Despite illegally selling nearly a dozen firearms, including one to a stranger who used it to kill a young man and injure a mother of two at an Ocala Pilot gas station in May 2021, gun trafficker and former Alachua jail guard Kenyari Brewton, 27, will avoid a prison term, according to the court’s decision made on May 20.
During the sentencing at the Marion County Courthouse, Judge John Antoon II merely required Brewton to work weekends for a year at the Brevard County Sheriff’s Farm and undergo three years of supervised release, according to the judge’s memorandum order. Because Brewton suffers the stigma of being a convicted felon, the conviction itself is punishment enough, Antoon II wrote in the order.
The judge also cited Brewton’s “history and characteristics” as reason for leniency, noting that despite growing up in a rough neighborhood, Brewton graduated high school with high honors and more than 2,000 community service hours. He then followed his mom and stepmom into becoming a law enforcement officer and worked other jobs during his time off.
“Until the events leading to his arrest, he appears to have been a model citizen,” Antoon II wrote.
While on release ahead of the sentencing, the judge wrote Brewton “made good use of his time,” enrolling in a commercial driver’s license course at Marion County Technical College March 18, the previous date for the sentencing. During the first hearing, Antoon II had “intended to impose a term of incarceration,” giving Brewton a year and a day in prison with six months served on home detention, but he let the hearing continue due to Brewton’s class.
“Because I did not want him to forfeit his tuition, and because I thought that completion of the course would result in his becoming more employable upon release from prison, I continued the hearing to allow him to complete the course,” Antoon II wrote.
Brewton completed the course at the top of his class and had three job offers by the time the hearing resumed May 20. The judge’s initial sentence, which he had believed was “most appropriate,” was no longer available, as the Probation Office cannot supervise professional drivers on home confinement.
While Antoon II wrote Brewton’s crimes did not justify leniency, he credited Brewton with improving himself even when facing prison time. The judge also cited Brewton’s good education and work history and his family’s support as signs he could maintain stable employment.
“Importantly, it is my belief that Mr. Brewton will not commit crimes in the future and that he does not pose a threat to public safety,” Antoon II wrote.
Both the prosecution and Brewton’s lawyer, Douglas Stamm, declined to comment.
“Our office does not wish to make any comments,” Amy Filjones, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email.
“I am not going to comment on the case,” wrote Douglas Stamm, Brewton’s lawyer, in an email.
Brewton could not be reached for comment, and his mother, Tonya Rawls, did not respond to requests for comment as well.
Between March 2, 2020, and April 26, 2021, Brewton bought 10 firearms from an Ocala gun store, Classic Pawn & Gun, using his law enforcement status to get discounts, according to the criminal complaint from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigates and prevents illegal use, production and possession of guns. Brewton had bought another seven firearms from the same business between March and November 2017.
The guns included 9mm pistols, an AK-47-style pistol and an AK-47-style rifle, according to ATF’s complaint. When Brewton bought them, he verified on each ATF Form 4473 or Firearm Transaction Record “that he was the actual transferee/buyer” of the firearms.
However, authorities discovered Brewton never intended to keep the guns, instead selling them for profit, sometimes to people he barely knew, according to Brewton’s plea agreement. Investigators searched Brewton’s phone and found texts between Brewton and those he agreed to buy guns for. Brewton told federal officials the AK-47 pistols he sold netted $150 to $200 per piece. He sold 10 of the 17 guns, according to ATF’s complaint.
Two guns Brewton sold were recovered from crime scenes, according to ATF’s complaint. One was a .40-caliber Glock pistol, which was used in the fatal shooting around 2 a.m. May 2, 2021, at the Ocala Pilot gas station at County Road 484, just west of Interstate 75. Zion Willis, 21, was killed, and Kwashonda Pearson, a mother, was hospitalized for 10 days, according to a Marion County Sheriff’s Office memo. No one was charged with the homicide.
According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, Brewton was charged with eight counts of knowingly causing a federal firearms licensee to maintain false information in its official records. He pleaded guilty Oct. 26 in Ocala federal court, according to the plea agreement, facing up to 15 years in prison and having to forfeit the firearms and ammunition related to the offenses.
But when Melissa Flowers, a close friend of Willis, heard Brewton would serve no prison time, she started sobbing. She expected a sentence that would give her friend justice and bring his family peace, saying Brewton was just as responsible as the one who pulled the trigger.
“I was completely speechless,” she said. “That’s just as much his fault. All that could have been prevented if those kids weren’t equipped.”
Not only does Flowers fear justice will never be served, but she said Brewton’s sentence sets a dangerous precedent for law enforcement accountability.
“They’re just going to say, ‘I’m a role model to society and the community, I’m not going to ever have to see a prison,’” she said. “He’s probably feeling so powerful right now.”
Flowers and her friend Ashley Hahn, who was also close with Willis, said they support yearly checkups on guns, where an owner brings their firearms to the business they bought them from. The dealer would ensure a gun’s serial number does not match that of any firearm used in a murder or other crime.
Flowers also called for the strict gun laws that other developed countries have. In South Korea, private guns for hunting or target practice must be stored and registered at police stations, according to GunPolicy.org. Moreover, all firearm owners receive and regularly renew gun permits, which require extensive background checks. Prospective gun owners must provide documents proving legitimate reasons for ownership and physical and psychiatric assessments.
“That’s what needs to happen to the United States, because there’s people doing school shootings, getting killed at gas stations,” Flowers said.
Willis’ family members declined to comment. Pearson and her family and friends did not respond to requests for comment.
Gun violence has plagued Central Florida as far back as 2016, the year of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Loopholes in Florida law allow traffickers to buy and sell guns for profit, without background checks, so guns continue to fall into the wrong hands.
In 2020, 27,134 firearms were recovered and traced in Florida, an increase of about 12% from 2019, according to ATF data. Of firearms with a Florida recovery, 80% were originally in Florida.
Florida was one of seven states that were the destination for over half of all trafficked guns in 2020, with 1,114 trafficked to the state that year, according to an analysis from Everytown for Gun Safety, an American nonprofit that advocates for gun control. Trafficked guns are defined as those that moved across state lines and were used in a crime in under three years from the time of purchase.
Florida was also one of nine states that were the source for over half of all trafficked guns recovered in 2020, with 1,063 acquired that year, according to the analysis.
Such data helps explain the sharp spike in gun violence in 2020, suggesting an increase in firearm trafficking may have played a major role.
“These alarming increases in key indicators of gun trafficking make it clear that we urgently need action at the federal, state and local levels to address gun trafficking and gun
violence,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown.
But action has yet to come. Despite the 2020 spike and gun violence continuing to rip away lives like Willis’ in 2021, all gun control bills were defeated in the Florida 2022 Legislative Session.
“It’s been a year, and no one has done a damn thing,” Flowers said.
However, all hope is not lost for this year.
On May 31, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried called for a Special Session of the Florida Legislature to address gun violence after a shooting in Buffalo May 14 that left 10 dead, and another at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, killing 19 young children and two teachers.
Specifically, Fried advised the Legislature to pass Jaime’s Law, which would require background checks for buying ammunition, and the bill she introduced in 2020 to close dangerous loopholes and help keep guns away from criminals.
“If the Legislature doesn’t take action now, it will bear responsibility the next time one of these tragedies occurs,” Fried wrote in a letter to Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and Speaker of the Florida House Chris Sprowls.
More progress has been made on the national level though, as the House of Representatives voted 223-204 June 8 to pass a group of eight gun control bills.
The legislation, dubbed the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” would raise the legal age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 and ban the import, sale, creation, transfer or possession of large-capacity magazines. It would also regulate storage of guns on residential premises and establish criminal penalties for violating requirements.
While only a handful of House Republicans voted for the legislation, last week, ten Republican senators — enough to prevent a filibuster — signaled support in principle for pending gun safety legislation.
The potential law entails enhanced vetting of gun purchasers aged 18 to 21, incentives for states to enact “red flag laws” authorizing judges to temporarily confiscate guns from people posing a danger to themselves or others, funding for mental health and suicide prevention services, and increased school security.
After working through the weekend, senators and staff said Tuesday afternoon they had resolved their disagreements. Now, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a good chance of passing a bill before the July 4 recess.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) praised the bill as major progress.
“I believe that this week we will pass legislation that will become the most significant piece of anti-gun-violence legislation Congress will have passed in 30 years,” he said. “This is a breakthrough, and, more importantly, it is a bipartisan breakthrough.”