Coast Guard officer charged in weapons investigation

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CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – A Coast Guard Petty Officer assigned to the training center in Cape May faces charges over possession of an assault weapon and large capacity ammunition magazines.

Petty Officer First Class Preston Blair, 32, was arrested after an investigation involving the Major Crimes Unit of the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, the Coast Guard, and the police departments in Middle and Lower Township, the prosecutor’s office announced on Monday.

On March 1, police executed three search warrants, one at Blair’s home in the Green Creek section of Middle Township, one of his vehicle and a third for a storage unit in Lower Township. Three weapons were seized, two of which authorities say are assault weapons that are illegal in New Jersey. One had a large dual drum style ammunition magazine, which could hold 100 rounds of ammunition. According to the prosecutor’s office, 13 more large capacity magazines were also seized. The investigation is continuing, with more charges pending, according to police.

Blair was charged with possession of an assault weapon and possession of large capacity magazines. He was sent to county jail with bail set at $50,000 cash. According to Prosecutor Robert Taylor, if convicted he could face five to 10 years in state prison for the more serious charge.

The investigation began after the Coast Guard Investigative Service found evidence that Blair stole a number of empty large capacity magazines from a ceremonial weapons locker at the training center.

Taylor said any charges in that would come from the Coast Guard, and that he could only speak to the civilian charges.

He declined to go into details about what made the rifles in Blair’s possession assault rifles under New Jersey law. In many states, semi-automatic firearms known generally as ‘assault weapons’ such as the AR-15 are legal, but they are banned in New Jersey. They were formerly banned federally, although some gun rights advocates say the ban has more to do with the appearance of the firearms, rather than whether they are more dangerous than other types of guns.

The issue has been at the forefront since the firearms were used in high profile mass shootings, such as an attack last summer in a Colorado movie theater. The gunman in the massacre in Newton, Conn. used an assault weapon in his Dec. 14 rampage, which led to renewed calls for stricter federal laws.

State law in New Jersey bans assault rifles based on several criteria, including the appearance of the firearm, whether there is a pistol grip, and whether it can accept  a bayonet.

Blair has been in the Coast Guard more than 11 years, according to Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, the spokesman for the Training Center, where Blair served since Jan. 1, 2010. His job was training recruits at the base, which is the Coast Guard’s only basic training facility.

According to Brzuska,  the Coast Guard considers Blair innocent unless he is proven guilty. He retains his rank and pay, but has been reassigned to administrative or general duties and will no longer be training recruits until the charges are settled.

There is no indication that any firearms are missing from the base, Brzuska said. He said special agents with the Coast Guard Investigative Service found evidence that Blair “allegedly stole a number of empty large capacity magazines,” after which the Coast Guard immediately contacted the county prosecutor’s office and police in Lower and Middle townships.

He did not say whether military charges are pending.

“We are going to work closely with the prosecutor’s office to determine the final disposition of this case in regard to civilian or military charges,” he said.

According to Brzuska, the magazines Blair allegedly took were part of a weapons locker in a classroom. The weapons were used for training and were not functional, he said, but functional magazines were used to make the training more realistic. 

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