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HAMMOND | A former high ranking Lake County police official recounted his double life as a thief and gun runner.

Joseph Kumstar told a federal jury of five men and seven women Thursday that he used his senior positions on the Lake County Sheriff's Department between 2008 and 2011 to skirt federal gun restrictions on personal ownership of recently manufactured machine guns.

He said he conspired with Vahan Kelerchian, a 55-year-old Pennsylvania gun dealer, to buy 71 machine guns from German defense manufacturer Heckler & Koch to enrich himself by reselling them on the open market while lying to federal regulators that the guns were being used for law enforcement.

Kumstar admitted signing false letters to federal authorities as part of a cover-up of illicit gun trade without permission from former sheriff Roy Dominguez or former county police chief Marco Kuyachich, his supervisors.

Kelerchian, who is on trial on felony counts alleging he was part of the scheme to lie to federal regulators, is pleading not guilty.

Kerry Connor, Kelerchian's defense attorney, told jurors Thursday that Kumstar isn't to be trusted and Kelerchian was deceived by Kumstar and never intended to break the law.

Kumstar testified under oath Thursday Kelerchian was in on the illicit deal.

Kumstar, now a general manager for a local car repair shop, has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and could soon begin serving a 57-month prison term.

But before that he was an 18-year police veteran who rose to become the third ranking police officer and had the sheriff's authority to make firearms purchases for the department.

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Kumstar said neither Dominguez nor Kuyachich gave him permission to lie to federal authorities or the German gun dealer.

Kumstar also said no one challenged his purchase even when an industrial-sized pallet of gun packages arrived at the county government center six years ago and then disappeared, or his explanation that he was securing weapons for the department at no cost to the taxpayers.

Instead, Kumstar, Kelerchian and former police officer Ronald Slusser were using their own money to buy the guns and splitting the illicit profits. The gun barrels were rare and worth many times the purchase price of a fully assembled machine gun.

Kuyachich couldn't be reached Thursday evening for comment. Dominguez, a possible future witness in the case declined comment. Both said earlier they weren't targets of the federal investigation and neither were ever charged with wrongdoing.

Defense attorney Connor said in her opening arguments that her client, Kelerchian "isn't cut from the same cloth" as Kumstar and Slusser, who she called thieves and tax cheats.

She portrayed Kelerchian as a business owner trusted enough by federal regulators to be licensed to trade and handle guns and explosives and who was careful to ensure firearms documentation he submitted to the government was accurate.

She said Kelerchian was deceived by Kumstar and Slusser, who he hardly knew. She said Kelerchian thought the machine gun transactions were legitimately for law enforcement use only.

She said Kumstar and Slusser are accusing Kelerchian hoping their testimony will win them further leniency. She said the two men "were in a world of trouble" and pleaded guilty to felony counts that should have them in prison, although they have yet to begin serving any time.

"It was Kumstar and Slusser who stole those guns. They cannot be trusted in their rendition of events. It is their behavior why we are here," she said.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.