CEDAR RAPIDS – The rising number of deaths due to unintentional shootings connected to drug users with guns has gotten the attention of the U.S. attorney in Iowa.
Between 2015 and 2017, there was a nationwide increase in the number of deaths due to unintentional shootings, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Iowa. Unfortunately, Iowa has not been immune to this trend. Unintentional shootings with illegally possessed guns present a danger to everyone in our community, but especially to children. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa and its law enforcement partners are committed to continuing to make Iowa safer by addressing this problem through the enforcement of all federal laws limiting who can possess firearms. Under federal law it is illegal for an unlawful drug user to possess a firearm. Four recent prosecutions involving unlawful drug users in possession of firearms highlight the risks associated with these types of violations as well as the commitment to deterring future violations.
The four cases, described in more detail below, are the investigation and prosecution of Daniel Henriksen, 30, from Elgin, Iowa; Robyn Lynn Merchant, 55, from Vinton, Iowa; Raven Harris, 27, and Willie Earl Horsley, Sr., 31, both from Dubuque, Iowa, and Dale Edward White, 26, from Nashua, Iowa. All of these cases involved an unintentional shooting resulting in death or serious injury, and all of these cases involved the possession of a firearm by an illegal drug user. The cases demonstrate why guns and drugs are a dangerous combination.
“Federal law prohibits certain people from owning or even handling guns,” said United States Attorney Peter E. Deegan, Jr. “These include not only unlawful drug users, but convicted felons, convicted domestic abusers, persons with certain mental health histories, and illegal aliens. All of these shootings – including those resulting in the deaths of children – would have been avoided if the people involved had been following the law.” Deegan added, “As these cases also demonstrate, the consequences of illegally possessing a gun can include a felony conviction, going to federal prison, and being under court supervision for years. These cases highlight the commitment of local, state, and federal law enforcement to continue the fight against gun crime and to make our streets safer as part of Project Safe Neighborhood.”
The four recent prosecutions are:
- On February 23, 2015, Robyn Lynn Merchant provided her 16-year-old son with a Walther HK MP5 .22 caliber rifle. The following day, police responded to Merchant’s residence in Vinton after receiving a 911 call that a shooting had taken place. When police arrived, they discovered a 14-year-old girl had been shot in an upstairs bedroom. That bedroom belonged to Merchant’s 16-year-old son. Merchant’s son was present in his bedroom at the time of the shooting. Also present in the bedroom were two additional 16-year-old males. The 14-year-old girl eventually died as a result of the gunshot wound.
At the time Merchant provided her son with the firearm, he was an unlawful user of marijuana. Her son regularly used marijuana in Merchant’s home, and a urine sample obtained from him the night of the shooting tested positive for marijuana. The night of the shooting, police saw evidence of recent drug and alcohol use in plain view in Merchant’s son’s bedroom. Police eventually seized a marijuana smoking pipe, drug paraphernalia, approximately seven ounces of marijuana individually packaged into eight separate plastic bags, and drug packaging materials from the bedroom. During the investigation, law enforcement learned that Merchant and her son conspired with each other to distribute marijuana from their residence. Some of their customers included other high school students who were friends of Merchant’s son.
On May 23, 2016, Merchant pled guilty to transferring a firearm to a prohibited person (a drug user). Merchant was sentenced on October 24, 2016, in Cedar Rapids by United States District Court Chief Judge Linda R. Reade. Merchant was sentenced to 46 months’ imprisonment. She must also serve a three-year term of supervised release after the prison term.
- On January 2, 2016, police responded to Dale Edward White’s residence after receiving a 911 call regarding a shooting. Prior to the call, White and his father were handling a .22 caliber rifle in the living room of the residence they shared. The firearm was loaded with .22 caliber ammunition. During the handling of the firearm, the firearm unintentionally discharged, striking White’s father who eventually died as a result of this injury. During the investigation, police seized 49 firearms from White’s residence. These firearms included handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Police also seized evidence consistent with drug use. At the time he possessed these firearms, White was a user of methamphetamine and marijuana.
On April 27, 2016, White pled guilty to possessing a firearm and ammunition as a drug user. On August 31, 2016, he was sentenced in Cedar Rapids by United States District Court Judge Linda R. Reade. White was sentenced to 47 months’ imprisonment. He must also serve a three-year term of supervised release after the prison term.
- On January 3, 2016, police responded to the residence of Raven Harris and Willie Earl Horsley, Sr., after receiving a 911 call regarding a shooting. Horsley and Harris were both unlawful users of marijuana and kept in their residence a .45 caliber pistol. Horsley and Harris had left the firearm in their bedroom, accessible to their minor children. The children began playing with the firearm, which led to the shooting of Horsley and Harris’ two-year-old son. The child suffered multiple injuries and was airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospitals for treatment.
On April 20, 2016, both Harris and Horsley pled guilty to being drug users in possession of a firearm and ammunition. On August 30, 2016, they were each sentenced in Cedar Rapids to a five-year term of probation by United States District Court Judge Linda R. Reade. On November 14, 2017, Judge Reade found that Horsley had violated the terms of his probation and sentenced him to 9 months’ imprisonment to be followed by a two-year term of supervised release.
- On June 17, 2016, law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel responded to Daniel Henriksen’s home in Elgin after receiving a 911 call reporting that a four-year-old boy had shot himself in the head. Once at the residence, they located a child suffering from a gunshot wound to his head. The child was transported to Palmer Lutheran Hospital in West Union, Iowa, where he was later pronounced dead. Investigators determined that Henriksen was the owner of the firearm used in the shooting. During a search of Henriksen’s residence, officers seized several items of drug paraphernalia, including marijuana smoking devices. Several of these items were analyzed at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Criminalistics Laboratory and tested positive for marijuana.
On September 1, 2017, Henriksen pled guilty to being a drug user in possession of a firearm, specifically the Glock 36 .45 caliber handgun used in the shooting. Henriksen was sentenced on February 21, 2017, in Cedar Rapids by United States District Court Chief Judge Leonard T. Strand. Henriksen was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. He must also serve a three-year term of supervised release after the prison term.
There is no parole in the federal system.
These cases were prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Lisa C. Williams and were investigated by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office (Henriksen); the Vinton Police Department, the Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Department of Homeland Security, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (Merchant); the Dubuque Police Department (Harris and Horsley); and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Nashua Police Department, the Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office, and the Iowa State Patrol (White).