Federal RICO law part of Aurora’s crime-reduction success story
BY NATASHA KORECKI Federal Courts Reporter email@example.com June 6, 2012 7:38PM
Aurora Police investigate an early evening shooting on Friday May 25, 2012 on Aurora's East Side. One person was shot, and is expected to make a full recovery. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 8, 2012 7:01PM
Federal law enforcement has successfully used its racketeering law to take out an Aurora gang’s hierarchy, but it isn’t the only weapon it uses when targeting street gangs. And, depending on the case, it isn’t always the best.
“RICO has repeatedly been proven to be an incredibly powerful tool to fight gangs,” said Christina Egan, who left the U.S. Attorney’s office earlier this year after serving as the deputy chief of gangs and narcotics.
But the office more often ends up targeting gang members using federal drug conspiracy laws.
“It’s like having another arrow in your quiver. It’s a different arrow and can be used effectively and appropriately when the evidence commands it,” Egan said.
The U.S. Attorneys Office has had a series of successful gang prosecutions that used the racketeering statute. That included a recent trial against Augustin Zambrano, the highest-ranking leader nationwide of the Latin Kings street gang. He was sentenced in January 2012 to 60 years in prison following a conviction of racketeering conspiracy. At trial, prosecutors laid bare instances of drug trafficking and gang-related violence on the city’s North, South and West sides.
In another case, The Insane Deuces street gang in Aurora was targeted in what is often hailed as a great example of coordinating forces among different levels of law enforcement to wipe out gang violence. A federal RICO case was built against the gang, charging the hierarchy with four murders and a dozen attempted murders.
Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said since a coordinated effort was launched against the city’s gangs in 2002, it has seen an astounding drop in violence.
In 1996, Aurora had 357 shootings and 26 murders. Last year, the city saw 60 shootings and 2 murders.
“That’s about a 92 percent reduction in murder from our peak year,” Thomas said.
Thomas attributed some of the success to a federal racketeering gang case.
That alone didn’t fix Aurora’s gang problems though. There were a series of successful conspiracy cases, many of them federal, that knocked out the rival Latin Kings, he said.
“Racketeering didn’t magically make Aurora great,” Thomas said. “There were a lot of things that happened. ... Because we were having so much success with the different programs that we were doing, there was no one who wanted to step up into the [gang’s] leadership role.”
Former FBI Supervisor Paul Bock who worked gangs for six years including the focus on Aurora, said getting federal prosecutors to charge racketeering was no easy feat and he suspected that the state law could be similarly difficult to use.
He said the U.S. Attorney’s Office would decline to charge a racketeering case for gangs unless investigators could prove that a shooting or murder happened because it was in furtherance of the gang’s goals.
“The crimes happened, but we had to prove why they happened and proving the why is really tough,” Bock said. He advised state investigators to be prepared for disappointment.
“You may have someone saying: “I killed him, but I didn’t kill him for the gang. Boom, that’s not RICO.”
Bock said law enforcement worked then to “chunk it out” and charge a series of cases separately, largely on drug crimes.
That strategy also worked. About 130 people were convicted, he said, including the 60 or so gang members targeted as the most violent in the group.
Would the strategy work in Chicago?
Bock said it comes down to numbers of law enforcement versus gangs. Chicago’s numbers are on a whole other scale.
“We overwhelmed Aurora with informants,” said Bock. “We had more informants than gang members at one point.”
The federal RICO law is sometimes more difficult to use at trial, said former federal prosecutor Sergio Acosta. “My feeling always was, if you can charge a regular conspiracy, that is a better route to take,” Acosta said. “When you’re talking RICO, there are many more jury instructions and elements that have to be proven.”
According to the Executive Office of U.S. attorneys, from 1999 and projecting out through 2012, the Northern District of Illinois charges an average of 158 narcotics cases every year against an average of 376 defendants annually. Typical drug conspiracy cases can charge defendants without any allegation of gang affiliation, but many of those cases involve gang membership. The conviction rate over that time: 95 percent.
“I think more frequently, far more indictments are charged under [drug conspiracies] but the office has absolutely charged RICO when it sees fit,” Egan said. “The reason it’s been used, it gives a mechanism to get at street gangs based on the violence.”