FED­ERAL GUN CASES SHOOT UP IN CHICAGO

Amid Trump’s Oper­a­tion Le­gend, firearms charges filed in city surge in past two weeks

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY FRANK MAIN AND JON SEI­DEL Staff Re­porters

The fed­eral gun case started with a traf­fic stop: Cicero po­lice of­fi­cers saw a car with­out a li­cense plate and fol­lowed it.

The cops said they smelled mar­i­juana, saw a hand­gun under the driver’s leg and ar­rested him. Rodtrell Branch — who was on fed­eral pro­ba­tion for bank rob­bery — told the cops, “I’ve been caught red­handed,” ad­ding, “I’m on fed­eral pa­per,” ac­cord­ing to the charge filed against him July 21 in fed­eral court.

Branch was charged with il­le­gal gun pos­ses­sion by a felon the same week Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced he planned to send 200 agents from sev­eral fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies to Chicago to fight gun crimes along­side lo­cal cops.

The ini­tia­tive, dubbed Oper­a­tion Le­gend, has con­trib­uted to a surge of new gun cases be­ing filed in fed­eral court in Chicago over the past two weeks, ac­cord­ing to sources and court records.

The Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives is among the fed­eral agen­cies that have sent ad­di­tional agents to Chicago, work­ing with Chicago po­lice of­fi­cers to tar­get gun vi­o­lence on the West Side and South Side.

“Our strat­egy fo­cuses on mul­ti­a­gency co­or­di­na­tion and the use of crime-gun in­tel­li­gence to iden­tify, ar­rest and pros­e­cute these crim­i­nals,” said Kris­ten deTi­neo, the ATF agent-in-charge of the Chicago

field divi­sion.

An ATF spokes­woman de­clined to say how many ad­di­tional agents have been sent to Chicago.

Joseph Fitz­patrick, a spokesman for U.S. At­tor­ney John Lausch, said fed­eral prose­cu­tors also “work di­rectly with Chicago po­lice of­fi­cers and fed­eral agents to charge firearm cases quickly and ef­fi­ciently.”

The aim is to make felons think twice about car­ry­ing guns out of con­cern they’ll face fed­eral charges and likely harsher pun­ish­ment, sources say.

“We’re hear­ing, ‘The feds are here, the feds are here,’ ” said one law en­force­ment of­fi­cer who’s part of Oper­a­tion Le­gend.

About 20 peo­ple have been charged in fed­eral gun cases in Chicago in the past two weeks — more than any other type of crime be­ing filed.

There also was a bump in fed­eral gun prose­cu­tions in June, with about 20 cases that month, court records show. Many of those cases ap­pear to have been filed in con­nec­tion with loot­ing and may­hem in late May and early June that fol­lowed the po­lice killing in Min­neapo­lis of Ge­orge Floyd.

On May 26, Mayor Lori Light­foot, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, said fed­eral au­thor­i­ties weren’t do­ing enough to help the city fight gun vi­o­lence, say­ing fed­eral agents “were on the side­lines.”

The num­ber of fed­eral gun cases filed in June and July and early August to­tal about the same as for Jan­uary, Fe­bru­ary, March, April and May com­bined, court records show, though the coro­n­avirus pan­demic slowed fed­eral prose­cu­tions in Chicago early on.

The lat­est fed­eral gun cases range from a Chicago man ac­cused of traf­fick­ing guns au­thor­i­ties say he bought in In­di­ana to gun seizures made dur­ing traf­fic stops to cases in which cops mon­i­tor­ing po­lice sur­veil­lance cam­eras say they spot­ted peo­ple car­ry­ing guns.

Oper­a­tion Le­gend is named after 4-year-old Le­Gend Tal­i­f­erro, who was shot and killed in his sleep June 29 in Kansas City, Mis­souri. Po­lice say they be­lieve some­one tar­geted his fam­ily’s apart­ment. His death was part of a 40% in­crease in homi­cides there, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice De­part­ment. Fed­eral agents were sent to Kansas City after the boy’s death.

In Chicago, the num­ber of killings through July is up more than 50% com­pared with the same pe­riod of 2019. Dozens of young chil­dren have been struck with stray bul­lets here, and five have died. Mur­ders also are up in

New York and other big cities.

After a war of words be­tween Trump and Light­foot late last month, the pres­i­dent an­nounced he’d send agents to Chicago to tar­get gun crime as they’ve done in Kansas City.

In early 2017, even be­fore he took of­fice, Trump threat­ened to “send in the feds,” then fol­lowed that Fe­bru­ary by trans­fer­ring about 20 ATF agents to the city to make gun cases. A 2018 Chicago Sun-Times anal­y­sis found that the num­ber of fed­eral gun cases rose in Chicago fol­low­ing that mo­bi­liza­tion.

In June, Trump said “law and order” was needed in Chicago, call­ing the city a “war zone.”

Light­foot, con­cerned Trump might send in fed­eral agents to con­front pro­test­ers as he did in Port­land, Ore­gon, ini­tially pushed back, say­ing she didn’t need “lead­er­ship lessons” from the pres­i­dent.

But after be­ing as­sured the agents would be help­ing Chicago cops fight gun vi­o­lence, Light­foot said “we wel­come ac­tual part­ner­ship.”

Some Chicago cops say they’ve be­come de­mor­al­ized by see­ing gun of­fend­ers re­peat­edly be­ing freed on bail in Cook County Crim­i­nal Court and that they also wel­come the help from the feds.

“The tact and gun teams love it,” said one Chicago po­lice sergeant, speak­ing on the con­di­tion his name not be used. “That’s great for the city.”

Po­lice Supt. David Brown has re­peat­edly crit­i­cized the Cook County crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, say­ing it shouldn’t be al­low­ing bail for vi­o­lent of­fend­ers who com­mit new crimes.

Cook County State’s At­tor­ney Kim Foxx said that doesn’t fit the data her of­fice has gath­ered. She said fed­eral and Cook County prose­cu­tors have worked to­gether for years to de­cide which gun cases meet the le­gal thresh­old to file those cases in fed­eral court. Com­par­ing how gun cases are han­dled in the fed­eral and Cook County court sys­tems is like “com­par­ing ap­ples and or­anges” be­cause of the le­gal dif­fer­ences, she said.

The num­ber of gun cases brought in Cook County’s courts dwarfs the num­ber filed in fed­eral court, Foxx said.

But she said she un­der­stands the need for Oper­a­tion Le­gend.

“I think it’s meant as a triage for what we’re see­ing this summer, which feels like a blood­bath,” Foxx said in an in­ter­view. “What is re­quired is for all of us to work to­gether.”

Many of the peo­ple charged with fed­eral gun crimes in the past two weeks are felons pre­vi­ously con­victed of gun crimes in Cook County’s court. Some got state prison time for those pre­vi­ous gun cases, and oth­ers got pro­ba­tion, records show.

Among them is Clarence Jan­uary, a re­puted mem­ber of the Black Dis­ci­ples street gang charged in an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Jan­uary, 27, has been con­victed of il­le­gal gun pos­ses­sion twice in Cook County and was sen­tenced to pro­ba­tion in 2015 and in 2010, records show.

In an­other of the fed­eral gun cases, Ben­jamin Cortez-Gomez, 27, was charged last month with il­le­gally pur­chas­ing guns as a felon. He’s ac­cused of transporti­ng seven guns from In­di­ana to Chicago last month and has prior gun con­vic­tions in Cook and DuPage coun­ties.

Cortez-Gomez, who goes by the nick­name Ben­nie Blanco, used Snapchat to send an ATF in­for­mant pho­tos of guns he’d bought in In­di­ana, ac­cord­ing to the charges against him.

U.S. DISTRICT COURT

Ben­jamin Cortez-Gomez poses in front of a Dodge Charger he drove to In­di­anapo­lis to buy seven il­le­gal guns for an in­for­mant in Chicago, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

U.S. DISTRICT COURT

A hand­gun fed­eral agents seized from the trunk of a Dodge Charger that Ben­jamin Cortez-Gomez was driv­ing July 27 in Chicago after re­turn­ing from a trip to In­di­ana to buy seven guns for an in­for­mant, ac­cord­ing to a crim­i­nal com­plaint.

Clarence Jan­uary

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