In a countywide investigation, lawmen went to Lake Bridgeport early last week to recover key evidence from a Chico theft of guns and ammunition.
They were hoping that by week’s end, they’d have the thieves in the Wise County Jail in Decatur.
Members of the Wise County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team were in the water Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday just north of the U.S. 380 bridge that crosses Lake Bridgeport, ultimately finding and retrieving a heavy gun safe and nine of the guns that were inside it when it was stolen May 16 from a residence north of Chico.
Ammunition was also recovered from the safe.
At least three other guns, two of which were said to be Thompson submachine guns, were in the safe belonging to heirs of a gun collector when it was stolen. They were recovered elsewhere.
One of two men involved in the theft turned himself in Wednesday, said a source familiar with the investigation. Sheriff David Walker said he expected to have the second man in custody by Monday.
“Our investigators did a great job of working this case and developing the information that led us here,” Walker said Wednesday while keeping watch of diving operations from a rocky ledge under the bridge.
“And our dive team did a great job of conducting the search and locating the gun safe,” he added.
Divers found the safe beneath 22 feet of water some 50 yards north of the bridge.
Walker said the thieves dumped the safe from the bridge. He theorized that the safe floated a while before sinking.
The search at Lake Bridgeport began Monday afternoon.
Divers located the safe Tuesday and that afternoon removed the antique guns, some of which were home-built working replicas – including a flintlock rifle and a flintlock pistol.
Wednesday, divers were back at the scene to recover the heavy safe. One lane of U.S. 380 was shut down for a time to allow a crane to lift the safe from the water.
“We had a pretty good idea where it (the safe) was at, and our divers did a grid search,” Walker said. “Visibility is zero down there, so they were searching the bottom of the lake by feel only.”
The sheriff said a diving barge used in the search was acquired by his department about two years ago, when the dive team was established.
Diver training had been ongoing since, Walker said, and this was the team’s first major operation.