Adair, Iowa, is known locally as “the happiest town on Earth” for its smiley-face water tower, which welcomes visitors along Interstate 80. The former railroad town of about 800 people has several churches, small businesses, a volunteer fire department and a police department of two officers.
So as Bradley Wendt, the town’s police chief, repeatedly purchased machine guns over the course of four years, purportedly for official use, federal investigators took note.
Between 2018 and 2022, Mr. Wendt requested 90 machine guns, either to demonstrate their use or to buy them for the Adair Police Department, according to the Justice Department. But prosecutors concluded that he had other purposes in mind.
On Dec. 14, a grand jury in Des Moines indicted Mr. Wendt and a friend, Robert Williams, on charges of conspiracy to make false statements and defraud the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mr. Wendt was also charged with illegal possession of a machine gun.
According to the indictment, Mr. Wendt, 46, used his title as police chief to “obtain and possess machine guns not lawfully available to the public,” including military-grade weapons and machine guns of a type used in guarding high-risk prisoners as they are moved from place to place.
A lawyer for Mr. Wendt did not return a request for comment. Clint Fitcher, a lawyer for the city of Adair, said that Mr. Wendt had not used the local government’s money to buy the machine guns and that Mr. Wendt had been placed on leave.
He said some members of the Adair City Council were aware that Mr. Wendt had bought 10 machine guns for the department and that six of those guns had been found at City Hall during a raid in September. Mr. Fitcher said that he wasn’t sure where the funds for the guns had come from.
Federal officials said Mr. Wendt had used what are known as law letters to the A.T.F. in which he falsely stated that the machine guns were being purchased for official use or were being used for demonstration on behalf of the Adair Police Department to “evaluate them for potential future purchase.”
The A.T.F. administers and enforces federal machine gun laws. Any purchase, sale, transfer or importation of a machine gun must be approved by the agency, and requires law enforcement officials who are seeking to acquire them must generally submit a letter explaining why. Some licensed dealers may also buy machine guns for demonstration purposes, as long as they have a letter of request from a law enforcement agency.
In all, Mr. Wendt bought 10 machine guns for the police department, tried to buy 15 additional guns and requested the demonstration of 65 guns, according to the indictment. But in reality, he sold six machine guns registered to the Adair Police Department for personal profit, making thousands of dollars; rented out machine guns in exchange for money; and intended to stockpile guns to sell at a later date, the indictment said.
“In fact, the Adair Police Department was not interested in and was not considering purchasing the machine guns identified in the demonstration law letters,” the indictment said. “Rather, the true purpose of the demonstration law letters was for Wendt to acquire machine guns for his personal use, enjoyment, profit and gain.”
According to a Justice Department news release, Mr. Wendt also “exploited his position” as police chief to obtain 10 machine guns for Williams Contracting L.L.C., a federally licensed firearms dealer operated by Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams solicited the necessary law letters from Mr. Wendt, who falsely stated in the letters that the Adair Police Department wanted a demonstration of machine guns for potential future purchase, according to court documents. Mr. Williams was also accused of intending to stockpile the guns and sell them for a profit.
In one instance, Mr. Wendt, using his own money, bought three machine guns for $2,080 each in December 2020 under the guise of official duties. Eight months later, Mr. Wendt sold two of them to a Florida-based buyer for $50,000.
Many of the guns were not meant for use by the public.
According to the indictment, Mr. Wendt contacted a machine gun manufacturer in January 2021 and inquired about buying a weapon known as a minigun, which prosecutors described as “an electric motor driven Gatling gun designed for speed and accuracy” that has a magazine capacity of 4,000 rounds and a fixed firing rate of 50 rounds per second. This type of machine gun is used by the U.S. military and is typically mounted on helicopters; the Adair Police Department does not own a helicopter. Mr. Wendt put down a $40,000 deposit for the $80,000 gun. In his law letter, Mr. Wendt said the gun was “suitable for engagements and suppressive fire.”
The A.T.F. rejected the purchase because the minigun was “not suitable for law enforcement use.”
And yet, making the machine guns available to the public was exactly what Mr. Wendt and Mr. Williams did, officials said.
In April 2022, Mr. Wendt and Mr. Williams hosted a public machine gun shooting event in Woodbine, Iowa, allowing patrons to fire a number of the machine guns in exchange for money.
Among the guns was a .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun that Mr. Wendt had claimed was needed for demonstration to the police department. In his law letter, Mr. Wendt said the gun was “ideal” for the department “based on its price and availability.” Mr. Wendt paid $17,896 for the gun. He mounted it to his armored Humvee and charged participants $5 per round.