Why they won’t stop shooting in Chicago
BY MARK J. KONKOL AND FRANK MAIN Staff Reporters April 18, 2011 3:31PM
On a violent weekend in April 2008, Jose Bravo was among those shot. Bravo holds the X-ray of his shoulder that shows where the bullets lodged. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: April 18, 2011 6:07PM
Originally published July 25, 2010
This is the story of why they won’t stop shooting in Chicago.
It’s told by the wounded, the accused and the officers who were on the street during a weekend in April 2008 when 40 people were shot, seven fatally.
Two years later, the grim reality is this: Nearly all of the shooters from that weekend have escaped charges.
“You don’t go to jail for shooting people,” says Dontae Gamble, who took six bullets that weekend, only to see his alleged shooter walk free.
“That’s why m------------- think they can get back on the streets and kill again. You feel me?”
So far, not one accused shooter has been convicted of pulling the trigger during those deadly 59 hours from April 18-20 of that year, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
Only one suspected triggerman — a convicted armed robber caught with the AK-47 he allegedly used to blow away his boss — is in jail awaiting trial.
Three other victims said they know who shot them but refused to testify. And after Gamble took the witness stand against the guy who he says shot him, a judge ruled Gamble wasn’t credible because of his criminal record and found the suspect not guilty.
Six murders from that 2008 weekend remain unsolved. And time’s running out to catch the bad guys who shot 29 other people that weekend because there’s a three-year statute of limitations on aggravated batteries with firearms.
Odds are, most of those cases will remain unsolved. The Chicago Police Department’s batting average for catching shooters has fallen to an alarmingly low level.
Detectives cleared 18 percent of the 1,812 non-fatal shootings last year. They were slightly better in catching killers — 30 percent of murders were cleared in 2009.
But here’s the catch: When police “clear” a case, that doesn’t always mean a suspect got convicted — or even charged.
Sometimes police seek charges against a suspect, but the state’s attorney won’t prosecute without more evidence. Other times, the shooter is dead, or the victim refuses to testify after identifying the shooter. Cops call those “exceptional” clearances.
Police don’t include the number of exceptional clearances in their annual report to the FBI. The Sun-Times obtained the data through the Freedom of Information Act.
Even though detectives cleared 18 percent of non-fatal shootings last year, almost half of those were cleared exceptionally, the records show. That means more than 90 percent of those gunmen weren’t charged.
And that has a real impact on street violence.
“The certainty of punishment is very, very low in Chicago, and that’s going to embolden people,” said defense attorney Thomas Needham, who was a top legal adviser to former police Supt. Terry Hillard. “It’s going to lead to less fear by the people who are going to consider shooting. That’s very alarming.”
‘My welcome to Chicago’
It was just after 9 o’clock on April 19, 2008. The sun had set, and the temperature had dropped to 64 degrees as a family barbecue rolled into Saturday night in the backyard of a home at 109th and Green Bay in the neighborhood called East Side.
While his cousin painted car parts in the garage, Jose Bravo stood outside it, leaning against the cool brick, smoking a Marlboro.
Just a month before, Bravo had moved from Woodland, Calif., to the East Side — once an enclave of white steelworkers and cops that’s now mostly Hispanic and troubled with gangs and crime. The Spanish Vice Lords have claimed the blocks near 109th and Green Bay as their turf, spray-painting graffiti on the street signs and fending off rivals with gunfire. They call it “Buckk City.” Buckk is street slang for fight.
By contrast, Woodland, Calif., was a relatively peaceful Sacramento suburb that didn’t have big problems with street gangs — or steady jobs for guys like Bravo.
Bravo, who’s married with two kids, knew the East Side could be a violent place. His family had warned him about that. But there was a job waiting for him in the produce section of a suburban supermarket.
“I was afraid to come here because I knew there were gangs,” the 36-year-old said in Spanish. “But I had to come for the work.”
It turns out his fear was justified.
On the night of the barbecue, he took a drag on his cigarette and heard a Nextel phone chirp across the street. Then, gunshots. The first shot — a 9mm blast — hit Bravo and shattered his right shoulder. One shot severed the cable TV wire overhead.
Bravo saw the guy who pulled the trigger under the glow of the street light. He was a Latino kid, no more than 17, wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans that had writing down the side. The teenage shooter didn’t say a word.
Bravo ran into the garage. His shoulder burned.
“I fell to one knee,” he said. “Intense pain.”
Bravo’s family pressed towels on his gushing bullet wound as they waited for paramedics and police.
He still doesn’t know why the teen opened fire.
“I guess I got my welcome to Chicago,” Bravo said.
Bravo kept souvenirs: the 9mm slug that struck him and a piece of bone that blasted out of his shoulder like shrapnel.
On the day Bravo was shot, beat cops picked up a teenage gang-banger with the street name “Chops.” He was running along 106th Street toward the Calumet River bridge when the officers saw him ditch a bag of weed behind a van, according to a police report.
The officers arrested him for having drugs. At the station, Chops told police he was watching a ninja cartoon and playing video games at a friend’s house. He denied shooting Bravo.
Later, witnesses at the barbecue picked Chops out of a police lineup. At the hospital, Bravo also identified Chops from a photo array, but he told detectives he didn’t want to prosecute. Bravo feared for his life.
“He felt that if [he] proceeded to press charges against the person arrested by police, that this same individual could possibly get out of jail early and come back to [shoot] him again,” Detective David Cavazos wrote in the police report.
Bravo’s case became one of two shootings that police cleared exceptionally from that weekend — without charges. Bravo said he now regrets not helping police and prosecutors put Chops in prison.
“It would have been a lot easier to press charges if I didn’t have my whole family here. If I did that, then maybe they keep coming, keep shooting up the house,” Bravo said through an interpreter. “If I didn’t live around here and was walking by and got shot, I would have put charges on him.”
All the time, cops and prosecutors encounter victims like Bravo who are reluctant to identify their shooter. To make it easier for them to talk, law enforcement officials offer to relocate families.
“The main thing we are doing is making them think of the community and not just themselves. Sometimes that’s a hard sell,” said Brian Sexton, a top official in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “We will move their family, but a lot of times they have roots in the community, and their kids are going to school in the neighborhood. Even when we move people, often they will go back to the same neighborhood in a few months.”
Bravo didn’t ask to move from East Side, but he did ask for compensation from the Illinois attorney general’s victim compensation program.
If he had agreed to prosecute Chops, the program would have picked up most, if not all, of his debt related to his shooting. The victim compensation program pays up to $27,000 to victims, but there’s one big catch to collect the cash: Victims must cooperate with the police. Last year, 5,917 victims applied for help statewide; 505 were denied because they wouldn’t testify.
“Our office struggles with denying compensation to victims who refuse to cooperate out of fear,” said Cara Smith, a deputy attorney general. “But those are the rules.”
Bravo’s silence has cost him dearly. All he has to show for taking that slug is $15,000 in medical bills he can’t afford to pay.
And Chops is still out on the street.
He’s not ‘Willie the Rat’
‘I could be Willie the Rat, but I don’t care about s--- like that,” Willie Brown said while rolling a joint near Sheridan and Wilson in the Uptown neighborhood.
Brown is 28. He lives in a run-down high-rise and walks with a limp because he got shot in the leg.
He said he was a bad kid, a teenage Vice Lord and stickup man who did prison time for robbing a corner store with a toy pistol in 2003 while high on weed and angel dust. He had the munchies that day and was looking to steal “wam wams and zoom zooms” — prison talk for snacks — when a police officer saw the gun poking from Brown’s waistband and arrested him. He was paroled in 2007.
On April 18, 2008, Brown took a bullet in his upper right thigh outside 1012 W. Sunnyside. He was the 10th person to get shot on that bloody April 2008 weekend.
“That was a horrific moment,” Brown said.
He says he saw the guy who shot him.
Heck, he even talked to the alleged shooter, Darnell Robinson.
Brown was on his way to buy beer about 11:30 p.m. that Friday when Robinson and his brother stopped him in the street.
Robinson supposedly asked, “What is you?” — street slang for “What gang are you in?”
Brown said he told them about his past Vice Lords affiliation.
Robinson said he was in the “Taliban” before he started shooting, according to Brown.
Police arrested Robinson, who was 31 at the time and had been behind bars for residential burglary and selling drugs. Brown identified Robinson as the shooter, and the case headed for a trial.
Robinson, who claimed he was innocent in jailhouse interviews with the Sun-Times, sat in Cook County jail for 13 months until prosecutors had to let him go because Brown changed his story several times.
Why did Brown’s story change? Because “my momma told me to,” he said.
“I did it so he could go home. I’m not no stool pigeon,” Brown said, recounting his story while scarfing down McNuggets at a McDonald’s in Uptown.
“I don’t have anything against him — it’s like he never shot me. I wouldn’t want to see the m----------- sitting in jail because that [jail] is hell. I spared that dude. That’s all I did. I did it for my mom.”
Brown said he sometimes bumps into Robinson on the street.
“I talked to the guy. He said he was sorry. I said, ‘Forget about it. Don’t worry about it.’ . . . I feel like I should have forgiven [him] for they know not what they do. He needs to be happy and thank God like I did. Everybody should go by that code.”
And in that moment — as Brown talked about forgiveness as his brand of nonviolent street justice — Robinson walked into the McDonald’s with two friends.
“There he is. That’s him right there!” Brown said.
The accused shooter and the victim awkwardly shook hands and hugged — each assuring the other, “We cool.”
Robinson nervously asked if reporters at the table were police officers. Robinson said repeatedly that he didn’t shoot Brown, but he wouldn’t talk more about it unless he was paid $30. Then he disappeared down Wilson Avenue, heading east toward the lake.
Brown said he and Robinson have a simple understanding: “Don’t f--- with me. I won’t f--- with you.”
‘You know you shot me, man’
Even when police catch a bad guy, a victim cooperates and prosecutors bring charges, shooters sometimes go free.
Dontae Gamble knows all about it.
On April 19, 2008, Gamble was shot six times outside Chicago’s Grill and Sub on Chicago Avenue in East Garfield Park.
“Dude came up and tried to rob me,” Gamble told the Sun-Times. “I got to wrestling, fighting with him, and he pulled that gun and got to shooting, and I got to running.”
Gamble scrambled across Chicago Avenue — running west toward Drake — as the bullets kept coming.
“Got me in the lung, in my back, two times in my arm, two times in my leg. And he caught me a couple times that were grazes,” he said, lifting his shirt to show his scars. “I thought I was going to die. I blanked out, and I think I died and came back to life.”
Gamble said he was shot over a drug deal that went bad.
The suspected shooter’s girlfriend asked Gamble to sell her marijuana.
He came back with a sack of weed, but the woman suddenly didn’t want it.
That’s when Gamble got into it on the corner with her boyfriend, known on the street as “Blow.”
Blow started to pull out a revolver, so Gamble punched him hard in the face, staggering him. Gamble ran. He looked back and saw a flash from the pistol’s barrel, heard a loud bang and felt the first bullet pierce his right side, according to Gamble.
When police picked up Blow — then 18 years old — Gamble identified him as the shooter in a photo array shown to him in his hospital bed. Gamble wrote “he shot me” on the suspect’s picture, according to court records.
Gamble told investigators he recognized Blow from the rough streets of the West Side — along a stretch of Chicago Avenue where dope dealers “ain’t nothing but killers . . . and they ain’t playing no games.”
Growing up, Gamble hung out on the corners with guys who “turned him out” as a youngster and got him started in the marijuana and heroin trade. In 2006, Gamble went to prison after getting busted delivering dope to undercover police officers. Blow had a rap sheet, too, arrested as a juvenile in 2006 for heroin possession and stealing a car while he attended Crane High School.
When it came time to face his alleged shooter from the witness stand, Gamble said he had no trouble fingering Blow. It was a defining moment for Gamble, who said other guys from the neighborhood would have resisted “snitching” and get their own revenge on the street.
“He tried to kill me. Other people say they’re not going to testify. . . . Somebody’s trying to take your life, you have to stand up for it. That’s being a man. This is something he knows he did. And I’m in court saying, ‘You know you shot me, man.’ ”
But then, Blow’s girlfriend took the witness stand and offered up a surprise alibi.
The girlfriend — who has a conviction for retail theft and had visited Blow in jail five times before the trial — told the judge Blow got into her car as gunshots were still going off, and he wasn’t firing them.
That’s a detail she didn’t share with police when interviewed after the shooting, according to court records.
In the end, Cook County Judge John Fleming decided Gamble wasn’t a credible witness due to his criminal past. And Blow walked away a free man.
“It basically comes down to the word of uncorroborated, basically words of a convicted felon as to who the shooter was,” Fleming said at the end of the bench trial. “I don’t think there’s enough beyond a reasonable doubt on just the evidence that I have. I have to find him not guilty.”
Police, prosecutors and public defenders acknowledge that when bad guys get shot, they don’t come across as sympathetic — or believable — witnesses. Shooting victims in Chicago are almost as likely to have a long rap sheet as the shooters. In 2008, 72 percent of murder victims and 91 percent of accused killers had arrest histories, according to police statistics.
But Gamble — now a janitor with two kids — said the court should have considered him a victim and disregarded his criminal past.
“That’s kinda crazy, you know. I’m not the one on trial. This man shot me and tried to kill me,” Gamble said. “I saw this man shooting me. I’m right there, feel me?”
Gamble also said authorities should have done a better job of investigating, putting together a stronger case and getting their facts straight since a judge might not believe a guy like him.
Gamble said the justice system doesn’t care as much about catching shooters when the victim has a rap sheet — an assertion detectives strenuously deny, although they do admit it’s more gratifying to catch an innocent person’s shooter than a criminal’s.
“They can catch a m----------- running a stop light,” Gamble said. “They don’t ever miss that. They can catch a drug dealer, but can’t catch no killers, no rapists and all that, man. Not around here.”
Three faces of the problem
Jose Bravo, Willie Brown and Dontae Gamble — all men who survived bullets during this one violent weekend in Chicago — are faces of a real problem.
When victims won’t cooperate or have shaky credibility on the witness stand, the overwhelming odds are the people who shot them won’t go to prison.