Federal agents raided an armory owned by security contractor Blackwater Worldwide in North Carolina and seized 22 automatic weapons owned by the local sheriff's office on Tuesday morning.
Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives searched the armory and requested to see the locker that contains weapons purchased by Blackwater but owned by the Camden County Sheriff's Office, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrell told ABC News.
Agents took 17 AK-47s and 5 Bushmaster XM15 E2S automatic rifles, according to Tyrell, who said that the raid was prompted by an ongoing investigation into a deal allowing the sheriff's office to store the weapons at the company's armory in Moyock, North Carolina.
The weapons, including 12 additional Bushmasters, were paid for by Blackwater but the ownership was then transferred to the sheriff's office which stored the weapons at the armory, as part of a written agreement signed by Blackwater CEO Gary Jackson and Maj. John Worthington of the sheriff's office in the summer of 2005, said Tyrell.
It is illegal under federal law for anyone but government agencies – military or law enforcement – to acquire and possess automatic weapons, with an exception for weapons purchased before 1986. Under some conditions, weapons dealers are allowed to buy automatic weapons for the purpose of demonstrating them to law enforcement agencies.
"It's an arrangement we've had since 2005," said Tyrell, who added that the company believed it was legal. "They own the weapons and we keep them in our secure armory. We have a very close relationship with local law enforcement."
The company also donates time on one of Blackwater's 50 outdoor shooting ranges in Moyock to the sheriff's office, says Tyrell. Other times, the sheriff's office pays for the time although she was unable to say how much was paid in total.
The issue has attracted local attention because Camden County, with a population of 9,721, has experienced very little violent crime, only two murders, three robberies and seven rapes, according to the Charlotte News-Observer.
Tyrell confirmed reports that Blackwater CEO Gary Jackson signed an agreement with Maj. John Worthington of the Sheriff's office to allow the storage of the weapons in the summer of 2005.
In a statement emailed to ABC News, Tyrell said:
"All aspects of our contract with a local Sherriff's Department are valid and lawful. Some of the same ATF agents involved in the current inquiry have long been aware of this arrangement as a result of visits to our facility and audits of our firearms programs at Blackwater's request. As a company that is fully licensed to sell, provide training on, or even manufacture weapons---including machine guns---we have worked closely with the ATF to ensure we are in compliance with all applicable federal firearms laws. We look forward to cooperating with the government to resolve this allegation."
Last year, two former Blackwater employees - Kenneth Wayne Cashwell and William Ellsworth "Max'' Grumiaux - pleaded guilty to federal firearms violations and were sentenced to probation on the condition they assist federal investigators, reports the Associated Press.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of North Carolina was not able to confirm or deny reports of a raid.
Camden County Sheriff Tony Perry and a spokesman for the ATF and did not return calls.