Accused New Year’s Eve shooter pleads guilty to federal gun charge

Published: Apr. 18, 2023 at 5:26 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A man charged with a mass shooting during the city’s downtown New Year’s Eve celebration pleaded guilty Tuesday a federal gun charge.

Thomas Earl Thomas Jr., 22, of Mobile, entered his plea in U.S. District Court to possession of an illegal firearm. He admitted that on Dec. 31, he had a .40-caliber handgun with an extended magazine and a device known as a “Glock switch” that had can convert a semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic machine gun.

That device technically is not illegal, but it requires registration by the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. Violation of the law carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Typically, advisory guidelines would recommend punishment well below that, but defense attorney Gordon Armstrong said prosecutors have indicated they plan to hold Thomas responsible for a death that occurred during the shooting.

“What normally would be, you know, a couple of years for illegal possession of a firearm, would become a guideline sentence way above the statutory max,” he said.

That would mean that Thomas would face the maximum 10-year sentence under the guidelines.

Thomas did not admit to the shooting, which resulted in one death and left nine wounded, including himself. His guilty plea on Tuesday does not affect state charges related to that shooting, which he maintains was self-defense.

Mobile County prosecutors allege that Thomas shot and killed JaTerious Reives on Dauphin Street and that he exchanged gunfire with another man. In addition, seven innocent bystanders suffered gunshot wounds, police have said.

Armstrong said those are facts prosecutors would have to prove during the sentencing hearing, although with a lower burden of proof than what state prosecutors would have to prove at the defendant’s murder trial.

“The question would be who hit who?” he said.

In federal court, Thomas is one of a number of Mobile residents facing charges related to Glock switches, which allow the gunman to fire many times with one pull of the trigger. Law enforcement authorities have said the devices make it difficult even for trained firearms experts in controlled settles to keep control over the guns. In the hands of a young man on the streets, they can be especially dangerous, according to local and federal law enforcement officials.