This is the first of two parts. Read the second part here.
Teresa Kondek’s doorbell rang, jolting her awake. She peered outside and saw police lights flooding her street. It was 3:11 a.m.
She thought of her husband, a police officer in Tarpon Springs, Florida. He was working the midnight shift and wouldn’t be home for another four hours. Teresa called him. When he didn’t pick up, she opened the front door.
A sergeant she recognized stood outside. Teresa remembered her husband’s words: “If a Tarpon uniform ever comes here, I won’t be home.”
A single gunshot ended Officer Charles Kondek’s life on Dec. 21, 2014.
The weapon: a black .40-caliber Glock, serial number 1ENK082US.
For nearly two decades, Charles and Teresa Kondek raised two daughters and three sons. He worked the midnight shift as a police officer, so the kids never stayed with babysitters. Credit: Courtesy of Teresa Kondek
The pistol came from a thriving supply chain that provides criminals in Florida tens of thousands of guns. In 2016 alone, at least one gun was reported stolen, on average, every hour.
The Tampa Bay Times and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting spent 10 months examining thousands of law enforcement records to chronicle the extent of the stolen gun problem in the state.
Those guns turn up in the hands of drug dealers and felons. Some wind up killing people.
Since 2007, at least 82,000 guns have been reported stolen and never found. In Tampa Bay alone, at least 9,000 stolen guns are missing.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a public safety agency with statewide jurisdiction, doesn’t keep track of how many stolen guns are recovered. The Times and Reveal obtained data from five law enforcement agencies in Florida and found that between 2014 and 2016, they documented nearly 11,000 stolen guns. Only about 1 in 5 has been recovered.
Car burglaries across the state are driving the epidemic. Many gun owners leave their vehicles unlocked, making it easy for thieves to slip inside. In Jacksonville alone, more than 1,000 firearms were stolen from unsecured cars in total during 2015 and 2016.
Gun stores offer another easy target. Firearms stolen from these businesses during burglaries have more than quadrupled over the last five years, according to federal data, as owners continue to leave large caches of weapons in glass display cases at night.
“That is how the criminals are getting armed,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Detective Tom Martin. “They’re not going to go to a store to buy guns. They’re stealing them.”
There are also more guns to steal. In Florida, the number of people carrying guns has surged in the past decade, from 438,864 in 2007 to 1.7 million concealed permit holders this year.
Stolen guns enter an illicit market that crosses state lines.
“Basically, the gun owners are arming people we really don’t want to have guns,” said David Hemenway, a Harvard University health policy professor who specializes in gun research.
Four months before Kondek’s murder, two teens crept along driveways on Wind Cave Lane in Jacksonville before dawn, sliding their hands under the handles of cars parked on the quiet street.
They rummaged through glove compartments and consoles, swiping a pair of sunglasses from a Chevrolet Suburban.
In an unlocked 2007 Honda Accord, they found a black pistol.
Charles Kondek Jr. was the son of a New York City police detective. When he was a boy and his father headed to work, he would remind him: Don’t forget to wear your bulletproof vest.
In 1991, the younger Kondek also joined the New York Police Department, where he worked for five years before moving to Florida to be closer to family.
While he applied for a full-time job at the Tarpon Springs Police Department, Kondek worked as a youth care specialist at a teen shelter. That’s where he met Teresa, who also worked there. He asked for her number. A few months later, he proposed at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach.
For nearly two decades, they raised two daughters and three sons. He worked the midnight shift, so the kids never stayed with babysitters. During the day, he was in charge. At night, after Teresa got home, she took over.
Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek and his wife, Teresa (center), had five children together: Andrew (from left), 26; Holly, 27; Brandon, 19; Charlie, 28; and Aleena, 18. Credit: Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times
“He never walked through the house without one, two or three of them behind him,” Teresa, 46, said in her first interview since her husband’s death. “He was like the backbone of everything. He was the first man my girls loved. He was my boys’ best friend.”
Kondek never raised his voice. He coached his youngest daughter’s soccer team. He came back from his shift every morning and toasted bagels for the kids. He took them to dentist appointments, often falling asleep in the waiting room. He bought Teresa and their daughters flowers on their birthdays and on Valentine’s Day. They vacationed in Tennessee, renting a cabin near the Great Smoky Mountains once a year.
Charles and Teresa held hands at the grocery store and while watching TV. During quiet shifts on patrol, the couple talked on the phone.
Just past midnight Dec. 21, 2014, Teresa told him about the gifts on the Christmas list they still needed to buy. They hung up, and she finished wrapping some presents before going to bed.
Police officials look for evidence at the spot where Marco Antonio Parilla Jr. crashed into a utility pole while fleeing the scene of Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek’s shooting. Credit: Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times
Officers were tied up with a report about a bar fight, so Charles Kondek volunteered to respond alone. Later, he called on the radio: “Need another unit!”
When officers arrived, they found Kondek, 45, lying on the pavement, a gunshot near his collarbone. The shooter had sped away in a white Hyundai Elantra, driving over Kondek.
He crashed into a power pole and a Ford truck half a mile north of Glen’s Eureka, then bolted from the car. Officers found him crouched under a nearby staircase.
In the center console of the Hyundai, they found a Glock 27. Detectives searched its serial number in the Florida Crime Information Center, a statewide database used to identify missing property.
It was the gun taken from the Honda in Jacksonville four months earlier.
Days later, Charles Kondek Sr. learned where the Glock had come from. He was angry at the killer and at the gun owner who left his car unlocked.
“If he locked his door,” the elder Kondek said, “the odds are my son might still be alive now.”
The Glock’s owner, who was listed as an employee for an aircraft repair company in a police report, did not respond to calls or letters from the Times and Reveal.
The shooter, Marco Antonio Parilla Jr., was a felon who recently had served a three-year sentence for an array of charges that included selling cocaine and marijuana, trafficking in stolen property and leaving the scene of a crash involving an injury.
Marco Antonio Parilla Jr. is escorted into the Pinellas County jail after being arrested for killing Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek on Dec. 21, 2014. Parilla pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is now awaiting sentencing. Credit: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times
At the time of Kondek’s death, Parilla was wanted for violating his probation after a judge found out he was using and selling cocaine. He went to Glen’s Eureka to confront his former roommate, Jareem Roach. Parilla believed Roach snitched to police about his drug use.
In October, Parilla pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is now awaiting his sentencing, where prosecutors will seek the death penalty. He told detectives that he bought the gun from a man in Tampa and claimed not to know the seller’s name. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whose agency investigated Kondek’s murder, said it’s “very typical of how stolen guns move around.”
That Christmas morning, four days after her husband’s death, Teresa didn’t know if she should wake up the kids, in their teens and early 20s. Charles had always done that. When she finally did, they didn’t want to open presents from their dad, knowing it would be the last time.
“There was never any crying here or sadness here in our house,” Teresa said. “That was, I think, the hardest thing. To get used to seeing your kids cry.”
A crowd gathers at a 2015 memorial service marking the one-year anniversary of the murder of Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek. From left are Tarpon Springs victim advocate Nizel Armas; Charles’ wife, Teresa; and Charles’ youngest daughter, Aleena. Credit: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times
Police records obtained by the Times and Reveal detail several instances in which guns resurfaced during investigations since Kondek’s 2014 death.
In September 2016, a .38-caliber handgun was taken from a car in Largo. Four months later, a felon with convictions for sexual battery, burglary and kidnapping used it to kill a co-worker in Clearwater.
The same month, a Seminole woman was arrested on charges of operating a drug house, where deputies found cocaine, marijuana and a .38-caliber handgun. It had been reported stolen in 2013.
In December, a 17-year-old fleeing deputies in a stolen car was carrying a gun taken from a Hillsborough gun shop. He was wanted in Orlando on a warrant for murder.
What people don’t realize, said Detective Dale Groves of Jacksonville’s auto burglary task force, is that leaving a gun in an unlocked car “opens the realm to so many other crimes.”
“We’ll have guns stolen, which leads to robberies, which leads to homicides, which leads to shootings,” he said. “If we could just eliminate vehicles being left unlocked, we eliminate a very high crime rate.”
The roughly 82,000 stolen guns in the state database are also likely a drastic undercount. Florida law doesn’t require gun owners to report thefts, and agencies remove guns from the database when they’re recovered.
The statewide database also represents only instances in which reports of missing guns include a serial number. At the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, 40 percent of reports lacked one between 2014 and 2016.
When a gun is reported stolen without a serial number, investigators try to get it from the retailer. But gun owners don’t always remember where they bought their weapons, and there may be no record if the gun was sold by a private dealer.
“Without a serial number on the firearm, we’re really dead in the water,” said Martin, the Jacksonville sheriff’s detective who investigates car burglaries. “It might as well not even exist.”
On a recent summer afternoon, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Assistant Chief Greg Burton stood at the entrance of Jacobs Way, a gated community in the northern stretches of the sprawling city. As cars approached, Burton walked to drivers’ windows with a smile.
“We’re just out saying hi,” he told one woman as he handed her a pamphlet. “And warning people, asking people to lock those doors.”
The fence encircling Jacobs Way isn’t enough to keep car burglars away, Burton said. Thieves slip in at night to tug on door handles.
It’s happening across Jacksonville, too. In 2015 and 2016, 1,046 guns were taken from unsecured cars, according to Sheriff’s Office data. At 9 every night, the agency posts a reminder to residents on Twitter and Instagram to lock their cars and homes: “We are depending on YOU because YOU can prevent a tragedy. Remove guns, lock doors!”
Other departments are taking more drastic steps. “Where we had the greatest success is taking matters into our own hands and locking their doors for them,” Gualtieri said.
At the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office last year, 4 out of every 5 auto burglaries that resulted in a stolen gun involved an unlocked car. At the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, it was more than half.
Some experts say the answer needs to come from legislation.
Andrew Jay McClurg, a law professor at the University of Memphis who teaches gun policy, points to countries such as Canada that have gun storage laws requiring owners to keep their weapons secured.
“A lot of people aren’t really aware of the dangers of unsecured guns,” he said. “I do think it would make people more cautious.”
Nationwide, Massachusetts is the only state that requires guns be secured at all times. Cities such as San Francisco and New York also have safe-storage laws.
But Florida went a different way. The Legislature barred municipalities in 1987 from passing their own gun restrictions. The law is supported by the National Rifle Association, which declined to comment for this story. Today, similar laws have been passed in more than 40 states, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
So that leaves any gun storage legislation in the hands of state lawmakers.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called the thousands of stolen guns in Florida “atrocious” and said he will look into drafting a proposal to address the issue. That could include new penalties or insurance incentives.
“What it speaks to is negligence and lack of diligence in securing weapons,” he said. “Somehow, we’ve got to get the attention of private owners.”
Eric Friday, general counsel of the gun rights group Florida Carry, said owners often have no choice but to leave their weapons in cars if they’re not allowed to take them into certain businesses or workplaces.
“Our responsibility to be safe with our firearms doesn’t mean that we can stop all criminal acts that might occur against us,” he said, equating a stolen gun with the theft of a laptop that is later used for fraud or downloading child pornography. “I’m not sure why we have so many pushes to treat gun owners as anything other than the victims they are when the property is stolen.”
The last gun storage-related legislation in Florida passed in 1989, requiring gun owners to store weapons away from children.
“It’s such a poisonous political issue for politicians,” McClurg added. “Rarely will you find a politician in a red state with the courage to stand up for even a reasonable gun regulation.”
Charles Kondek Sr. holds a memorial flag for his son, Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek Jr., who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2014 with a stolen gun. “It’s not fair that this happened,” he says. Credit: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times
At his Hudson home, Charles Kondek’s father keeps mementos that remind him of his son. A blue-and-black “officer down” flag hangs from his garage. On a shelf, he displays copies of programs for memorials that honor fallen officers imprinted with the younger Kondek’s name.
At night, dreams sometimes take him back to Dec. 21, 2014. He sees his son lying on the ground, no one nearby to help.
“It’s not fair,” Kondek said. “It’s not fair that this happened.”
Teresa doesn’t dwell on the day her husband died, the person who pulled the trigger or how he came to have that gun. She focuses on their family and his legacy.
This past summer, Teresa dropped off their youngest daughter at college. In January, their other daughter will get married. Tarpon Springs officers will walk her down the aisle.
“I know Charlie is really counting on me to make sure the kids are OK and that I keep our family the way we meant it to be,” Teresa said.
At home, her husband smiles from family photos on the walls. She keeps the last shirt he wore in a bag so it won’t lose his smell. The family still makes its annual trip to Tennessee, leaving bracelets with Kondek’s name along hiking trails.
Around her neck is a gold pendant in the shape of his badge. The back is engraved with the words Kondek wrote to her in a letter after their engagement:
“Thank you for saying yes.”
–Laura Morel, Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting
This story, the first of two parts, was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.