Among one of the largest gun seizures in the Carolinas, investigators are finding oddities in the mountain of stuff taken from a Pageland man that range from an 1873 Springfield “trapdoor” rifle – the kind that George Custer’s troops used ineffectively at Little Bighorn – to a taxidermied alligator.
Sorting out the guns alone was a monumental task.
It took investigators and staffers from an array of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies from 3 p.m. last Friday to about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday – at times 70 people working around the clock – to transport, log serial numbers, tag, organize and store all the guns and ammunition that were in Brent Nicholson’s possession.
And then they had to tackle two more tractor-trailers stuffed top to bottom, front to back with hundreds of chainsaws, tools and tool boxes, fishing gear, hunting bows and taxidermied elk, deer, beavers, ducks, boars, turkeys and squirrels.
They are among the things that authorities believe Nicholson either stole or bought from people who had done the stealing. Most of it he piled in his brick house, steel storage building and the family liquor store in Pageland, about 16 miles south of Monroe, just over the South Carolina border, said Chesterfield County Sheriff Jay Brooks.
Estimates of how many guns have swung wildly from 4,000 to 10,000, but Brooks now figures it’s more like 5,000 to 6,000 – most are shotguns and hunting rifles. They also retrieved eight pallets of ammunition.
Authorities estimate the total value of the stash at more than $500,000.
“We think that 99 percent of these guns were brought to Mr. Nicholson to sell to him. He’d give you 40 to 100 bucks for it and take it and throw it into a pile of 200 more,” said Brooks, taking a break from the sorting out that will use up “a good chunk” of his office’s $3.2 million annual budget.
Nicholson, 51, who helped his father in the Pageland liquor store, had been charged before with receiving stolen property, along with other charges that include assault and battery, threatening people and ill treatment of animals, records show. Most of the charges were dismissed or weren’t prosecuted.
It wasn’t until last Friday, when deputies tried to serve a subpoena to Nicholson at his house for an unrelated matter, that he and his stash of guns made worldwide headlines. The deputies found chainsaws and a welder in the front yard that had been reported stolen the day before. They left and returned with a search warrant and found thousands of guns in the house and storage building.
“I’m not sure why Brent thought he needed this many guns, why he wanted this many guns,” Brooks said. “He just seemed to be more of a hoarder. He hunted a little bit, but you can only use one gun at a time.”
At the time, Nicholson was in jail in Union County, where he’d been stopped by authorities. There, he faces charges of trafficking heroin or opium, and possession of drug paraphernalia and stolen firearms. He was returned to Chesterfield County on Saturday.
A magistrate denied his bail and he’s in the county’s detention center at least until next week when he’ll likely go before a judge.
No evil intentions
To put the Pageland seizure in perspective, New York City’s largest gun bust came in 2013 and netted 254 guns. Many of those, authorities said, came from the Carolinas. The city of Chicago seized about 6,500 guns – during all of 2013.
“We believe this seizure in Pageland is historic,” Brooks said.
Days later, it was still the talk of Pageland, a town of 2,800 best known for its annual Watermelon Festival.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Mary Ann Nicholson, no relation to Brent. “But if anybody knew about it – about all those guns – nobody’s telling.”
Brent Nicholson and his family are well-known. But those who spoke about Brent declined to give their names.
One woman said Brent is “a likeable man” who was known to collect guns and avidly hunt. “But I didn’t know it was that many guns,” she said. “I don’t think anybody knew.”
She said he was also known to “help people who needed money to pay rent or bills. He’d tell them to bring him something of value – sort of a collateral – and when they paid him back, they’d get their property back.”
No one seems to think Nicholson used the guns, or even sold them. Some of the rifle barrels were rusting.
“You never know a person’s intentions, but if you’d seen the way those guns were all piled up and disorganized, it seems unlikely he had plans to use them,” said Chesterfield Sheriff’s Capt. Daniel Scott.
Returning stolen property
Brooks said the bust will leave thieves without “an outlet” to sell stolen goods. It may also close some open burglary cases, including at hunting cabins and lodges throughout the Carolinas.
The process for sorting out the guns involved Sheriff’s Office deputies and staffers, sheriffs from Union and Anson counties in North Carolina and from Darlington County in South Carolina, agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and from the federal ATF and FBI.
Serial numbers of each of the thousands of guns were entered onto a spreadsheet that was sent to the FBI. “They’ll run them all at once and we’ll see how many were reported missing,” Brooks said.
Ultimately, they want to return the property to its owners. Calls have already started coming to the Sheriff’s Office from as far away as Kansas and Texas, Scott said.
After the FBI returns the tally, the sheriff’s department will contact agencies that received reports of stolen goods, Scott said. It will be up to the owners to retrieve their property from Chesterfield County.
Unclaimed guns will be destroyed, he said. “We hope we can get as much of this stuff as possible back to its proper owners,” Scott said. “We’re just glad that we were able to take that many guns off the street that could cause anyone any harm.”
DATABASE EDITOR GAVIN OFF AND RESEARCHER MARIA DAVID CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY.