How the feds are trying to make dealer pay for death of cop
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter March 20, 2014 8:32PM
Chicago Police Officer Robert Soto.
Updated: April 22, 2014 6:18AM
Drug dealer Jason “J-Rock” Austin was locked up in Cook County Jail for allegedly killing an off-duty Chicago cop and his female friend while they sat in an SUV on the West Side.
But that didn’t stop the feared gang leader from reaching out to his family and friends on jail phones, the feds say.
And one by one, witnesses who pointed to Austin in the 2008 murders of Roberto Soto and his friend, Kathryn Romberg, suddenly changed their stories.
The triggerman wasn’t Austin at all — but a drug-dealing rival, some of the witnesses said.
Others said the cops beat them to lie about Austin, even going so far as to sue the Chicago Police Department.
Some got rides to the grand jury from Austin’s brother, Bubba, who wasn’t shy about showing off his gun.
And one woman who didn’t change her story got punched with a padlock by one of Austin’s girlfriends.
“You better stop trickin’ on J-Rock,” she warned, the feds say.
As the witnesses’ accounts collapsed, the prosecution fell apart, and Austin walked out of jail a free man less than a month after his arrest.
Austin not only got away with the murders, the feds say. He also got promoted in his gang for killing a cop — to a 5 Star Universal in the Traveling Vice Lords.
But now, the feds want him to pay — and be sentenced to at least 40 years behind bars.
In a 49-page court filing, prosecutors provided for the first time in public a detailed narrative about the days leading up to the murders and how Austin and his associates intimidated witnesses as methodically as the 31-year-old gang leader ran his West Side drug corner where he and his crew sold up to $8,000 in heroin a day.
Prosecutors plan to use that evidence — some of it new, some of it involving witnesses reaffirming their original statements — to boost Austin’s sentence in a federal drug case that he was convicted in. Prosecutors can do this in federal court, even though Austin was never convicted of the murders. Austin’s defense attorney, though, says the witnesses’ statements keep changing and can’t be relied upon, noting state prosecutors dropped the murder charges against Austin.
The court filing is unusual for its level of detail.
The feds say Austin did not target the police officer, but instead believed he was robbing and shooting a rival drug dealer and his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity.
A friend of Austin’s at the time, Jeffrey Scott, said Austin told him: “Man, I f----d up, I didn’t know it was a cop and a lady.”
Scott would later recant, but now he is expected to testify at Austin’s sentencing hearing. His brother, Terrance Scott, told federal authorities that he was in the Buick Regal that Austin was driving when he allegedly committed the murders.
Austin was caught on tape on jail phones, cryptically talking about reaching out to witnesses, prosecutors said.
Nicholas Roti, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Organized Crime Bureau, said the conversations were similar to the carefully worded exchanges between Italian mobsters.
“This is like old-school criminals, fixing cases and stuff,” Roti said. “It seems to be from a made-for-TV movie.”
Austin’s work on the murder case against him went beyond witness intimidation, the feds say.
To set up an alibi, a repair shop owner was paid about $2,000 to say Austin’s car was in his shop at the time of the shooting — to contradict anyone who said they saw it near the scene of the murders, the feds say.
A lawyer of Austin’s at the time was paid $20,000 in cash, wrapped in a gray sweatshirt and provided by a drug kingpin, at a bar near the Cook County criminal courthouse at 26th and California. Soon after, the lawyer’s investigator began collecting the altered statements of the witnesses.
But despite his care in covering his tracks, Austin would make occasional slips, the feds say.
One time, Austin learned that the feds were re-creating the double murder scene inside a lumber yard.
One acquaintance told Austin that the cops had a black man who was portraying Austin and wearing “his hat turned backwards.”
“Man, I ain’t have no damn hat on,” Austin allegedly said.
Chicago Police officials, who originally investigated the murders, are pleased that Austin could wind up paying for the killings with a longer-than-normal drug sentence when he is sentenced next month.
“This is vindication for us. We took an unwarranted black eye in this case,” Roti said.