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How a racketeering case gets made: Wicked Town investigation started small, wound up bringing down violent Chicago gang faction

Chicago Tribune - 11/28/2022

The sprawling case that brought down one of Chicago’s most notoriously violent gang factions started small.

Chicago police organized crime investigators in the fall of 2016 were looking at narcotics trafficking on the city’s West Side, conducting relatively low-level buy-busts. They got up on wires and were building a case, but there were no high-ranking gang members being targeted, just an increasingly complicated puzzle waiting to be put together.

What grew out of those early strands became the Wicked Town racketeering case, one of the biggest gang prosecutions in years at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. In the end, the probe would consume thousands of hours of work from a number of different federal and local agencies, including the Chicago police, Illinois State Police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS and U.S. attorney’s office.

At the center of it all were agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who helped stitch together evidence including ballistics and firearm tracing, wiretaps, physical and electronic surveillance, jail calls, and social media posts to paint the big picture of the violence and terror that Wicked Town, a faction of the Traveling Vice Lords, brought to the Austin community.

Their efforts over the past five years culminated earlier this month when a federal jury found Donald Lee, the reputed leader of Wicked Town, and one of his top “shooters,” Torance Benson, guilty of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) conspiracy involving a string of murders, shootings, robberies, beatings and other violence going back two decades.

Before the eight-week trial even began, 11 other Wicked Town associates had already pleaded guilty to their roles in the violence, including one man who admitted to killing six people in a four-month stretch and three others who pleaded guilty to a contract hit on a suspected police informant and his girlfriend in early 2018 that sent the investigation to another level.

Unlike what’s portrayed on television and in the movies, there wasn’t an “aha” moment, where an investigator hears something on a wiretap or gets a tip from an informant, punches it into a computer and quickly solves the case.

Instead, it was an often-tedious task of ferreting out crucial details from the “white noise” of information coming in from myriad sources, one of the lead ATF agents on the Wicked Town case told the Tribune in a recent interview.

“It’s like dump trucks pulling up and dropping mounds and mounds of evidence to sift through and connect what needs to be connected,” said the agent, who requested anonymity because he’s still working other sensitive cases on the street.

Part of a federal effort

The case against Wicked Town was indicative of a collaborative push by local and federal investigators to target the drivers of Chicago’s gun violence with racketeering conspiracy charges that typically were used against the Outfit or sophisticated drug trafficking organizations.

“This is truly a remarkable case, and I say that as someone who’s been around for a little while,” U.S. Attorney John Lausch, who worked many gang cases in his 16 years as a rank-and-file prosecutor, said after the Wicked Town verdicts were read on Nov. 15. “There’s not many gang cases like this one. This was truly remarkable in its scope and its breadth, and it really is a result of the persistence of law enforcement.”

In addition to using the RICO law to hold large numbers of gang members responsible for their organization’s activities, the Wicked Town case employed 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.

While the U.S. attorney’s office ultimately took the death penalty off the table in the Wicked Town case, the prospect of that punishment came up repeatedly in testimony of cooperators who decided to flip against their colleagues, despite the gang’s strict “no-snitch” policy.

Last year, a similar case against the Four Corner Hustlers, one of the key rivals of the Traveling Vice Lords and affiliates like Wicked Town, went to trial at the same courthouse and had a similar outcome.

After eight weeks of testimony, a federal jury convicted Labar “Bro Man” Spann, the longtime leader of the Four Corner Hustlers, of racketeering and VICAR charges alleging he directed the violent street gang in a string of robberies, extortion and four murders over the course of two decades, including the infamous contract killing of Latin Kings boss Rudy “Kato” Rangel.

Meanwhile, two other major gang racketeering cases are set to go to trial next year. In May, four reputed members of the Goonie Boss faction of the Gangster Disciples are scheduled to face a jury on charges of racketeering conspiracy alleging they committed 10 killings and six attempted murders during three-year reign of terror in the Englewood community.

And in October, five reputed members of the South Side’s O-Block gang are set for trial on similar RICO-related murder charges, alleging they opened 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.

Duane DeVries, the Chicago police’s deputy chief of counterterrorism, said after the Wicked Town verdict that partnerships between the police and feds allow them to target specific individuals responsible for so much of the violence and get a “long term effect, instead of just a quick hit.”

The results, at least in the length of prison sentences, have so far spoken for themselves.

Lee, 40, faces mandatory life in prison while Benson, 30, could receive up to life behind bars. Many of their associates who cut deals still face 20 to 30 years under the terms of their plea agreements.

Spann, 45, faces mandatory life in prison when he’s sentenced next month. Ten others pleaded guilty to various roles in the gang, with some who admitted to committing murders sentenced to more than 35 years behind bars.

Meanwhile, the ATF agent and his supervisors told the Tribune that while racketeering cases are by no means a “magic solution” to the city’s seemingly endless cycle of gun violence, shootings and homicides in the area where Wicked Town operated are down significantly since the case was brought.

“Instead of running around and going from this small case to another small case where violators we are arresting are going to be right back on the street … in a case like this, they’re going away for a long time and it’s going to make a definite impact,” said Will Panoke, the assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Chicago bureau.

According to Chicago Police Department statistics, the 15th District, which encompasses Wicked Town’s stronghold of Leamington Avenue and Ferdinand Street in the Austin neighborhood, there had been 32 killings this year through Tuesday, down 26% from the same time frame in the previous year and well off the 64 homicides in the district in 2020.

“It shows a little bit of the impact these cases can have,” the ATF case agent said.

His team leader, Supervisory Special Agent Jason McCarthy, said that beyond just the numbers, “people on the street and civilians in those neighborhoods seeing the federal partners work hand in hand with the local partners makes an impact out there.”

McCarthy said it hopefully also makes other gang members “think twice” when it comes to picking up a gun.

Pasting it together

The Chicago police investigation that ultimately targeted Wicked Town was widening in 2017 when the ATF first got involved, the case agent told the Tribune, looking at some of the ballistics leads such as analyzing shell casings from crime scenes and tracing any guns that had been recovered.

Above all, the agent said, what the ATF could offer was time and expertise to police detectives who were often overworked and “triaging” investigations as murders and shootings continued to pile up.

“The sheer magnitude of violence going on in this city makes it very, very difficult on those CPD detectives and investigators to sit there and comb through every little lead generated by the ballistics,” he said. “Ballistics is a lead that you have to further investigate. It’s not gonna be like, ‘Oh yeah, this gun was used, here we go, we can go arrest that person right away.’”

The agents said, over time, his agency was able to get a picture of “the whole scope of gun violence” by linking different shooting incidents with fired cartridge casings or a recovered firearm.

Among those standout incidents were the brutal January 2018 murders of Donald Holmes Jr. and his girlfriend, Diane Taylor, who were shot execution-style in a car after being lured to a meeting in Wicked Town’s territory, the agent said.

While police initially had little to go on, it turned out the murder weapon used in the murders had also been used in another shooting two weeks prior. The weapon was recovered in February 2018 when a different man was arrested by police in Milwaukee with the gun in his possession.

Eventually, investigators were able to determine that the day after the slayings of Holmes and Taylor, Wicked Town member Demond Brown had purchased a used Buick LeSabre for $900 in cash and driven it to Minneapolis, where he traded the 9 mm handgun for a different firearm.

When the case got to trial, jurors heard the whole story: The murders had been put into motion by Deshawn Morgan, a Wicked Town associate who erroneously believed that Holmes was cooperating with law enforcement. He’d hired Brown and another gang member, Darius Murphy, to take Holmes out.

The night of of the slayings, Morgan an avid gambler, was shooting dice when Murphy sent him a text message including a screenshot of an overnight breaking news story from the Chicago Tribune about the double murder on West Arthington Street.

The screenshot was found after a search warrant was served on Murphy’s phone, the ATF agent said.

Later, a member of Wicked Town, under pressure to cooperate, wore a hidden wire in the Cook County Jail and recorded Murphy describing how he’d shot Holmes in the back of the head first, then turned to Taylor. “His b---- tried to bail out, I grabbed her by the back of her wig. I said, ‘Where you going? Pow! Pow!” Murphy said on the recording.

The totality of the corroborating evidence eventually led Morgan to flip and testify against Lee and Benson at trial, according to the agent.

“It wasn’t like Deshawn Morgan came to the table and said, ‘Sign me up as a cooperator,’” the agent said. “It was, ‘We have all this evidence on you. And this is why you should cooperate and help us.’”

The investigation also determined that other guns had been passed around and used by Wicked Town members multiple times, including one weapon that was used in four or five different shootings in a two-week span in late 2017 and early 2018.

Jurors in the trial watched home surveillance footage of that gun in action. On Jan. 11, 2018, Brown, Lee and two other Wicked Town members ambushed other members of the same rival gang in the 5200 block of West Ferdinand Street, spraying bullets from a stolen pickup truck and killing Uriah Hughes, 33, and wounding another man, according to trial testimony.

In addition to the gun and ballistics traces, the wiretaps in the case proved to be crucial. While Chicago police had employed state wires in the case early on, wiretaps targeting key members of Wicked Town’s hierarchy started in mid-2019, more than a year after the Holmes and Taylor murders, the agent said.

“Leading up to that point, it was more building up the probable cause and evidence to get a judge to allow us to start intercepting Donald Lee’s phone calls,” the agent said. “That in and of itself is a very time-consuming process to get to that.”

And like gun traces, wiretaps don’t unfold like they do in the movies. It’s laborious and expensive, and requires people not only manning the recording room, determining if a call is pertinent to the investigation, but also surveillance teams in the field monitoring those who are receiving the calls and what actions they take, the agents said.

“A wire is a lot of raw investigative information coming in,” the Wicked Town case agent said. “At times, especially in real time, it may mean nothing. But it may mean something two days later, two months later. If we need to piece something together months down the road, we need to have that information available. ... It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.”

In June 2020, a little less than a year after they started listening in on Lee’s calls, agents arrested him on a relatively minor charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. In an interview at the station, Lee told the agent he’d be happy to set things straight about Wicked Town, but he wasn’t “gonna do none of that snitching (expletive).”

He also indicated that he was aware the feds had been recording his calls.

“I’m not gonna tell you what I did,” Lee said in a portion of the interview played for the jury. “If you was watching me, and you was on my phone tapping or whatever you did, then you should know everything about me that you need to know to help your case.”

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