Stolen gun returned to Lithia man 27 years later

Putting the Colt .45 on a stolen gun registry was key to finding it in Oregon.
Russell Little, 69, is elated to have back his Colt .45-caliber revolver, which was stolen from him 27 years ago when he moved to Palm Harbor. JACK ROONEY   |   Times
Russell Little, 69, is elated to have back his Colt .45-caliber revolver, which was stolen from him 27 years ago when he moved to Palm Harbor.JACK ROONEY | Times
Published June 9 2016
Updated June 9 2016

Russell Little never thought he would see his antique Colt .45-caliber revolver again.

After all, it was stolen nearly 27 years ago during a move from Cleveland to Palm Harbor, so he couldn't even be sure where it first went missing.

Then came a recent call from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Against all odds, the gun had been recovered in Oregon.

"I was just elated,'' said Little, who now lives in Lithia.

Little, now 69, was moving with his family for his job with General Electric when the revolver went missing. He had asked the movers for special handling for the Colt .45, which his father-in-law had given him, and another .38-caliber revolver he had used in a past police job. But when the Little family unpacked their belongings in Florida, they found a brick in the box where the guns were supposed to be.

That's the last he saw of it until the recent call he got while Little and his wife, Cheryl, were driving to their second home near Chattanooga, Tenn. According to police, a man in Oregon tried to sell the gun to a bargain center, where Little's revolver appeared in a national database of stolen guns.

On May 17, sheriff's Lt. Stacey Barrentine, who took the initial report as a deputy in November 1989, returned the gun to Little.

Barrentine said because of the uncertainty over where the gun disappeared, a debate over jurisdiction almost ended Pinellas' involvement before it began.

"We don't normally end up taking that kind of report because it didn't occur in our jurisdiction," he said. "I could just tell from his demeanor that he was frustrated. So I took it more as an informational report just so that he would feel comfortable in knowing that we'd at least done something to help him out."

Little said that after the theft he was most concerned that the gun would fall into the wrong hands.

"I was afraid it was going to be used in a crime, so I made sure it was in a registry so if it was used in a crime it wouldn't come back to me as owner of the weapon," he said.

Police never arrested anyone in the case, but they do not believe the gun was used in a crime. Barrentine said police were able to return the gun only because it was registered on the National Crime Information Center's database of stolen guns.

According to the Oregon police report, the man who tried selling the gun did so for his wife, whose father willed his gun collection, including Little's pistol, to her when he died in 2006. Police seized the weapon and contacted the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Little said he was especially surprised police were able to track him down after nearly 30 years. Since their first move to Florida, the Little family has moved to Texas, North Carolina and back to Florida.

Barrentine, who has served 29 years with the Sheriff's Office, said he has never worked any case like this one.

"I was certainly both surprised and bewildered by the case," he said. "If it hadn't been for them actually sending me the original case and looking at it, I wouldn't have even known what they were talking about.

"I've worked a lot of different types of cases, but never anything that ends up being this long."

Since its return, Little has kept the gun locked in his safe. He joked that he will never again trust a moving company to handle the gun, which the family believes dates to the World War I era.

As for the future of the family heirloom, Little said he only has one plan.

"It will be passed on to our son," he said.

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