Packed with rifles and explosives, the SUV hurtled down a Florida interstate beneath bright blue autumn skies, passing other motorists with little notice.
It was November 2018, and the driver, Tyler Sumlin, was uncomfortable. Clammy. The husky, bearded former U.S. Army soldier was getting a cold, and understandably tense: He was transporting a platoon’s worth of stolen rifles, enough C4 to blow up his car and those around him, a live hand grenade.
He would recall thinking, “Is it too late to turn around?”
Riding shotgun was Sumlin’s military blood brother, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Jarvis, a soldier on active-duty from Fort Bragg’s 18th Ordnance Company in North Carolina — Sumlin’s old unit.
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
The two men, who’d been close since they served in Afghanistan, tried to distract themselves with idle road-trip chatter. Their wives, war stories, favorite movies.
A few months earlier, Jarvis had reached out to ask if Sumlin had interest in making some money. Jarvis was looking to sell stolen military equipment from an armory at Bragg.
Sumlin said he might be able to find a buyer.
Now they were headed to El Paso, Texas, to sell the stolen weapons. The two men had heard from contacts that the customers were taking the haul into Mexico.
In a series of stories, The Associated Press has detailed how the U.S. military has a problem with missing and stolen guns and explosives, and how some weapons have been used in domestic crime.
But the inside story of how two men who’d forged a deep bond amid the violence of the battlefield attempted to sell stolen Army weapons reveals another kind of threat: an organized group of soldiers and veterans taking advantage of flaws in the military’s system to make fast money.
This story is based on extensive interviews, text messages associated with a federal criminal case, private Facebook group messages, court records and documents from military investigative proceedings.
While information about Sumlin and Jarvis has come to light before, this account offers new details about a case that left other soldiers appalled and enraged — betrayed, they believed, by two of their own.
A photograph captures a day in 2009 as Sumlin and Jarvis sat together on a rock in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. A rifle rests on Sumlin’s lap, and he wears a tactical vest, his T-shirt sleeves cut off to expose a farmer’s tan and tattoo on his left shoulder. Jarvis is off to his side, his rifle in hand.
The two young men had become brothers amid the breakneck tempo of wartime Afghanistan. Sumlin and Jarvis specialized in explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, the kind of work — with its stifling, hulking bomb suits — given the Hollywood treatment in “The Hurt Locker.”
Their work eliminating improvised explosive devices set by the Taliban was nonstop, and gave them little time to process what they saw, heard and smelled. It was a pressure cooker of a job inside a pressure cooker, intense even in the high stakes world of the battlefield. They stashed traumatic experiences and images deep inside themselves, and their comradery helped blunt the stress.
When they returned stateside both struggled with adjusting to the slower pace of life. Like many soldiers, they found some balm in the friendship of others who’d seen what they’d seen.
Like many military subcultures, the tight-knit EOD community has its own code of conduct, ethics and language. Sumlin joined a private Facebook group where the EOD community commiserated, argued and pranked one another. They also held each other to account, debating whether a member’s conduct violated the brotherhood’s code.
Sumlin left the Army in December 2017, but deployed again to do bomb disposal with a private defense contracting company.
Meanwhile, Jarvis remained in the Army. At Fort Bragg, home to some of the Army’s most elite units, Jarvis worked in an armory. And that gave him access to a wealth of military firearms, parts and other equipment such as night vision goggles and explosives.
Inside the Fort Bragg armory, Jarvis took photographs of weaponry — and then he stole it, and set out to sell it.
His buddy, Sumlin, sent the photos and an inventory list of the pilfered weapons and explosives to an accomplice who called himself “Mr. Anderson.” Anderson, a former Army combat engineer who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of several other soldiers or veterans connected to the scheme.
In May 2018, Sumlin and Jarvis began mining their contacts to offload the haul. They would find a promising lead with the help of a man identified as “Evan,” who they hadn’t met but who said he had connections with a willing buyer.
“Inventory: NVG-13, Aimpoint-8, ACOG-18, PEQ2A-10, DD Rail-24, DD-Barrel-15, Various Troy toys,” Anderson texted Evan, including Jarvis’ photos. The letters and numbers described a litany of arms and night vision goggles, rifle optics and lasers designed for aiming, and rifle parts.
“Wow, items are good, any idea on price if I took everything?” Evan texted back.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from him,” Anderson wrote, referring to Sumlin.
Over the next few days, the conversation continued, copies of messages show. Anderson and Evan complained about the weapons’ high prices. They sounded paranoid when they discussed dealing with amateur gun dealers like Sumlin and Jarvis, and feared they would attract attention from law enforcement.
“As soon as he named his price (for the gunsights) I thought he was joking since they’re definitely USED,” Anderson wrote. “I’m not sure if it’s his first time or not. But it’s the last time I ask around for (Sumlin).”
After a few days, Evan said he’d found a buyer who wanted it. All of it.
What Anderson didn’t know is that Evan was a longtime confidential informant working with Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
In his communication with Sumlin and Anderson, Evan said, he represented a buyer who claimed to be connected to narcotraffickers. (Sumlin has denied that the weapons were meant to be sold to drugrunners.)
“I didn’t know (the buyer) was south of Texas,” Anderson wrote.
“Yep he goes between Texas and Mexico all the time,” Evan wrote back.
“I wouldn’t sell anything to anyone down there,” Anderson replied.
“Lol … well he has always been a cash buyer without question and never any issues at all,” Evan responded. “It sounds like they’ve made a deal.”
“I hope so. They still have to meet and conclude,” wrote Anderson.
By mid-November 2018, Jarvis had rented a Chevy Tahoe SUV in North Carolina and drove the stolen cache south. He met Sumlin in Inverness, a small town in central Florida’s lakes region, so they could prepare the weapons for sale, according to a federal criminal complaint.
Sumlin would say he and Jarvis had initially sought $250,000 for the firearms and explosives. After some back-and-forth, they settled on a much lower price: $75,000.
It seemed a paltry amount, considering the risk, but the weapons sale may have been just one in which they were involved. According to the Army Criminal Investigation Division’s case file, Jarvis and Sumlin would later tell agents about “criminal transactions” in Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Texas. In the document, another soldier confessed to stealing multiple rifle optic systems and a bomb suit, which were given to Sumlin.
In Florida, Jarvis and Sumlin cleaned the firearms to remove their fingerprints. They also paid to have some parts modified to fit the rifles. With the cache assembled, cleaned, packed in storage containers and loaded for delivery, the men got into the SUV for the 24-hour drive to Texas.
Arriving in El Paso, they pulled into a truck stop the morning of Nov. 14, 2018. A man they thought was the buyers’ contact, known as Andy, waited with some others. They told Sumlin and Jarvis to follow them to a nearby warehouse — and into the trap.
There, the agents confirmed that the two men were indeed carrying multiple firearms, military equipment and C4 plastic explosives. A SWAT team pounced, arrested them and secured the cache.
Homeland Security agents seized more than 30 firearms; several blocks of C4; a hand grenade; shaped charges; body armor; night vision devices; binoculars; ammunition; lasers and magazines. In Mexico, where drug traffickers have fought openly, the equipment could unleash carnage.
Yet the weapons recovered did not account for all that was missing from Bragg’s armory. According to the report by Army criminal investigators, the items stolen between Sumlin, Jarvis and their accomplices between 2014 and 2018 were valued at close to $180,000. But the U.S. government only recovered roughly $26,000 worth.
The Army referred questions to Homeland Security Investigations, which initially promised to discuss the case with AP, then canceled the interview and, later, did not respond to written questions.
Jarvis and Sumlin were indicted on eight different federal charges, including conspiracy and gunrunning.
“Holy hell they had to be planning a crazy something for sure,” Evan texted a Homeland Security agent.
“Boss is extremely happy ... It was a good hit,” the agent replied. “Bad guys thought we were narco traffickers from Mexico ... Using their weapons against troops.”
Sumlin posted bail and returned to his Florida home to pick up the pieces. He faced a possible 70 years in prison, and struggled under the weight of PTSD.
He logged onto the EOD community's private Facebook group page and saw a message directed at him.
“Dude is this you?” an EOD brother asked.
There on the page for everyone to see was a copy of his indictment, which had not been made public or attracted any media attention.
“Yup,” Sumlin typed.
“Mistakes were made,” a fellow EOD member responded, glibly.
“Alot of them,” Sumlin wrote.
In the months after the arrests, word had swirled in the small EOD community about fellow soldiers who’d tried to sell firearms and explosives. But the Army sent no official press release and there were no news reports. The chatter was dismissed as a rumor traded among troops.
The indictment confirmed the rumor, and some of Sumlin’s brethren were livid. Explosive ordnance disposal technicians work on the border amid Mexican drug-related violence. What if the weapons had ended up with narcos? They might have been used against the good guys.
“Bro, (obscenity) you AND your service. You’re a piece of (obscenity),” wrote one EOD group member. “You betrayed everyone you ever worked with as soon as you tried to sell weapons and explosives to a cartel.”
In response, Sumlin indicated there had been six others involved in the conspiracy. Pressed to identify them, he refused.
Why, asked another community member, was he protecting the other conspirators?
“I’d like to hope they learned from what’s going to happen to me,” Sumlin explained. He said he didn’t think any of them had been arrested, and he wanted to keep it that way. He hoped his and Jarvis’ punishment would dissuade them from future arms dealings.
For many in the EOD community, Sumlin’s mea culpa and excuses about needing money were not enough. He had crossed a line by selling items that could have killed one of their own.
Sumlin and Jarvis had faced decades in prison, but both reached deals with federal prosecutors. They pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle goods from the United States.
The other seven counts were dropped. The maximum term was now 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
But they didn’t even get that.
Each was sentenced to five years’ probation, and Jarvis was ordered to mental health counseling and required to take prescribed medication.
Jarvis and Anderson did not return messages seeking comment. Sumlin declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a 2019 interview that he planned to finish his probation and complete a psychology degree.
“I want to try and help veterans that have lost their way and try to help veterans transition out of the military and back into civilian life ... people that have gone through the issues of losing that rush ... that spark in life,” he said.
The investigators, meanwhile, were incensed. They speculated that the federal judge was moved by the defendants’ service records and claims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t mind getting my ass kicked in court fair and square ... but when they take a plea agreement and admit to everything we charged him with ... I just don’t know what to say,” a federal agent wrote to Evan.
“It’s like if they pulled over (Timothy) McVeigh on the way to Oklahoma City … and gave him probation because he didn’t actually blow up the building,” Evan responded.
As for Sumlin’s insistence that drug traffickers were never discussed when he was negotiating the deal with undercover agents, Evan is adamant: The veteran was lying.
“They definitely planned to steal the weapons, the C4, the blasting caps and everything and they were going to sell it to the Mexican cartel, period,” Evan told the AP.
The legal record is unclear. Sumlin told federal officials he believed the weapons were going to be exported to Mexico. But the federal complaint does not mention drug cartels.
To Evan, Sumlin and Jarvis are terrorists. If they were Muslim or Black, he said, they wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.
“It was very frustrating that so many risked their lives, so many undercover people. There were all kinds of agencies involved and this is the outcome?” Evan wrote a Homeland Security agent. “There’s other guys who got much worse for much less.”
LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; contact him at https://twitter.com/JimLaPorta. Dearen reported from New York; contact him at https://twitter.com/JHDearen. Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.
Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at firstname.lastname@example.org or via https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.