Police: Some Chicago gangs turning to rifles for added firepower
Police aren't sure why the gangs have suddenly added rifles to their arsenal, except for the obvious speculation that they are deadlier
By Peter Nickeas, Jeremy Gorner and Nereida Moreno
CHICAGO — The first time 14-year-old Brisa Ramirez remembers hearing rifle fire was when a man was shot dead on a Sunday afternoon outside a Catholic church around the corner from her home in Back of the Yards.
She raises her voice to imitate the sharp, metallic bursts. Ta. Ta. Ta. Ta. Ta. It was a foreign sound even in this neighborhood accustomed to gunfire.
"It wasn't like a normal (shooting). … It was like something more terrible," Brisa says. "A noise that you can't really explain."
She and others in Davis Square Park took cover against concrete steps across the street from Seward Elementary School, where Brisa had just graduated from eighth grade.
The shooting was one of at least 33 in Back of the Yards and Brighton Park over the past nine months that police believe are tied to semi-automatic rifles as several gangs boost their firepower. At least 46 people have been shot in the attacks, 13 fatally.
Police say this is the only area of the city where rifles styled after AR-15s and AK-47s are regularly used, a menacing new development in the gang fights.
It's unclear how many of the high-powered rifles are on the street, but police suspect they are being passed around by members of four Hispanic gangs in the Deering police district, which covers parts of the South and Southwest sides.
Two of the gangs — La Raza near 47th and Loomis streets and the Almighty Saints near 45th and Wood streets — have been fighting for decades. But the conflict has expanded to the Satan Disciples and Gangster Two-Sixes in neighboring Brighton Park, where violence is less frequent.
Police have seized at least three rifles and have recovered rifle casings at dozens of crime scenes. There is also surveillance video showing rifles being used, according to investigators.
Police aren't sure why the gangs have suddenly added rifles to their arsenal, except for the obvious speculation that they are deadlier.
A bullet from a semi-automatic rifle can travel as fast as 3,200 feet per second, twice the speed from a handgun. That means wounds are more disabling, experts say.
Rifle bullets can tear through cars and other obstacles, including standard-issue bulletproof vests worn by Chicago police. Special "rifle plates" that can stop those rounds are issued to SWAT teams, and some officers on regular duty also buy them.
Gangs have fired rifles outside elementary schools and churches, a day care center, in alleys and on residential streets, mostly during the afternoon and evening hours when streets are often crowded.
The conflict has grown so intense that officers were called to Seward and Lara elementary schools in Saints territory in December after a Raza gang member threatened to shoot school-age kids with a rifle, according to police sources.
"I get worried," said Brisa's mother, Silvia Ramirez. Her family lives in "Halo City," Almighty Saints territory bounded by 43rd and 47th streets and Damen and Ashland avenues. "I've seen how all these young people are dying."
'What did I do wrong?'
Two white candles burn in the Gonzalez family's Brighton Park living room next to two photos in a red and green Virgin Mary shadowbox.
One burns for Daniel Torres, a 17-year-old shot to death with a rifle just before Christmas outside Shields Elementary School, at 43rd and Rockwell streets, as classes were letting out. Two others also were shot, one fatally.
The other candle commemorates the loss of Torres' close friend, 18-year-old David Gonzalez, who was fatally shot by rifle fire three weeks later and only about a block from where Torres was killed. Four other people were wounded in the shooting.
As young children, Torres and Gonzalez used to scream for each other from across Fairfield Avenue because their parents wouldn't let them cross the street.
They became inseparable as their families grew close by marriage. They lived together for years, and both joined the Satan Disciples.
Their parents think the two turned because they felt backed into a corner. Torres' mother, Marisa Dominguez, said her son and Gonzalez had been bullied by Satan Disciples at Kelly Park and by Two-Sixers in high school.
"I think about it every day. Every day I say to myself, what did I do wrong with my son? Was I a bad mom, was I a bad parent that I didn't do enough?" Dominguez said. "You think about it now, now that he's not here, now that I know I'm not going to see him again."
The Satan Disciples — with their turf between about Oakley and California avenues — and the Two-Sixers — west of there — are as much a part of Brighton Park as the brown bungalows and iron fences that line the one-way streets south of Pershing Road.
But residents say it's only in the last three or four years that they've seen such violence.
The Deering police district is one of four that experienced a lot of Chicago's violence in 2016, the deadliest year in the city in two decades. Deering finished the year with about 60 people killed, roughly double the previous year.
Police started noticing the rifles early last year, mostly in Back of the Yards, and their use has been increasing. October had three rifle shootings, November had six and December had nine, about the time the shootings started in Brighton Park, according to police.
Torres' death on Dec. 16 was only the third rifle shooting in that neighborhood since March, but there have been five since.
Dominguez was walking to pick up her younger kids from a charter school when she heard gunfire. Worried, she said she called her son, but he did not answer.
By the time she made it home, ambulances were lining up on 43rd Street. Torres' friends ran up and said her son had been shot. She waited at the scene after telling police her son's name. Officers told her he was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, but he died before she got there.
"I was so young when I had him, and God took him from me when he was young as well," Dominguez said. "I had a very good relationship with him. I did the best that I could for him."
By the end of December, gangs in the area were using rifles "almost exclusively," according to several veteran officers interviewed by the Tribune. The last day of 2016 saw two rifle shootings: one a block from Brisa Ramirez's home and the other a few blocks west.
The first rifle shooting of the new year was the one that killed Gonzalez on Jan. 11.
In the weeks before his own death, Gonzalez had been shaken by Torres' killing. He had built a small memorial in the family's back yard from cardboard and foil and sat out there, his family said. Others would join him and light candles.
"He was always back there. Every morning with his coffee, he was back there," Dominguez said. "He took it hard."
On the day he died, Gonzalez spent the morning at home. It was pouring rain. He left the house that afternoon after eating a warm meal prepared by his mother.
The family had scheduled a Mass for what would have been Torres' 18th birthday on Jan. 12, so Gonzalez texted his friends. He wanted everyone to show up.
"He couldn't have been outside for more than half an hour when it happened," said his mother, Juliana Gonzalez. "Because it's not like I can say he was out all night — it was the afternoon."
Gonzalez was in a car with four others on Talman Avenue, across from Shields Elementary, when someone stepped from a white van and started shooting. All five in the car were hit, Gonzalez the most seriously.
His family heard on social media that he had been shot. His mother drove from hospital to hospital, looking for him. She was desperate for information, learning little from rumors spreading on social media.
As it turned out, her son had been pronounced dead where the car finally stopped, about a mile from the shooting. He had been shot in the back of the head.
Four days later, two people were wounded in a rifle shooting that police believe was retaliation for Gonzalez's killing.
'The rifle comes out'
The weapon of choice for gangs had long been the revolver, the same kind of gun carried by police. That began to evolve in the 1980s and early 1990s with the appearance of the TEC-9 and MAC-10 pistols with high-capacity magazines. Then it was the semi-automatic handgun, the same weapon Chicago officers now use.
Rifles were briefly used about 10 years ago in a conflict between the New Breeds and the Traveling Vice Lords, two of the West Side's most violent street gangs. Former police Superintendent Jody Weis allowed patrol officers to carry semi-automatic rifles after two officers nearly got shot by a gunman armed with an AK-47 rifle.
Semi-automatic rifles can be bought by anyone licensed to buy a firearm. They fire a single round per trigger pull and the magazine can carry 30 rounds.
Police have several theories about how the Hispanic gangs are getting these rifles — they're buying them in Indiana, where gun laws are more lax, or they're buying or renting them from other gangs.
"Alliances, sort of," one veteran South Side officer said.
In many of the rifle shootings, gangs send out scout cars in search of rivals, according to the officer. "The other car comes up, and the rifle comes out," the officer said.
In Back of the Yards and Brighton Park, rifle fire has come from a black SUV, a silver Nissan Sentra with tinted windows, a brown minivan with sliding doors, and a red or maroon Jeep Cherokee, according to police.
Rifle seizures are still rare and didn't crack the list of the 20 most-seized types of guns in 2014, according to the latest breakdown from the Police Department.
Police and Cook County sheriff's officers have conducted searches across the neighborhood over the last few months. At least three rifles have been seized so far in the Deering District.
One of the rifles was recovered last Labor Day. Police were pursuing two suspected La Raza gang members after a fatal shooting in Almighty Saints territory. The two wrapped the rifle in a T-shirt and tried stashing it in a clothing donation bin, according to a security video from a gas station on Western Avenue. But it didn't fit, so they kept running and were arrested in an alley just off Western. The rifle was recovered in a backyard nearby.
In the most recent seizure, on Feb. 9, officers on patrol spotted gunfire from a car near 47th Street, not far from where a warrant had come up empty-handed in January.
As the officers gave chase, a dispatcher said neighbors were flooding 911 to report gunfire.
"Sounded like a machine gun," the dispatcher said. "Just be advised, we still have hot tickets coming in for shots fired, 47(th) and Loomis, 47(th) and Bishop."
The chase went as far south as Garfield Boulevard before heading back north toward Almighty Saints territory at 43rd Street and Ashland Avenue. Two teens deserted the car in an alley and took off on foot, but officers arrested one within seconds wearing a black face mask and black gloves.
While searching for the other teen, police started hearing gunfire near 45th and Wood, then near 48th and Paulina. One officer wondered if it was a diversion. "They're not above shooting to just get our attention," he radioed.
Police found two rifles inside the car — one a Remington, its serial number defaced, complicating efforts to figure out its origins, and the other a Norinco AK-47-style rifle made in China, according to law enforcement sources.
So far, police have linked one of them to a shooting Dec. 30 in the 4700 of South Throop Street that wounded one person.
As the conflict escalates, Marisa Dominguez worries gangs will try to recruit her 12-year-old son by enticing him to avenge his brother's death.
"This is the time where they start trying to get more kids," she said. "I fear that they'll grab him ... and pull (him) in little by little. And that's the biggest fear now."
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