbey) knew where they were ending up."
How the alleged partnership between Tanksley and Lewisbey blossomed is less clear, because the two have sharply contrasting life stories.
"There is little if any connection (between them)," Beal said.
Tanksley was convicted in Cook County as part of a large drug-trafficking scheme in 2006 at the Harold Ickes Homes, according to court records. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Lewisbey, meanwhile, had one previous arrest for possession of a fake credit card. An offensive lineman nicknamed "Big Dave," he went to the University of Kansas on a football scholarship after graduating from high school in 2008. But he soon left the school and enrolled at the College of DuPage in 2009, which he attended for a year and a half, according to a court filing by Beal.
Later he went to the University of Houston but was forced to drop out in the fall of 2012 because of financial difficulties. Still, just before his arrest, Lewisbey was set to resume his studies there after his family helped him resolve his tuition problems.
"Mr. Lewisbey has strong family ties," Beal wrote in a filing that unsuccessfully sought his release on bail.
Investigators believe the two have ties that go far back, but their link was greed, they said. The charges against Lewisbey show he felt comfortable navigating the gun show world, but he needed a connection on Chicago streets to sell the guns _ and he found that in Tanksley, investigators said.
For gun control advocates, the trafficking scheme highlights the need for universal background checks for gun purchases _ a key part of President Barack Obama's proposed legislation.
But Indiana gun owners historically have fought hard to protect an individual's right to sell guns without government oversight, and experts suspect they will continue to do so even in the current climate following the massacre in Newtown and the death of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago.
Bob Pfefferkorn, a retired maintenance supervisor and Army veteran who was recently selling firearms at K's Merchandise, falls somewhere in between the two sides of the heated argument.
Pfefferkorn, who has an easy smile, said he would not raise much of an objection if he were told he had to do background checks. But he believes he knows how to read a gun customer and tell whether the prospective buyer is suspicious _ and he is even more careful when selling close to the Illinois border.
"I look them in the eye," he said. "I ask them, 'What are you going to use the gun for?' "
Just minutes before a man in his 20s put down a $100 deposit on a Sig Sauer handgun, Pfefferkorn said he believes the government ought to pass tougher penalties for criminals caught with a gun instead of poking around private sales of firearms.
Investigators believe that over the four years he allegedly was engaged in gun trafficking, Lewisbey sold dozens _ possibly hundreds _ of guns in Chicago. Many are believed to have wound up in Englewood. The investigation started in that South Side neighborhood in 2011 and is continuing. Authorities are still checking on where Lewisbey's guns ended up and if any were used in crimes.
But one does not have to look far for signs of gun violence on the streets where Tanksley and Lewisbey are accused of running their criminal enterprise.
Englewood's tragic story has been told over and over. Its police district typically has among the highest homicide totals in the city.
And on the Langley block in nearby Woodlawn, where Tanksley is alleged to have sold weapons to the government informant, longtime resident Barbara Aliotti said gun violence may not be a daily occurrence, but it's a constant threat. She hears echoes of gunfire in the summer when her air conditioning is turned off. She can point to where her neighbor's family lost an 18-year-old son to gun violence in 2011. On a recent day, a nearby van is riddled with bullet holes.
Aliotti has no problem with law-abiding citizens owning guns. But sitting in her sunny front room, she couldn't quite understand why it was so easy to buy handguns at a gun show.
"I believe if you want to have a gun, you have to have a thorough background check," she said, "And you should go out and learn how to use it."
Sgt. David Betz, a Chicago gang intelligence officer whose unit investigated Lewisbey and Tanksley, said he is confident that their arrests saved lives, perhaps even some innocent victims. If the informant had not bought them, the 43 handguns would have wound up in the hands of gang members intent on using the weapons to protect drug territory or target rivals, he said.
"The problem is when you shoot at rivals, there's always a chance a Hadiya Pendleton gets shot in the crossfire," he said.