Sayira Cooper’s South End apartment was empty when the exterminator arrived one sunny morning last April for a routine check for bedbugs.
But instead of insects, the exterminator allegedly found two loaded semiautomatic pistols under her mattress, including a Glock .357, a powerful firearm like the kind sometimes used in street crimes.
Police arrived at the home a short while later and found Cooper’s 2-year-old son sitting in a chair holding a sippy cup. A candle burned in a window. It did not take detectives long to discover three more handguns and 300 rounds of ammunition in a safe underneath Cooper’s bed.
Cooper is scheduled to appear in Suffolk Superior Court on gun charges in March, and prosecutors say she is emblematic of an oft-overlooked aspect in the fight against gun violence. As law enforcement agencies and the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh ponder ways to get guns off the street, they are learning that targeting the men who historically have been the primary actors in violent crimes is not enough.
They must also disrupt networks of women who buy and hold weapons for men to use.
“We are seeing women with weapons who do not have a direct role in the city’s gun violence,’’ said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. “But they are turning up with firearms that are used in that violence.”
Debora Seifert, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Boston, said that she has worked on cases in which women bought firearms for boyfriends who are drug dealers.
“These women can go into a gun shop and buy these guns for a violent criminal,’’ said Seifert. “They can use these weapons to victimize someone in their communities.”
Police say 11 of Boston’s 14 homicides this year have been the result of gunfire, including the killing of 9-year-old Janmarcos Pena, allegedly shot by his 14-year-old brother in Mattapan last month. Police are trying to determine where that gun came from in a city that has seen roughly 250 shootings a year since 2009.
Responding to public outcry following Pena’s death, Walsh and Police Commissioner William B. Evans proposed bringing back a revised version of gun buyback programs that were criticized as ineffective, and Walsh recently unveiled a new safety initiative to better pool the city’s crime-fighting arsenal.
But Nancy Robinson, who heads the antigun trafficking group Citizens for Safety, said Boston and other major cities cannot alleviate illegal gun trafficking without targeting women.
“The whole idea is that we have to get to the sources of where the guns are coming from,’’ said Robinson. “The women is just one source.”
While research is scant on women’s involvement in the gun problem, studies have been clear about who is leading violence by firearms, said David Hemenway, a professor of public health at Harvard School of Public Health.
Men and teenage boys drive gun crime either as victims or perpetrators. If a woman buys a gun, Hemenway added, she is more likely to be buying it for someone who cannot legally buy a gun.
“These young females find themselves facing jail time for holding that gun,’’ said Evans in a statement.
It is a scenario playing out case by case in Suffolk Gun Court, where 20-year-old Jahmeilla Tresvant stood silently one recent Friday in fitted pants and a black blazer before Judge Raymond Dougan.
She is facing several gun charges, in two different cases. In the first incident April 10, police were looking for her brother Jemeille D. Tresvant after they received a tip that he was armed.
They stopped the pair walking on Roxbury’s Norfolk Street, where an officer frisked and patted down Jemeille, according to court documents. But officers soon noticed that Jahmeilla’s hands trembled and her voice cracked when they asked for her name.
Officers then decided to search her purse and found what authorities believe to be her brother’s Bersa ACP .380 handgun and seven live rounds of ammunition, the court documents show. Her brother denies that the gun belonged to him.
“I never touched a gun, I never seen a gun, I never owned a gun in my life,’’ he said outside court.
Police arrested her again on Jan. 29 near Mattapan’s Blue Hill Avenue after they stopped a car she was a passenger in and found a loaded silver revolver tucked in her underwear.
Two known male gang members and another young women were also in the car, police said.
“It’s really unfortunate to hear that she was charged with a second gun offense,’’ her lawyer, Steven Kim, said after Jahmeilla Tresvant appeared in gun court for a status hearing.
Kim, who is representing Jahmeilla Tresvant in the 2013 case, said his client denies owning the gun. He said he had entered a not guilty plea on her behalf at a motion to suppress hearing in January, arguing that police did not have cause to search her that day.
Jemeille did not seem worried that his sister is being held at Suffolk County House of Correction.
“She’s going to be all right,’’ he said.
Before he left the courthouse, Jemeille asked why young men like himself were being targeted by authorities for having firearms, suggesting that women were also to blame.
“You are being profiled as a male,’’ he said. “Why are they assuming it’s just the males who have these weapons? What about the females?”
But then he thought about his question and stressed that he was not indicting his sister.
“I’m not saying that was my gun. I’m not saying that was my sister’s gun. I’m just saying it’s something to think about,’’ he said.
In the war on illegal guns, Ruth Rollins has heard it all. She’s an advocate for women whose own son was shot and killed. Women have long been flying under radar in police sweeps for illegal guns, she said. And women have become easy prey for criminally-minded men, who are becoming savvy in avoiding arrest for gun possession by having female relatives, partners, or juveniles hold firearms for them.
Women have said they hold the guns for a variety of reasons: to get a few extra dollars, to get drugs, or simply to feel needed. The firearms are sometimes used as community guns stored in a central location, and anyone, from a wayward juvenile to a terrified young man, can have easy access to them.
“It’s no different from years ago when a woman would hold drugs for their men. They would do it for money. They would do it for love,’’ said Rollins. “Now they are holding these guns and they are doing it in the name of love.”
Kim Odom, who lost her 13-year-old son to violence, said some women feel a deep sense of commitment to their men, even the ones wrapped up in crime.
“They are of the mind-set that they are ‘ride-or-die chicks,’ ” Odom said. “These are young ladies who are willing to go all out for their boyfriends.”
Over past year and a half Rollins and Odom have been training and educating women about the consequences of buying and stashing weapons. They urge women to make pledges to not hold or buy guns and warn them of the penalties if caught. For instance, a person who makes a straw purchase faces up to 10 years in prison under federal law, US authorities said.
Their effort, called Operation LIPSTICK, is run through Citizens for Safety, which has enlisted the help of local law enforcement and the mayor to press the issue. On Feb. 25, the group kicked off an ad campaign on the MBTA, with placards on subway trains declaring, “His Crime, Your Time — Holding His Gun Can Land You in Jail.”
The police department is also participating.
Prosecutors, too, have identified a number of recent cases showing the female link to the gun problem.
Cooper, the 24-year-old tenant of the South End home where guns were allegedly found last year by an exterminator, was evicted in November from her apartment at the Cathedral housing development, according to the Boston Housing Authority. She is charged with possessing five handguns and ammunition. Her boyfriend, Dannie Levy, also faces similar charges.
In a separate case, Arianna Talbert, a 23-year-old from Dorchester, is also due in court March 26 on gun charges. Boston firefighters had rushed to her second-floor Lyon Street apartment on March 30, 2013, after a space heater caused a mattress to catch fire. When firefighters moved the mattress to dispose of it, they found a Tec-9 handgun hidden between the mattress and the base.
Talbert denied she owned the gun, saying a friend named Sean had placed it there. But then she pointed to a red suitcase next to the bed, where police found a shotgun and shells. Talbert is to appear in Suffolk County Gun Court on charges of unlawful possession of a high-capacity firearm, shotgun, and ammunition.
The Suffolk district attorney’s office is also prosecuting 44-year-old Kim Defranzo in a gun trafficking case, alleging she allowed her apartment to be used for the sale of two assault rifles, a shotgun, 24 rounds of ammunition, and 56 grams of crack cocaine during four transactions in the spring of 2012.
Her case is currently pending in Superior Court.