How Easy Is It To Skirt PA Gun Laws? Look At This Murder Case In Rural York County
In the middle of the night, Saybah Harris received a text message.
It was a photo of an ambulance with a simple description: It's Foday.
Her only son.
In September of last year, 31-year-old Foday Cheeks was shot several times in his southern York County home. He died. A woman in the home, 26-year-old Danielle Taylor, was also shot to death.
Paul Henry III now faces the death penalty in those killings. Prosecutors contend that he and his wife, Veronique, showed up at the rural Fawn Township home carrying guns — guns that neither was legally allowed to possess.
A Daily Record investigation reveals a series of missed opportunities to keep the pair away from guns. In fact, the case illustrates many reasons why it is difficult to keep guns out of the hands of people barred from having them.
Nationally, the gun control debate often centers on whether more gun laws are needed, or whether existing gun laws need to be better enforced. In this case, a slew of examples shows why laws to keep guns away from criminals and dangerous people often are ineffective or not enforced.
The Daily Record investigation shows:
- Pennsylvania has no consistent system in place for taking guns away from people who commit crimes that make them ineligible to possess firearms.
- State police records that show whether people, including convicted criminals, have bought or received a handgun are incomplete and limited in their use.
- In protection-from-abuse cases, even when a judge orders an alleged abuser to give up firearms, the guns aren't always seized, and sheriff's deputies aren't authorized to search a home for guns.
- In some cases, a person is banned from having a gun but lives with a family member who isn't — presenting a gray area for police and probation officers.
A gun was used in most of the 661 reported homicides in Pennsylvania in 2015. But the state police annual crime report that tracks that data does not report whether the guns were illegally possessed.
A Daily Record analysis of 38 gun homicides in York County from 2013 through 2016 shows that in at least 21 cases, the people with the guns were already legally banned from possessing one.
That was the case, police say, when Henry and his wife showed up at the rural Fawn Township home.
Not only was each banned from carrying a gun, but the legal system had passed on repeated opportunities to seize weapons they might have had access to.
Violation, criminal charges dropped
In 2000, Henry's wife at the time told police that he shoved her, grabbed her arm and bent her wrist.
He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of simple assault, which meant he was covered by a federal firearms ban that dates back to 1996. The law bans gun and ammunition possession for someone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
The conviction meant that if Henry ever tried to purchase a gun, and if someone did a background check, he would be flagged as ineligible.
But there are ways to purchase certain guns without a background check — for example, you can buy a rifle from a friend or receive a handgun from a father, wife or certain other family members.
And Pennsylvania does not require proof that people with a conviction for a misdemeanor of domestic violence give up guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports gun restrictions.
Years later, Henry was under court supervision for a DUI conviction, and in June of 2012, probation and parole officers made an unannounced visit to his home in East Manchester Township.
There, Henry's mother "made it clear to the officers that there were in fact numerous firearms on the property, however she attempted to condone the existence of the weapons by stating they are on her portion of the property," according to a probation and parole report.
A visit in July 2012 showed that Henry still lived there and he allegedly admitted that there were guns on the property. A probation officer said it wasn't clear if he had access to the portion of the property with guns.
The probation department told Henry to move out but he didn't, the report said.
An officer recommended he be found in violation of court supervision for the firearms issue and other violations, but the department later said that he came into compliance.
Henry's attorney, Farley Holt, said Henry's mother is an avid hunter, and the violation issue was resolved because the two had separate residences with separate entrances on the same property.
In 2014, Henry again was found with a gun nearby.
Henry and Veronique were driving early one morning in June 2014 when Henry crashed the SUV, according to a criminal complaint.
Without being asked, he told officers there was a gun in the vehicle and tried to go back to the SUV to get it, according to a criminal complaint from Northeastern Regional Police Department.
A police officer later found a loaded revolver in a holster on the floor of the front passenger seat.
Henry was charged with illegally carrying a firearm without a license, plus charges related to reckless driving.
But in March 2015, the York County district attorney's office dropped the case.
Bryan J. Rizzo, the chief of police for Northeastern, said Henry's mother was willing to testify that she placed the gun in the vehicle and forgot to remove it. Henry and his mother said the gun wasn't visible until after the accident, Rizzo said.
In a letter from York County Prison, Henry said he called his mother after the crash, and that's when she told him she left a gun in the vehicle. Henry said he then immediately told police.
Rizzo said he didn't know why the reckless driving and other charges in the case were dropped. The district attorney's office and Henry's mother declined to comment.
Guns not taken in PFA case
The same month as the crash, in a separate case, Veronique applied for a protection-from-abuse order against Henry.
In her application, she said at least one weapon was present on the East Manchester Township property where her husband lived. And she asked for the judge to order him to give up any firearm, other weapon or ammunition she listed. State law says that list isn't available to the general public without a court order.
In Veronique's case, the judge did approve having him relinquish the items.
Henry was supposed to either hand those items over to the sheriff's office; hand them over to an eligible third party; or sign an affidavit saying he didn't have them.
But York County Sheriff Richard Keuerleber said guns were not seized and no one submitted paperwork for a third party to possess guns, because "they weren't his guns." Henry's mother told the sheriff's office Henry didn't have access to them, according to Keuerleber.
"We went and did what we were required to do, following the laws that are on the books," Keuerleber said.
A November 2016 report from a research agency for the Pennsylvania General Assembly recommended giving courts more power to ensure that defendants in PFA cases surrender guns.
The report said lawmakers should give judges the ability to issue search and seizure orders for weapons as part of PFA orders. Currently, sheriff's deputies have to take someone's word if they say they don't have the weapons listed.
Holt said there were no guns at Paul Henry's residence.
In the letter from York County Prison, Henry said, "there were never any guns in my house" and that his mother's home is completely separate from his.
"...she does own firearms which are locked away in a very large, very expensive safe," Henry said in the letter. "I do not have access to her guns."
In the end, the PFA case against Henry was dismissed. Veronique didn't show up for a final hearing.
But if guns had been taken from Henry, he would not have been eligible to receive them back from the sheriff's office because of his previous domestic violence conviction.
Veronique Henry's felony drug and forgery convictions
In separate cases in 2015, Veronique Henry pleaded guilty to felony forgery and felony drug delivery charges.
For decades, federal law has banned people with felonies from possessing guns.
But many states do not require proof that people give up guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
California, however, goes further than all other states.
It's "the only state in the country that identifies people who are prohibited from having a gun and then sends agents out to knock on their door," according to a 2013 National Public Radio story.
A PBS story from the same year said the agents don't usually have the probable cause needed for search warrants, so they often have to persuade people to let them into their homes.
In 2016, California's Armed and Prohibited Persons System enforcement program completed more than 9,100 investigations, which led to more than 500 arrests and nearly 4,000 guns seized, according to an annual report from California's attorney general's office.
In Pennsylvania, probation and parole officers can search people's homes to ensure they are complying with conditions. But Ari Freilich, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said California's system is unique, because it is systematic, proactive and covers everyone who might have illegally retained a firearm.
A database of firearm sales makes the effort possible in California, Freilich said.
In Pennsylvania, state police track handgun sales and transfers.
But the database, with some records going back to the 1930s, has limits, according to Maj. Scott Price, director of the Bureau of Records and Identification.
"It gives us a snapshot," Price said.
The database covers handgun sales and transfers done through a Pennsylvania dealer, but there are many guns not covered by it, including: rifles and shotguns; handguns given to certain family members; and handguns sold out of state.
And some Pennsylvania lawmakers say state police are already infringing on people's privacy and Second Amendment rights by maintaining the database.
In January, state Rep. Will Tallman, R-Adams County, introduced legislation that is aimed at reducing what records can be tracked.
On the night of Sept.13, 2016, Danielle Taylor was cooking hamburgers in the kitchen of the Fawn Township home, according to testimony from a preliminary hearing.
Foday Cheeks was playing "Mortal Kombat" with a 14-year-old boy and another boy. Two other adults were in the house, as well.
Two robbers, a man and woman, showed up, according to prosecutors.
One of them shot Cheeks right away. The female robber held a gun to the victims as the male robber went through the house, according to prosecutors.
The robbers were looking for drugs or possibly for money from the sale of drugs, police have said. At the time of the robbery, Cheeks was on bail related to heroin delivery charges.
The robbers took cellphones, money and other things. Shortly before they left, someone shot Taylor in the neck. Police were called around 10 p.m.
The next morning, Taylor's mother, Deborah, arrived at her Spring Grove home after her morning bus driving route. An officer knocked on the door to deliver the news.
Danielle Taylor had gotten into trouble for drug-related charges before. But the last time she spoke to her mother, Danielle told her she was safe and she loved her.
"She wasn't an angel, but she was my baby," Deborah said.
Cheeks' parents, who live outside York County, said they didn't know anything about their son's alleged drug dealing.
James Krischen Wah Sr., a family friend, said people shouldn't use those drug charges against Cheeks to "assassinate his character and take the weight off his senseless killing."
Cheeks' mother said she hasn't been the same since last year.
"I feel empty without my son," Harris said.
Surviving Fawn Township victims identified Henry and Veronique as the robbers.
When state police searched handgun sale and transfer records, they found that Veronique showed up as having four registered firearms, according to a warrant application.
Henry had no registered guns, but lived at the same East Manchester Township address as his late father, who had 36 registered firearms, according to the warrant application.
But because of the limitations of the state police database, it's not clear if the couple had access to those guns. An inventory of seized property for the home describes shell casings and cartridges, but not guns, found.
In the letter from jail, Paul Henry said police seized "a couple old bullets or casings out of an empty gun cabinet and an old box of .357 ammo used as a door stop in my bedroom" from his home.
At about 11 a.m. the day after the shooting, a state trooper spotted the Henrys' Nissan Altima. The trooper called for backup and then police attempted to pull over the couple.
Henry allegedly rammed an unmarked police cruiser, before police stopped his car and arrested the couple.
Veronique later killed herself in York County Prison. She was 32.
Henry, 41, maintains his innocence, his attorney said. A trial is scheduled for March 2018.
After the couple's arrest, when police searched the trunk of the Nissan Altima, they found multiple items, according to a prosecutors' motion. The list included a victim's handbag, multiple cellphones, a wallet with Cheeks' ID cards and three handguns.
The prosecutors' motion does not say say much about the handguns, and the district attorney's office declined to provide additional details.
So it's not clear where those three handguns — ones that Henry and Veronique weren't allowed to possess — came from.
Staff writer Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this report.