SHIPSHEWANA — Investigators have linked a Feb. 10 gun store burglary in Shipshewana to an expansive three-county web of criminal activity involving a Middlebury man who police say assaulted a Michigan State Police trooper.
Shipshewana police had been investigating a Feb. 10 break-in at Dutchman Hunting Supplies at 8435 W. U.S. 20, one of nine business burglaries reported in the town since late December. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation into the Dutchman burglary after several handguns were reported stolen.
Authorities developed several persons of interest from the Middlebury and South Bend areas possibly involved in the Dutchman case after conducting interviews during the week after the gun theft, according to the LaGrange County Sheriff's Department. Detectives narrowed their search to a single lead suspect in the investigation.
After brothers Michael Barber of Gobles, Mich., and Travis Wise of Middlebury were accused of attacking a Michigan State Police trooper along U.S. 31 in southern Berrien County on Feb. 20, Dutchman employees notified investigators that Barber had visited their store the day before the burglary, according to the sheriff's department and documents filed in St. Joseph County Superior Court 2.
The employees told police that Barber only purchased a soda, but spent a significant amount of time checking out the store in detail, the documents say. After Barber left, employees noticed a motion sensor missing from Dutchman's security system.
Last Sunday, Mishawaka police recovered two of the guns stolen in the Dutchman burglary during a traffic stop for a possible stolen license plate in the area of Mishawaka and Niles avenues around 1:55 a.m. Anthony Chipps was driving the Ford Taurus Mishawaka police stopped while Stephanie Smolka was a passenger in the vehicle.
Both were arrested and taken to different law enforcement offices for questioning.
LaGrange County sheriff detectives met ATF investigators in South Bend on Sunday afternoon to interview Chipps and Smolka in relation to the gun thefts, the sheriff's department reported. Smolka told investigators that Chipps received the two stolen handguns from Barber and other people were trying to sell guns so they could raise money to pay Barber's bond, according to documents filed in St. Joseph County Superior Court 2.
Chipps denied any knowledge of the stolen handguns in the Taurus after the traffic stop, according to court documents. He also denied knowing Barber, but an ATF agent searched Chipps' cell phone and found Chipps and Barber were friends on Facebook.
Smolka also talked with investigators about a house she had been to a couple days earlier, where she observed large quantities of marijuana, counterfeit cash and firearms, court documents say. That tip led authorities to obtain and serve a search warrant around 10 p.m. Sunday at a house in the 300 block of North Walnut Street in Mishawaka.
The sheriff's department, St. Joseph County SWAT Team, Mishawaka police, Shipshewana police and ATF agents all helped serve the warrant.
While authorities were searching the house, court documents say a vehicle drove up to the police perimeter to ask what was going on and a passenger in the car, who was identified as Rodney Ross, told officers he lived at the house being raided. Police ordered everyone in the vehicle to step out and quickly noticed a handgun in plain view, court documents say.
The gun, which was in Ross' possession, was a third firearm stolen from Dutchman, according to the LaGrange sheriff's department and court documents. Ross was arrested on a felony charge of stealing a firearm and a misdemeanor charge of carrying a handgun without a license.
Ross also is named in two unrelated cases in Elkhart County, according to electronic court records:
• A Level 4 felony charge of possessing 5 to 10 grams of methamphetamine, a misdemeanor gun charge and two misdemeanor drug charges issued in December 2016. Ross was free on $25,000 bond in that case awaiting a trial this spring.
• A bench warrant for failure to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge of driving with a suspended license in June and August 2016.
Chipps is facing two Class A misdemeanor charges of carrying a handgun without a license and possession of a controlled substance. Smolka is facing one Class A misdemeanor charge of carrying a handgun without a license.
Police say more charges could be filed against all three.
LaGrange County sheriff deputies and Shipshewana police are still working with law enforcement agencies around the region to piece together how all of the incidents are related. The sheriff's department characterized the investigation as "ongoing and very active."
"Those currently incarcerated in Berrien and St. Joseph (counties) are have been arrested on charges stemming from other police activity and certainly have ties to this LaGrange County case, but as of now have not been charged with any crimes in LaGrange County," a sheriff's department press release says. "This is a very large investigation that extends through multiple counties and two states and has multiple suspects involved."