Rifle theft from deceased veteran ‘a kick in the chest’ for his best friend

When a Navy veteran died in Elma recently, someone stole seven ceremonial M1 Garand rifles that were to help his friends send him off with a proper military funeral.

Bo Brown, who served on several amphibious ships during the Vietnam War, was supposed to be honored with a ceremonial 21-gun salute when he died. But the thief, or thieves, broke into a locked cabinet, at Brown’s shop, which held the guns.

Fortunately, the rifles were returned because of quick-working Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office deputies, a gun shop owner in Tacoma who helped return the rifles, and residents who banded together through a Facebook page to let areas outside of Elma know about the theft.

On Wednesday, March 9, Air Force veteran Jim Mears, from the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Bill Mann Post 1948 in Elma, spoke to The Daily World about how he was surprised that one, or several, people would steal rifles as soon as Brown died.

“That’s another level of disgusting past just stealing VFW rifles,” Mears said. “But to immediately know, or to find out when the gentleman passed away, then break in and steal his stuff, is ridiculous.”

Brown’s best friend and fellow Vietnam Navy veteran, Bill Wickwire, spoke to The Daily World about the sadness he felt when he discovered Brown’s shop had been broken into and that the rifles had been stolen.

“To discover (his shop) had been broken into and they took those (rifles,) it’s a kick in the chest,” Wickwire said Friday, March 4.

Those M1 Garand rifles, which are set to only fire blanks, aren’t just any rifles. They mean an awful lot to Wickwire and his fellow military brothers. They have generational significance.

“I buried my father-in-law and I buried my father with those rifles,” Wickwire said. “I still tear up thinking about that.”

Wickwire said he discovered the break-in because he was bringing his friend’s kids to Harrison Family Mortuary in order to help them set up their father’s final preparations.

“They didn’t want to do it on their own,” he said. “Taking care of a loved one’s final (tribute) is not an easy task. Bo’s daughter has been an extra daughter to me for as long as I can remember.”

Wickwire was morose when speaking about the stolen rifles.

“To find out they took the rifles,” he said. “To me, that took the potential dignity of every veteran who (might have) passed away between when the rifles (were stolen) and when I was able to either obtain replacements for those rifles, or get them back.”

Wickwire, on behalf of his post, worked with VFW Post 318 in Olympia, and VFW Post 5564 in McCleary, to borrow the ceremonial rifles for Brown’s funeral.

“It hurt that I had to borrow rifles to do Bo’s (funeral,) because he and I are the ones who fought to get them,” Wickwire said. “If anybody deserved (a proper funeral,) he deserved one.”

The stolen rifles, which were sold at a gun shop in Tacoma, were found by some hard-working deputies, Wickwire said, and a gun shop owner who, soon after his purchase of the stolen guns, tracked their serial numbers.

Wickwire explained some of the search process that occurred after he found out the guns were stolen.

“As soon as I discovered the rifles were missing, I went in and got the serial numbers, so the deputies had them,” he said.

Wickwire said one of the members of the VFW post in Elma created a Facebook page about the stolen rifles.

“It went viral,” Wickwire said. “I had calls from Yakima and one from up by Silverdale. Then of course, one was in Tacoma at the gun store.”

While Wickwire said he hasn’t talked to the gun shop owner, he was told the owner bought six of the seven stolen rifles.

“The guy (who stole the rifles) showed up and he said he bought them at an estate sale,” Wickwire said. “He had paperwork (for them.)”

Wickwire said when the shop owner found out there were seven rifles that had been stolen and that he only had six of them, he backtracked and found the seventh rifle. It’s unclear how the shop owner found the seventh rifle.

“When the deputies went up (there) he had all seven of them,” Wickwire said. “He had taken them apart and cleaned them for us.”

To say the least, Wickwire was grateful.

“I think he went above and beyond,” he said. “We’re gonna make a nice little card, a thank you, and probably send him a dinner certificate or something.”

Wickwire, and the other veterans at Elma’s VFW post, are grateful to the public’s concern, as well as the job the sheriff’s deputies did in order to help find the rifles.

“We’re going to make a card up for the deputies who were involved with this,” he said. “They have gone above and beyond as far as I’m concerned.”

Wickwire was excited to tell how he felt when he got the call from the deputies that the rifles had been recovered.

“I’ll tell you, when they called and said they had them in their possession,” Wickwire said. “It was like somebody lifted a 200-pound anchor off of my chest.”

Wickwire thought there was a chance neither he, nor the veterans at the VFW post, would ever see the rifles again.

Navy veteran Tyler Marriott was another VFW member who was surprised the post in Elma got the rifles back.

“I’m absolutely amazed that they were recovered,” he said. “When I heard about the break-in, that was one of the first things I thought about. When Bill (Wickwire) said the police had a pretty good idea who did it and what happened, to be able to get them back, as these are special rifles for the VFW that are pretty unique, is great.”

Marriott was also quick to thank the sheriff’s deputies and the gun shop owner for getting the guns back where they belong — at the VFW post in Elma.

When Wickwire found out the sheriff’s deputies recovered the stolen rifles, he couldn’t wait to pick them up.

Wickwire just had one question when the deputy called him to let him know the rifles were at the sheriff’s office in Montesano.

“He said, ‘When can you be here?’” Wickwire said. “And I said ‘When’s a good time?’ He said ‘Now’s a good time,’ and zine, I was in Montesano!”

Wickwire said four of the deputies packed the rifles into his trunk. Now, he said, the rifles are locked up and they’re not coming out.

Mears is happy the residents spread the message about the rifles.

“I’m grateful the people stood up and acted quickly to get these back,” he said. “The longer you wait, the harder it is to get the stuff back. It was (also) good to see that the gun shop owner did the right thing and returned them instead of profiting from them.”

While Wickwire couldn’t use his post’s ceremonial rifles at Brown’s funeral, he was thankful that his military brothers from Olympia and McCleary knew how important it was to make theirs available.

Wickwire considers them family.

“If nothing else, you’ll find service members are a band of brothers and sisters,” Wickwire said.