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Promise Breakers

Promise Breakers: Questions About Missing Cash and a Toxic Gun Range

A year-long Capital & Main investigation has found substantial evidence to suggest that Sacramento’s lead-contaminated public gun range was, at the very least, incompetently run and, at worst, may have been the victim of embezzlement.

Joe Rubin

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Sacramento’s shuttered James Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range.


Copyright Capital & Main

In 2002 a worker who cleaned the city of Sacramento’s public gun range was diagnosed with one of the worst cases of lead poisoning found among California workers that year. A decade later, a safety consultant told the city the indoor James Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range was covered with lead dust and warned that lead-contaminated air appeared to be escaping the building through an unfiltered exhaust system. Yet year after year the bullets kept flying– spreading more and more hazardous lead particulate inside the range and throughout an adjacent working class community.

See Other Features and Video From This Series

A year-long investigation by Capital & Main has found substantial evidence to suggest that this public facility was, at the very least, incompetently run and, at worst, may have been the victim of embezzlement. The city claims that for 20 years Mangan’s employees neglected to collect fees from the range’s users, including businesses that leased it. Those users who were interviewed for this story, however, assert that during this time they did indeed pay thousands of dollars in fees, on the instructions of Sacramento’s chief ranger, Greg Narramore, who has since retired.

Based on the city’s own projected estimate of $30,600 in annual revenue from Mangan, the collected fees should have brought in close to a million dollars over several decades. Even more serious, the money’s possible embezzlement may have provided, over the years, a motive to alter lead tests and bury damning safety reports — thwarting efforts to protect the public from lead hazards.

According to multiple on-the-record sources, cash payments were routinely placed in a deposit slot in a safe located inside the range. The payments mostly came from private companies specializing in firearms training courses. When their classes cleared out, low-wage city workers swept up toxic lead dust and spent bullets.

We reached Greg Narramore by phone but, when told we wanted to ask him about his financial management of the Mangan gun range, he said, “I really can’t talk about that because I am under a subpoena for Mangan-related issues,” and hung up.

At least a half-dozen companies, including the national firm Brink’s Security, regularly used the range and enjoyed a special status – they were issued keys so they could manage their own access, and had permanent lockers with company logos on them. Brink’s did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but representatives from two firms who used the gun range for decades did.

“As far as paying for use of the range, it wasn’t a complicated system,” said Vicci Gritz, the owner of the Universal Security Academy. She said she was instructed by Narramore over the course of 13 years to place cash in an envelope – $5 per person for everyone she brought to the range — along with a sign-in sheet. Gritz claimed she placed about $5,000 into the safe every year.

Although most of the funds allegedly deposited into that safe came from private companies, thousands of dollars also came from the public, whose access to the range was limited to just two evenings per week. Those nights were overseen by the United Revolver Club of Sacramento, a volunteer group of firearm enthusiasts. Ron Morales, URCS’s former president, said he and other club volunteers collected a $5 fee from residents. Morales said the group was told by Narramore, the gun range’s manager, to place the evenings’ proceeds in the safe’s slot along with a sign-in sheet/release-of-liability form. Morales estimated that the group typically submitted approximately $500 per month.

According to Morales, the weekly public nights were small change compared to the usage by the security companies: “There were times the safe was so filled with envelopes, it was difficult to jam another one in.”

Mangan Park playground.Mangan Park playground.

The leasing business was booming for a couple of reasons. Armed security guards in California need to pass firing range tests to obtain licenses, then  to requalify semiannually. Some companies, like Gritz’s, set up shop near the range; others, like Geibig Protective Services, from Tracy, California, had its members travel up to 60 miles to take target practice. Part of the appeal, according to company representatives that Capital & Main spoke to, is that the $5 per person cash fee was a third the cost of private indoor gun ranges.

The range was in even more demand after 2010, when Sacramento’s sheriff dramatically liberalized the issuance of concealed weapons permits. Several training companies added the $200 permit class to their class rosters. Thousands of Sacramento County residents signed up for qualifying courses, many of which were held at Mangan.

A 1992 Sacramento City Council resolution set fees and encouraged the leasing of the range. The resolution emphasized that fees would help pay for needed capital improvements. Today city officials say parks department employees simply failed to charge anyone for using the gun range — for decades.

Sacramento’s city auditor, Jorge Oseguera, conducted a 2014 investigation into the Mangan range. “Unfortunately, the Department of Parks and Recreation does not have record of collecting these fees until October 2014,” his audit concluded. We provided the city with specific details, including how the payments were made and asked Sacramento to provide any documentation the city had about those payments. A city spokesperson, Marycon Razo, merely repeated what the parks department had told the city auditor, even after we informed her about the possible existence of a secret payment system that was described to us by four separate sources.

See All Mangan Park Lead Contamination Stories

One of our sources, the longtime owner of the California Security Training Academy, Steve Caballero, said his company had been a prolific range user since 1973 and “paid every time.” He added that he was always under the impression that money from range leasing fees was turned over to the city.

Caballero’s former business partner, Peggy Seaman-Caballero, provided a similar account. “I was uncomfortable with the cash payments,” she said. “I asked if we could instead pay by check, but was told that is the way the city wanted it.”

The city did send us evidence of payments from security companies for the last three months that the range was open, a time when the city briefly initiated reform in the range’s finances after Narramore’s retirement. For example, the records show that Vicci Gritz’s USA Security firm paid $1,020 in October 2014 for 34 hours of classes at the range.


Emails Suggest a Payment System

Capital & Main has examined emails related to the gun range’s operation. Some came from the city, which deletes most emails older than two years, and from Vicci Gritz, whose emails went back to 2009. The correspondence gives a sense of an in-demand gun range with different firms jockeying to book the most dates. Narramore moderated occasional disputes between the companies.

In one 2009 email Narramore’s response to Gritz seems to make it clear that payments were being collected from the companies who visited the gun range: “Yes they were scheduled to use the range and did pay,” he said in one email.

In a 2011 email, Narramore brushed aside rumors that the range was not up to safety codes and could be permanently closed. “There is no truth to that rumor,” Narramore replied to Gritz’s query.

Ron Morales told this website that while it was clear the range business was booming, money did not seem to be reinvested back into Mangan. “The place was falling apart, there were gaping holes in the roof, leaking toilets and water fountains,” Morales said, adding that the gun range was also missing safety basics like “sticky mats” that prevent lead from being tracked out of the building. Morales said he was worried about the lead situation at the range: “It wasn’t just a place for adults – Boy Scout troops used Mangan, and we had occasional shooting competitions. Lots of kids sat in the bleachers.” But Morales said he had hoped the gun range was mostly rough around the edges, and still safe.

Morales claimed he pressed the city to get an independent safety assessment of the gun range. In early 2012 Sacramento’s parks director, Jim Combs, approved $6,000 for TRS Range Services to visit the range and conduct a safety review. Morales said he was on hand when TRS arrived that February, helping to point out areas of concern.

Three weeks later a report, which found problems so serious TRS strongly implied the city should consider closing the range until safety improvements were made, was sent to Narramore. Morales said he never saw it.

“I kept asking for it, and Greg [Narramore] kept saying it wasn’t ready,” Morales said. “Eventually I just gave up.” Had Narramore shared his copy with him, Morales would have learned that “TRS visually identified lead dust throughout the range,” and that the issue “should be immediately addressed to reduce health hazards.”

Bill Vannett, an environmental safety specialist who worked for the city’s Risk Management Division, told Capital & Main that he had read the report in 2012 and agreed that the report brought up important safety issues. But, Vannett said, “I don’t know how far up the chain of command that report went, I don’t know if it went to department heads, directors, city council. That was above my pay grade.”

TRS found major problems with the ventilation system. “Adequate air flow is a critical factor in controlling lead dust,” the report noted, adding that “there was no noticeable air flow.” TRS also pointed out that lead dust was simply being vented out through an exhaust fan onto the roof and that “appropriate measures should be taken to insure this area is treated as contaminated.”

Mangan Range's sealed roof today.Mangan Range’s sealed roof today.

A University of California, Davis lead expert and researcher, Peter Green, said that ignoring such warning signs was a “terrible” choice by the city. “Lead is toxic, and simply blowing out of the building is not taking care of the problem. It is simply blowing it somewhere else, in this case into a park, and that is a shame.” Green added that lead in an urban setting is particularly worrisome because in the soil or airborne, “it will get into the blood stream and damage the nervous system. In children that is even worse because that nervous system is still developing.”

The city would provide a copy of the TRS safety report to the California Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC), but with two crucial changes. The first version of the report was dated 2012 and addressed directly to Narramore. In 2014, at the city’s request, TRS sent the city a new version. The new version was identical to the one sent two years earlier, except it removed Narramore’s name and changed the date of the report from 2012 to 2014. A “draft” watermark was also removed. A DTSC official told Capital & Main that the 2014 date on the report they received led them to believe that the report was from 2014.

We provided a copy of the 2012 version of the report to DTSC senior attorney Vivian Murai, who said that “two years is a long time” and that, “If the city had reason to believe that an area was contaminated, and didn’t act, that could be a violation of state hazardous waste laws.”

Mangan Park neighborhood, near the gun range.Mangan Park neighborhood, near the gun range.


A Park Ranger With a Questionable Role

The TRS lead report was not the first safety warning that was ignored by city officials. In 2007 the California Department of Public Health found that the city had not lived up to commitments made in 2003 to keep the range safe. In response, the city pledged to the CDPH that it would get things right this time. A letter to the state signed by the city’s safety specialist, Vannett, promised that “Greg Narramore will be responsible for assuring that employees are scheduled for blood lead testing every April and October.” The city also promised to regularly monitor lead levels at the range.

But our investigation found serious problems with how lead tests were conducted at Mangan, raising the possibility that illicit profits motivated practices that downplayed the danger posed by a dangerous neurotoxin.

Not only were most lead tests commissioned by Sacramento’s Risk Management Division, with Greg Narramore present, but a 2013 lead report states that the samples were collected directly by Narramore. The results found barely detectable levels of lead. Allowing Narramore, the range’s chief administrator, to participate in the testing of his own facility might be seen as permitting a conflict of interest. The city also appears to have violated a state law requiring those who gather lead tests complete a series of courses and receive certification from the CDPH. We obtained six lead tests where the samples were taken by city employees, none of whom (including Narramore), the CDPH told us, was in its database of certified testers.

A CDPH spokesperson also said that an uncertified person may not perform a lead hazard evaluation in California, and that “punishment for violation to these statutes may include imprisonment, a fine or both.”

Vannett, who conducted most of the lead tests at the range until he left the city in 2012, said he was completely unaware of California’s certification requirements when performing lead testing. He acknowledged that he provided Narramore with “some training,” despite his own lack of state certification. Asked about the misleading test results delivered by Narramore, Vannett said “it all depends on how you do the test. It might just be that he wasn’t doing the sampling right. Or, it could have been that he was doing it right after they cleaned, right where they cleaned, to make the numbers look good. There are a lot of ways that could have gone.”

We also found more explicit evidence of some city employees concocting intentionally misleading lead tests that presented a sunnier picture than the dangerous reality. Emails obtained by Capital & Main include one from a city parks employee in 2014 informing the Sacramento city auditor that during 2012 city-funded tests, the technician followed instructions to test “purposely selected areas where the lead dust levels would be lower.”

According to Jeff Van Slooten, who trains state-certified lead inspectors, cherry picking safer or pre-scrubbed areas is something a trained and certified lead tester would know is completely wrong. “A state-certified lead inspector is trained to look for worst-case scenarios for testing for lead hazards. That means we focus our test where there is the highest probability for lead contamination, not the least.”

Tests taken two years later, in 2014, by a CDPH-certified consultant found toxic levels of lead in every corner of the gun range. The top of a microwave oven, a couch and bleachers had levels more than 50 times above federal standards for an indoor gun range. Some areas of the Mangan facility had lead measurements thousands of times above hazardous levels. The city closed the range weeks later.

That was not the end of the city’s questionable lead testing practices. On April 1, 2016, with the imminent publication of a Sacramento Bee investigation focusing on the contamination inside the range, Sacramento’s parks director Christopher Conlin ordered long overdue tests outside the gun range building, part of a heavily used public park. But the company, Stratus Environmental, took soil samples one to two feet underground, avoiding lead-tainted surface soil entirely. When Conlin was told the news of the exculpatory test results, he responded in an email, “great news, now how do we get this out?” Stratus Environmental also had no state-required lead testing certification.

After Sacramento’s ABC10 (in a story produced by this reporter) commissioned independent tests that contradicted the city’s results by showing major lead contamination outside the range, the city took new tests utilizing a company with state-certified testers. Those tests showed a ring of lead contamination that surrounded the range building.

For months DTSC criminal investigator Charles Stone defended to Capital & Main the fact that the city’s initial soil samples were taken too deep in the ground, asserting that the city needed no certification and that its tests followed standard practices. But then in January, DTSC spokesperson Russ Edmonson admitted to us that the initial tests violated California laws because the company lacked state certification. Edmonson said that the error in its interpretation was “the result of our former lack of knowledge” about regulations around lead testing.

As a result of our questions, Stone, who had closed his criminal investigation, conducted new interviews and wrote an amended investigative report. The interviews resulted in finger pointing. Karl Kurka, who supervised the tests for the city of Sacramento, claimed that he had intended for the tests to be on the soil’s surface all along. He said that although he met the lead tester in the park, he hadn’t caught the error because he “did not wait around” for the actual testing. The company’s account was that city officials had explicitly ordered that the tests be taken one to two feet underground. Stratus technician Chris Hill stated that the one-to-two-feet deep tests were “per Kurka’s request.”

An interview with Sacramento parks director Conlin last spring seems to back up the company’s version of events. Conlin said that he had initially ordered the subsurface tests, and then ordered new tests after consulting with Sacramento County and DTSC regulators. Conlin made similar comments at an April 2016 public meeting.

For the moment no individual, or the city of Sacramento, appears to be facing any criminal consequences for contaminating a leafy park or the adjoining homes that surround the gun range, even though the DTSC acknowledged that the April 1, 2016 tests were conducted without legally required certification. According to a DTSC source the 2016 testing issue has been turned over to Sacramento County for a possible administrative sanction where the city of Sacramento could face a $25,000 fine for overseeing lead tests with no state-required certification.


Getting to the Bottom of the Payment Mystery

Greg Narramore retired six months before the gun range closed in January 2015. Jeff Harris, then head of the Sacramento City Parks Commission and today a City Council member, hailed Narramore at the time of his retirement as a “great public safety figure” who would be difficult to replace. Harris declined to comment on the Mangan gun range, referring all questions to the office of Sacramento’s city manager.

Harris’ reluctance to discuss the troubled former gun range reflects a challenge in reporting this story. Unlike vocal elected officials in Flint, Michigan or Los Angeles (which is still reeling from the contamination scandal swirling around an Exide battery plant), Sacramento’s elected officials have been tight-lipped about their former public gun range. Two firearms trainers, and the wife of an instructor who had a miscarriage that she says was lead-related, are suing the city.

It wasn’t just elected officials who declined to be interviewed; when we asked to speak to staff members who may have been able to shed light on the mysteries of the gun range finances, a city spokeswoman told Capital & Main, “since we are in litigation from prior range users, at this time we are not willing to allow interviews of city staff about the gun range operations.”

Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, a Sacramento city government watchdog organization, said that elected officials refusing to talk about the mismanagement of the lead-tainted gun range is a “suspension of brains, judgment and duty to provide oversight.” Powell has extensive knowledge of Sacramento’s parks department because he also heads a parks-volunteer group that organizes clean-up days and other activities.

“There were no fees coming in from this gun range for 25 years and no one notices?” he asked. “Why was the city’s top parks ranger so intertwined with booking this  gun range to begin with? It’s completely inconsistent with how the parks department is supposed to be organized. There is a unit responsible for bookings and collecting fees, and a system for tracking finances. This is a multi-layered failure of government, and what is sickening about this failure is people could have gotten hurt because of it.”

Told about the financial questions swirling around the former range, the former environmental and safety official Vannett, who worked closely with Narramore at the range said, “I don’t see him embezzling anything at all, not at all.”


A Brief Criminal Investigation

This past February, Capital & Main met with the DTSC’s Charles Stone and asked him about the troubling evidence of the embezzlement scheme we were encountering.

A month later Stone told us that he turned the embezzlement issues over to the internal affairs division of the Sacramento Police Department. Asked why not refer the case, as DTSC is empowered to do, to federal or state law enforcement, Stone said he was “legally required” to turn it over to Sacramento’s internal affairs division because “Narramore was former law enforcement for the city.”

It did not take long for the Sacramento police to declare that there was nothing to investigate. In an April 20 email, the SPD’s Mike Blessing wrote Stone, “As mentioned before, I passed the case on to another investigator.  She went thru [sic] the case.  Between the City Attorney’s office, myself and another investigator, we don’t believe that this issue needs to be further investigated.  Thank you again and take care!” Blessing also wrote, “We have received numerous documents to show that there were payments being made.”

The documents that the Sacramento police appear to have used to rule out any issue of embezzlement are the same ones provided to Capital & Main months ago, showing only payments from private security companies made during the last three months the gun range was open in 2014. There was no evidence presented of security companies paying in the decades before.

Stone said he provided the Sacramento police with one potential witness to interview – Ron Morales, who said he made regular cash payments into the safe, and saw what he believed were other envelopes from the security companies stuffed into it. Morales told Capital & Main that no one from the Sacramento police has ever contacted him. “I’d be happy to go down to the range and show authorities where the payment was located if someone would ask,” Morales said.

The fact that Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez was involved in shutting down the investigation is eyebrow-raising. The city is fending off a lawsuit over lead poisoning at the range, and the added complication of an embezzlement scheme operating at the gun range could add to the city’s liability.

Capital & Main asked Sanchez by email about the police investigation into gun range finances but received no response. We also received no response when we asked the city manager’s office about the payment mystery.

The DTSC’s senior attorney, Vivian Murai, said the agency has concluded its criminal investigation and that as for allegations of embezzlement, “that’s not our mandate, tracking hazardous waste is.” According to emails obtained by Capital & Main, Charles Stone did ask the Sacramento Police Department to provide documentation to back up the department’s claim that it had the financial records to prove there was no malfeasance. Mike Blessing told Stone in an email that the police were “exempt” from sharing the records “because [the case] is still currently being investigated.” Later, when he was told that Sacramento’s police had closed its investigation, Stone responded with a simple “thank you,’’ making no further mention of the financial records.

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