54 slayings, more than 80 charged: As Chicago’s gangs have changed, so have federal RICO prosecutions

The use of the federal racketeering law to go specifically after violence has ramped up since 2017


By Jason Meisner
Chicago Tribune
        
CHICAGO — The victims met their fates over two decades in every corner of the city: informants shot execution-style, rivals gunned down in barbershops and restaurants, a rapper targeted after online taunts, an innocent bystander felled by bullets sprayed at a pickup basketball game.

At least 54 people slain and dozens more wounded in shootings stretching from Englewood to Garfield Park to the Gold Coast — and all of them now included in a string of recent federal racketeering cases against reputed members of Chicago street gangs.

The announcement earlier this month of a racketeering indictment charging the Wicked Town gang faction with 19 of those killings was the latest in a concerted push by federal investigators to go after those believed to be driving the gun violence in Chicago, which has reached levels not seen in years.

Chicago police investigate a shooting at first block of East Oak Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood on Aug. 4, 2020.
Chicago police investigate a shooting at first block of East Oak Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood on Aug. 4, 2020. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

The Wicked Town indictment was at least the ninth major case since 2017, charging more than 80 reputed gang members under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — commonly referred to as RICO. Many of those charged with specific acts of violence face mandatory life in prison, or even the death penalty, if convicted at trial.

The gangs allegedly responsible for the violence range from well-established organizations such as the Latin Kings and Four Corner Hustlers to smaller factions that are little-known outside their own neighborhoods, with names such as the Goonies, LAFA, O Block and Milwaukee Kings.

At the core of each indictment, though, is a common theme: That much of today’s violence is being driven not by sophisticated drug trafficking enterprises but by gang factions trying to boost their group’s reputation on the street or on social media, creating a seemingly endless cycle of shootings and retaliation.

The use the RICO law to go specifically after gun violence has ramped up under U.S. Attorney John Lausch, who took office in 2017, a year when President Donald Trump was spinning the city’s failures to quell shootings into national headlines.

In an interview with the Tribune last week, Lausch said the effort was largely borne out of necessity, to “take a strategy that’s always been around and use it to adapt to things we’re seeing on the ground.”

“We’ve seen the gangs change and shift,” Lausch said. “They’re more factionalized. ... When we’re looking at the drivers of violence, we’ve seen a lot of it relate to turf and social media and retaliation upon retaliation. And this is a way from a federal law enforcement standpoint that we can make an impact.”

How much of an effect the prosecutions are having is subject to debate. Homicides are up 19% citywide from four years ago, while shootings are up 26% in that same time frame, according to Chicago police data.

And while the numbers have flattened somewhat in 2021, the city is still on a pace to see close to 800 homicides this year.

[More on this: Chicago PD cancels one of officers' regular days off as violence spikes]

Some criminal justice experts say past efforts by federal authorities to use harsh sentences as deterrents — most notably under the country’s now-discredited drug distribution statutes — have failed to move the needle on crime and may have inflicted collateral damage on communities.

They also doubted the possibility of life in federal prison will have immediate widespread influence on the escalating violence the city is facing, calling it a far more complex problem.

“This is not going to change the underlying societal dynamic that gives rise to the violence that we see,” said Erica Zunkel, associate director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

Lausch, however, said criminals on the street do fear federal prosecution. For one, he said, they know they’re likely to be held without bond if they’re accused of committing violent acts, and if they’re convicted they’ll face a long stretch in a prison likely far from Illinois.

They also know they’re often up against a lot more resources, whether its wiretaps, gun traces or a greater ability to protect witnesses who cooperate, he said.

While conspiracy cases have layers of culpability, Lausch said the defendants who face the harshest sentences in the RICO indictments were either alleged to be directly involved in the planning of a slaying or accused of pulling the trigger themselves.

“If someone takes another person’s life with a gun I can’t imagine anyone saying they shouldn’t go away for a long time.” Lausch said.

Another racketeering tool

In addition to using RICO to hold large numbers of gang members responsible for their organization’s activities, Lausch’s office has also been creative in bringing cases under the VICAR act, or Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Activity, an offshoot of RICO created by Congress in 1984.

That law allows for a more nimble approach, charging certain gang members, and sometimes just one, with a specific slaying or violent act as part of the larger conspiracy.

Maximum penalties for those cases vary depending on the alleged violent crime, but defendants convicted of a murder that occurred after 1994 can be subject to the death penalty under the VICAR statute.

Among those recent charged under VICAR were five reputed members of the South Side’s O-Block gang accused in October of opening fire on rapper FBG Duck, whose real name was Carlton Weekly, as he stood in line outside a Gold Coast clothing store on Aug. 4, 2020.

The 11-page indictment alleged the slaying was in furtherance of a racketeering conspiracy by O-Block, a splinter of the Black Disciples gang, to publicly claim responsibility for violence and used social media and music to increase their criminal enterprise.

After Weekly was killed, police went on alert, citing ongoing threats being made between the groups. Weekly, under his FBG Duck moniker, had made his own video prior to his death mocking rivals who had lost their lives.

Among those insulted in the video was Odee Perry, namesake of the O-Block faction. Weekly belonged to the Tookaville faction of the rival Gangster Disciples, named for a young man killed in the same conflict not long before Perry, according to police.

Other RICO indictments against other gang factions have echoed the charges against O-Block.

The indictment against Wicked Town, for example, accused 13 members of the reputedly violent faction of the Traveling Vice Lords of terrorizing neighborhoods on the West Side for nearly 20 years. The charges alleged the enterprise was promoted on social media sites, including Facebook, according to the indictment.

“Wicked Town members regularly promoted their violent enterprise on social media, posting comments, photos and videos to proclaim membership in the gang, taunt rival gang members and boast about murders and other acts of violence,” the indictment read.

The case that first made headlines for using RICO in similar ways came in 2018, when four reputed members of the Goonies, a faction of the Gangster Disciples, were charged in an string of killings and other shootings in the Englewood neighborhood from 2014 to 2016.

A jury trial has been set in the Goonies case for May 2023.

Among the evidence in that case is a disturbing video that was streamed live on Facebook following the January 2016 murder of a Goonie rival. In the video, about a dozen members of the gang, some as young as 14, wave guns in front of the camera and dance as they taunt the victim, chanting, “How the (expletive) did he get hit?” and “One in the head, no lie.”

One Chicago police sergeant involved in the investigation called the carnage wrought by the Goonies, “Killing for the sake of killing.”

Lausch told the Tribune that while there are motives behind the slayings, they tend to be far different from the gang cases he helped put together as a young prosecutor two decades ago. Back then, he said, gangs ran buildings in housing projects like “drug distribution fortresses” and acts of violence were largely committed within that same network.

“In those cases, the nexus was the drug conspiracy,” Lausch said.

Today, the U.S. attorney’s office works closely with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies to share intelligence and evidence and “try and noodle through those gang disputes” to determine the suspects and motives behind the violence, Lausch said.

Sometimes there is drug dealing involved, or a robbery or carjacking crew, Lausch said. Other times it’s more nebulous.

“We are adapting to what we’re seeing.”

Early results

Of the nine recent RICO indictments the Tribune reviewed, only one has gone to trial so far: the Four Corner Hustlers case that ended earlier this month with the conviction of the gang’s reputed leader, Labar “Bro Man” Spann.

The jury found Spann guilty of four of the six murders charged in the racketeering conspiracy, and he faces mandatory life behind bars when he’s sentenced in March. Several of Spann’s top henchmen accused of varying roles in the violence agreed to cooperate in exchange for leniency but still face the potential of decades in prison.

The Four Corner Hustlers case also illustrates that defendants can get off with relatively light sentences if they cooperate with prosecutors, even if they’re charged with violence.

Rontrell Turnipseed, who, according to testimony was being groomed to one day lead the gang, pleaded guilty to racketeering and received a 10-year sentence. He admitted in his plea agreement to shooting at a rival drug dealer in 2012, wounding a 15-year-old girl.

Two other Four Corner Hustlers defendants who were not accused of specific violence pleaded guilty and got less than four years in prison.

Many defense attorneys argue the harsh sentences written into the RICO statute put undue pressure on underlings like Turnipseed and the others to lie to save themselves.

Defendants in other cases who’ve pleaded guilty to murders have so far not fared as well. The Milwaukee Kings case, for example, has seen three of the four gang leaders plead out, with an average sentence of nearly three decades in prison.

One of them, Santo Lozoya, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for his role in the gang, which used shootings, beatings, murder and other violence to promote the gang’s status and control territory in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

Among the string of deadly shootings was the December 2016 slaying of 28-year-old Crispin Coliz, who’d exchanged words with Lozoya and another Milwaukee Kings member at a Dunning neighborhood convenience store, where Coliz had stopped while on his way home from a Chicago Bulls game, according to court records.

Prosecutors said Lozoya and a co-defendant, Jose Martinez, retrieved guns from a nearby stash house before returning to the scene and fatally shooting Coliz in his vehicle, court records show.

Afterward, Lozoya and Martinez celebrated the fatal shooting by getting “trophy” tattoos on their faces, according to prosecutors.

Lozoya was sentenced to 33 years behind bars earlier this year, while Martinez, who also pleaded guilty to racketeering, got a 29-year term.

‘Complex issues’

Lausch said the gang prosecutions have made a difference, both in getting dangerous people off the street and lending solace to some families who “appreciate the resources that we can bring to bear to help victims.”

With so many cases pending, the final outcome is unknown. One relative of a victim included in the recent indictments told the Tribune his family did feel a sense of relief that the justice system worked, even at long last.

That person, who asked that their name be withheld for safety reasons, also said his neighborhood was experiencing turmoil in the wake of the charges being announced, and that it had resurrected angry and anguished feelings and fears of even more retaliation.

“We all want to feel like we are in control,” he said, explaining why there was a potential for backlash. “(The indictment) stops the bleeding on the one end, but it starts to open up a whole other wound on the other side.”

Many experts say targeting those who commit violence for lifelong sentences won’t necessarily prevent a new generation of shooters, unless politicians and policymakers commit to correcting all the conditions and systems in a community that contribute to violence in the first place.

That means some deep, sustained commitments on housing, education and jobs. While the Biden administration has dedicated billions of dollars to community-based interventions and programs, how the cash translates to actual solutions remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Zunkel, from the University of Chicago, said a punitive response is always a popular response — and it crosses political lines.

“It’s faster and it’s always been beyond politics,” she said. “Being tough on crime is a winning political issue.”

But she said she would not count on it to interrupt the cycle of violence that her clients are facing, no matter how many times authorities try.

“These are complex issues,” Zunkel said. “It’s getting the will to deal with them. It’s really hard to do it but I think we do know what are things that work.”

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