A South Carolina judge heard arguments on Friday in a case brought by the mother of a man murdered by a serial killer against the sporting goods store that sold several firearms, including the murder weapon, to a man convicted of illegally purchasing the guns for the killer.
Cindie Coxie is suing that straw purchaser, Dustan Lawson, as well as Academy Sports, alleging that the store was negligent in selling the firearms to Lawson, who gave the firearms to Todd Kohlhepp. Kohlhepp is currently serving seven life terms for the murders of seven people in South Carolina between 2003 and 2016. Two of the seven victims were Johnny Coxie and his wife Meagan McGraw-Coxie. The couple was found buried on Kohlhepp’s 100-acre property shortly after one of his victims, Kala Brown, was found by police, locked in a storage container but still alive, after officers were able to track her last known cell phone signals.
There’s no question that Dustan Lawson engaged in straw purchases by buying firearms intended for Kohlhepp, who was prohibited from legally owning firearms because of a rape conviction (and subsequent 14-year prison sentence) in 1987. Lawson pled guilty to 36 federal charges and is currently serving an 87-month prison term. The question is whether or not Academy Sports, and more specifically their employees, should have known that Lawson was buying guns for someone other than himself.
Cindy Coxie’s attorney, David Standeffer, told the Greenville (S.C.) News that the store should’ve recognized the straw purchases at the time.
The lawsuit claims the company should have had policies in place to flag signs of straw purchases and that employees should have been tipped off by Lawson’s actions, such as repeated purchases of the same or similar weapons, the purchase of multiple weapons in one day, and his use of cash in the sales.
“His behavior was the behavior of someone who was up to something,” said David Standeffer, the attorney representing Cindy Coxie. “You just don’t go month after month after month paying cash for expensive firearms.”
I’m not the judge or the jury in this case, but I do know plenty of law-abiding, legal gun owners who engage in exactly those behaviors, and they’re not engaging in a straw purchase. By themselves, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about buying two different models of handguns from the same manufacturer or buying the same model in a different caliber. It’s not out of the ordinary for someone to purchase more than one firearm at a time, nor is there anything particularly troubling about using cash to make a purchase. And buying five firearms over a 10 month period isn’t going to raise eyebrows or red flags either.
Attorneys for Academy told the Spartanburg County judge on Friday that Lawson had broken the law in buying the firearms and lying to store employees (and the federal government) about who was really going to own the guns that were sold. After oral arguments from both sides, the judge took the matter under advisement and said he would issue his ruling at a later date.
You’d have to be a pretty heartless individual not to have a great deal of sympathy for Cindy Coxie. Her son was murdered in cold blood by a man who very nearly got away with it. It is right that she is seeking justice anywhere she can find it. Based on my admittedly incomplete reading of the case material, however, I’m not convinced that holding Academy responsible for the illegal straw purchases, even in civil court (no criminal charges were brought against the retailer or its employees), would be a just outcome. My opinion doesn’t matter, however. It’s the judge who’ll ultimately decide whether the case against Academy will proceed, and we’ll bring you the decision when it’s made.