Former FBI Agent Avoids Prison on Federal Gun Charges

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Michael Van Aelstyn is a lucky man. Most folks facing charges of illegally possessing an unregistered NFA item can expect to serve at least some time in federal prison if they're convicted or plead guilty. Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge told a Wyoming man that he's looking at at least 18 months in custody after pleading guilty to possessing an unregistered machine gun, but Van Aelstyn has managed to avoid prison altogether, even though the guns that got him trouble were taken from an FBI evidence room. 

Van Aelstyn was serving as an FBI agent in central Kentucky in 2017 when, according to authorities, he and other law enforcement agents served a arrest warrant at a Kentucky home. Two guns were seized when the warrant was served, and Van Aelstyn transported them to the FBI field office. At some point between January and April, 2018, however, Van Aelstyn took the guns from the evidence room and brought them to his home. 

Van Aelstyn transported the same firearms to his personal gun safe to avoid their discovery during an imminent office inspection, because he believed that the firearms’ presence without proper documentation or disposition would be cause for concern for office inspectors. Further, the factual statement states that in or about January 2021, Van Aelstyn transferred one of the firearms to an associate and told the associate not to let anyone else know the source of the firearm, and Van Aelstyn subsequently destroyed the other firearm. Additionally, according to the factual statement, on various dates between on or about October 17, 2020, and on or about July 9, 2021, Van Aelstyn knowingly and illegally possessed a shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches long which was not registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. 

It sounds like the guns were never actually entered into evidence, which is problematic enough. But instead of throwing the book at Van Aelstyn, the DOJ treated him with kid gloves; dropping several charges in exchange for a guilty plea. Now the former federal agent is a free man, albeit subject to some supervision over the next few years. 

Michael Van Aelstyn, 45, was sentenced to three years probation on March 28 for obstruction of justice and possessing an unregistered firearm, according to court documents.

He was originally charged with possession of a firearm made in violation of the National Firearms Act, possession of an unregistered firearm, and unlawful transfer of a firearm to an out-of-state resident, according to a May indictment. He entered a plea agreement in November 2023.

Van Aelstyn was accused of removing two illegal firearms from a suspect’s home, transporting them to an FBI office for storage, and later removing them from the evidence room and taking them to his residence, according to court documents.

Van Aelstyn also gave an AM-15 multi-caliber rifle to a man identified in court documents as “MH,” and told him “he should not let anyone else know the source of that firearm.”

Another gun, a Cugir Mini Draco pistol, was allegedly destroyed by Van Aelstyn and thrown away, according to court documents.

To say that three years of probation is a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines is putting it mildly. Possessing an unregistered NFA item can come with a ten-year prison sentence, and though the maximum is rarely applied, at least for first offenders, a pure probationary sentence is almost unheard of. In fact, I couldn't come up with any comparable sentence when I started looking through previous cases that have garnered news coverage. 

In 2022, a Minnesota man received a 31-month sentence for possessing a short-barreled shotgun. A soldier stationed at what was then Fort Bragg, North Carolina received 18 months for possessing a short-barreled rifle. Earlier this year an Indiana man got two years in federal prison for making and possessing unregistered NFA items. Van Aelstyn got one helluva deal here, and it's hard to believe that his profession had nothing to do with the slap on the wrist that he received. 

Justice is supposed to be blind, but in this case it sure feels like that blindfold was lifted. It's hard not to believe that both DOJ attorneys and the judge took Van Aelstyn's previous employment into consideration when determining his fate. If anything, Van Aelstyn's position as an FBI agent should have meant he was more accountable for his actions, not a reason to give him a pass. He took two guns that were seized as part of a criminal investigation, apparently never entered them into evidence or properly documented their intake, took them without permission from the FBI evidence room, gave one to a friend, and destroyed the other. Even if these weren't NFA items that's a serious offense, but the consequences for his crime are an utter joke.