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NEW ORLEANS -- It started with a hunk of chrome being picked up by a construction crane digging concrete and steel beams out of Chef Menteur Pass on June 11.
The small handgun showed signs of its time in the harsh, salty water but was otherwise in good shape, leading workers to speculate about a fleeing criminal tossing evidence into the concealing waters. The gun was turned over to New Orleans police and diving crews went back to work, installing electrical cables in the heavy currents of the waterway.
But the guns kept coming.
In the next week, divers discovered 11 more weapons, all in far worse shape than the first.
A cluster of revolvers and semiautomatics came up, so coated in rust and barnacles that no untouched steel showed through. Divers surfaced with the long barrels of a shotgun and a rifle, their stocks rotted away.
There were so many guns on the bottom, divers began "kicking them out of the way" and continuing with their work rather than bringing the weapons to the surface, said John Bennett, co-owner of Eagle Diving.
"To find that many in such a small location with zero visibility, there's got to be a ton out there," he said.
It appears Bennett and his crew stumbled upon evidence of an erstwhile tradition in which New Orleans area law enforcement agencies used local lakes and waterways as dumping grounds for guns.
"It's kind of cool. Who would have thought there'd be so many guns in the water like that," Bennett said. "I've never stumbled on a gun before."
While the New Orleans Police Department and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office acknowledge they once made extensive use of local waters for this purpose, they say Chef Pass was never one of their dumping sites.
When Bob Young started working in the NOPD's Property Division in 1967, the department would dispose of guns by first crushing them with a press and then dumping them into the Mississippi River from the back of a ferry near the river bridge.
Starting in the early 1900s, St. Tammany deputies routinely got rid of confiscated guns by dumping them in Lake Pontchartrain, Sheriff Jack Strain said. The practice continued for decades, he said.
The exact location for the disposals varied. Sometimes the weapons would be tossed from the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway; other times they would be sent to a watery grave from boats in the center of the lake. On some occasions, guns were disposed of in the Rigolets, Strain said.
But because these disposals were all in St. Tammany Parish, it's likely the guns in Chef Pass came from some other law enforcement agency, he said.
The lake provided an attractive option for gun disposal since few could or would dive dozens of feet to retrieve them and saltwater would quickly tear through the steel, rendering the guns useless, Strain said. And, with a lack of facilities in the area with equipment that could destroy guns, the department had few other options, he said.
Sometime before Strain became sheriff in 1996, the department moved away from using the lake as a disposal site. Now the guns are melted down at manufacturing facilities, a process documented with video cameras to provide evidence of their destruction.
The NOPD has taken a similar tack. In the early '90s, the department began giving its guns to another city department, which would melt them down and use the metal for sewer covers and other projects, Young said.
However, since the NOPD's basement flooded during Hurricane Katrina, destroying the press, the department has been unable to dispose of weapons, Young said.
"It was filled before the storm, so they've got to be getting overrun with them," he said.
The exact source of the guns in Chef Pass may remain a mystery, but Strain noted that this would not be unusual for a waterway with the colorful history of those around New Orleans.
"It's always been used as a hiding spot and for piracy," Strain said. "God knows what else is down there."