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Lead suspect in ‘Fast and Furious’ probe released more than once

By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — Manuel Celis-Acosta, the chief suspect in the federal “Fast and Furious” investigation who was caught but released at the U.S.-Mexico border in May 2010, was also stopped and released two months earlier while in possession of a Colt .38-caliber pistol purchased illegally under the gun-tracking operation.

The revelation that officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives twice declined to arrest their prime suspect shows that agents were keenly aware of Celis-Acosta’s activities yet repeatedly turned down opportunities to charge him with felony offenses and bring a quick end to the Fast and Furious probe. Instead, the investigation dragged on for months more, with the loss of about 1,700 U.S. firearms on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The new disclosure was highlighted in a letter Thursday to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., as the two top congressional investigators on Fast and Furious demanded answers as to why Celis-Acosta was twice permitted to dodge arrest. It was sent by Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Fast and Furious was launched Oct. 31, 2009, and ran until a month after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in December 2010. Two Fast and Furious assault weapons were recovered after his slaying near the border.

The congressional leaders said they learned of the gun arrest from a list of “Overt Acts” of gun-smuggling suspects that was compiled by an ATF official during Fast and Furious.

“On April 2, 2010,” states one notation on the list, “a firearm purchased by Patino on March 26, 2010, was recovered by law enforcement officials and was possessed by Celis-Acosta.” The item gave no further information about the incident.

Patino was a reference to Uriel Patino. By the time of the March 26, 2010, stop, Patino had allegedly illegally purchased at least 434 weapons under Fast and Furious from cooperating gun dealers in the Phoenix area. The ATF says he eventually purchased a total of 720 weapons, more than any other person who illegally purchased weapons in the program.

Two months later, on May 29, 2010, Celis-Acosta was again stopped and questioned, this time at Lukeville, Ariz., by the top ATF agent working the Fast and Furious investigation. He was driving a BMW with 74 live rounds of ammunition and nine cellphones allegedly hidden inside. ATF Special Agent Hope MacAllister released him after he promised to cooperate in her investigation.

Patino and Celis-Acosta are among 19 people indicted in January 2010 in Fast and Furious. Both have pleaded not guilty.

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