Written by Azam Ahmed
She came to Jamaica from the United States about four years ago, sneaking in illegally. Within a few short years, she became one of the nation’s most-wanted assassins.
She preyed on the parish of Clarendon, carrying out nine confirmed kills, including a double homicide outside a bar. Her violence was indiscriminate: She shot and nearly killed a 14-year-old girl getting ready for church.
With few clues to identify her, police named her Briana. They knew only her country of origin — the United States — where she had been virtually untraceable since 1991. She was a phantom, the eighth-most-wanted killer on an island with no shortage of murder, suffering one of the highest homicide rates in the world. And she was only one of thousands.
Briana, serial number 245PN70462, was a 9-mm Browning handgun. An outbreak of violence is afflicting Jamaica. This year, the government called a state of emergency to stop the bloodshed in national hot spots, sending the military into the streets.
Guns like Briana reside at the epicenter of the crisis. Worldwide, 32% of homicides are committed with firearms, according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group. In Jamaica, the figure is higher than 80%. And most of those guns come from the United States.
U.S. firearms are pouring into neighboring countries and igniting record violence, in part because of federal and state restrictions that make it difficult to track the weapons and interrupt smuggling networks.
In the United States, the dispute over guns focuses almost exclusively on the policies, consequences and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. But here in Jamaica, there is no such debate. Law enforcement officials, politicians and even gangsters on the street agree: It’s the abundance of guns, typically from the United States, that makes the country so deadly.
Firearms play such a central role in Jamaican murders that authorities keep a list of the nation’s 30 deadliest guns, based on ballistic matches. To keep track of them, they are given names, like Ghost or Ambrogio.
Some, like Briana, are so poorly documented that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has nothing more than a piece of paper with the name and details of the original buyer, according to confidential documents reviewed by The New York Times.
Purchased in 1991, the Browning vanished from the public record for nearly 24 years — until it suddenly started wreaking havoc in Jamaica. For three years, its ballistic fingerprint connected it to shootings, mystifying law enforcement. Finally, after a firefight with police, it was recovered last year and its bloody run came to an end.
Authorities traced the serial number back to the handgun’s original owner. But that did not explain how the weapon wound up in Jamaica decades later. Or how authorities could prevent the next Briana from arriving.
Drawing on court documents, case files, dozens of interviews and confidential data from law enforcement officials in both countries, The Times traced a single gun — Briana — to nine different homicides in Clarendon, a largely rural area of Jamaica where violence has spiked in recent years.
Jamaica’s own gun laws are relatively strict, with fewer than 45,000 legal firearms in a country of almost 3 million. But it is awash in illegal weapons. In Jamaica, the killings are rarely driven by enormous profits. The drug trade has fallen from its heyday, organized crime has been fractured and most of the historic kingpins have been killed or imprisoned. Instead, the guns in Jamaica are often used in petty feuds, neighborhood beefs and turf wars.
From North Carolina Into Thin Air
Johnnie Ray Dunn, a farmer, walked into a North Carolina gun store in the fall of 1991 and purchased a 9-mm Browning. That’s where Briana’s paper trail began — and ended. President Ronald Reagan had signed a bill that prohibited the creation of any sweeping national gun registry five years earlier.
The National Rifle Association lobbied heavily for the bill. Underpinning the effort was a warning that still resonates with many of the law’s supporters today: that a national registry would enable the U.S. government to keep track of gun owners and crack down on their right to bear arms.
So when Dunn’s gun showed up in Jamaica, linked to a series of homicides from 2015 through 2018, no one could figure out how it got there. Dunn died in 2011, according to a local newspaper obituary, and is not considered a suspect in the gun’s path to Jamaica. Because Jamaican officials cannot tell how handguns like the 9-mm Browning entered their country, they struggle to shut down the smuggling rings that fuel the nation’s violence.
All they know is that, more than 20 years after being sold in North Carolina, the handgun became one of the most lethal in Jamaica, the tool of a one-eyed gangster named Hawk Eye.
Samuda Daley got the nickname as a boy. He saw poorly out of one eye, and after an unsuccessful surgery left it covered in a milky film, his alias was born. Daley was a product of violence. As a child, a relative said, his mother was stabbed to death by his uncle. By ninth grade, he had dropped out of school to start working at a sugar factory. He joined the Gaza gang, a clique of young men who had grown up together in Clarendon. They began by hanging out, not fighting, his family said. But in the crucible of poverty and desperation, where small conflicts can turn deadly, they ran afoul of a similar group, the King Street gang.
On Sept. 19, 2015, almost exactly 24 years after Dunn purchased the gun, a Jamaican man named Okeeve Martin was killed with an unknown 9-mm Browning. There was no money or territory at stake, residents said. The motive seemed to be revenge — the girlfriend of the Gaza gang’s leader, Joy Commock, had been shot by mistake earlier. She survived, but the rumor mill led to Martin, and retribution came swiftly. The gun lay dormant for a year before claiming the life of 17-year-old Shane Sewell on Sept. 6, 2016. He ended up in a ditch, riddled with bullets, some from the Browning.
Officials believe he was killed in a dispute over a different firearm. In Jamaica, guns are often rented out by their owners. The borrower, looking to commit a robbery or even kill someone, pays a fee to use the weapon. Afterward, the gun is returned. Given a gun’s income potential, when one is lost or stolen, the consequences can be deadly.
In the summer of 2017, the Browning struck again. Kurt Mitchell, a fisherman believed to be a King Street gang member, was gunned down at a party — a reprisal for an earlier homicide against the Gaza gang, authorities believe.
As officials tried to stitch together the clues, the gun was repeatedly being used as an enforcement tool of the Gaza gang, often by Daley.
Daley had become embroiled in a personal feud with another gangster, Christopher Lynch, and some of the shootings in 2017 came from their hatred for each another, officials said. They had once been friends, relatives said, but that former intimacy now burned with an intense hostility. Daley tried to kill him on a Sunday in 2017, when he spotted him walking home. He fired at Lynch, who took off and escaped, officials said. But a stray bullet struck a 14-year-old girl in the stomach. Luckily, the girl survived.
Months later, Lynch’s father was at a wake. At around 10:30 p.m., investigators now believe, Daley stormed the wake and began shooting. The elder Lynch died. Three others were injured.
Once again, the bullet fragments connected the shootings to the 9 mm.
‘Every Day They Kill People’
Joviane Hall was DJing at a bar near Clarendon at 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2017, when gunmen burst in. After robbing the bar and its patrons, they opened fire, hitting Hall, who died on the way to the hospital. Officials recognized the culprit: the Browning.
The murder was the beginning of a spree. Two days later, another shooting occurred at the Three Sisters Bar. At around 10:50 p.m., Clovis Cooke Jr. and Otis Gordon were standing outside when a car pulled up.
The shooter fired 21 shots and sped off. Investigators found yet another set of 9-mm fragments. Every murder committed, every life taken, left a wound that never healed. Clovis Cooke Sr., recovering from cataract surgery, plodded around in the dark, searching for overdue bills in the drift of papers on the small dining table.
He wept at the mention of his son, Cooke Jr., 33, who used to pay the bills and help around the house. “I think about him every day,” he said. “Every day they kill people,” he said, “and every day we grieve about it.”
The same void haunted the home where Jody Ann Harvey was killed less than two months after Cooke, in what some believe was a case of mistaken identity.
Gunmen charged into her one-room shack, firing on Harvey and her daughter as they slept. Harvey covered the girl with her body, taking six 9-mm rounds. Her daughter survived. The deadly run of the Browning ended, in some ways, the way it began.
Joy Commock — who had been shot by mistake and survived, starting the cycle of revenge that first set the handgun loose on Jamaica — was killed on Jan. 21, 2018.
The casings matched the earlier crimes: The gun killed Commock as well, officials said. She was home with her daughter when she heard a noise, police said. She raced outside and found a fire burning in her yard. She knelt to extinguish the flames and was shot by an assailant hiding in the shadows.
By early 2018, authorities were still no closer to finding the gun. They knew its caliber and even the conflict the gun was caught in. But while Daley was still alive, no witnesses dared to testify.
Around 11 p.m. on April 28, an off-duty policeman was at a bar in Clarendon when two men showed up to rob it. One of them was Daley. The officer drew on the men and announced himself, officials said. Daley turned and fired, but the policeman had the drop on both men, killing Daley on the spot. And like that, the gun was off the streets.
Witnesses came forward to link Daley to other shootings, officials said, and police later asked the ATF to run a trace on his weapon. It led all the way to North Carolina, to a time before Daley was even born.