Lawrence Buser The Commercial Appeal January 20, 2001, SATURDAY, Final Edition Copyright 2001 The Commercial Appeal The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) January 20, 2001, SATURDAY, Final Edition
(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) -- In a stunning change of allegiance, the ringleader of a Memphis street gang pleaded guilty Friday to playing a key role in the events that led to the 1999 traffic death of police officer Don Overton.
In return for a reduced charge, Lewis Grimes, the local leader of the Blackstone Rangers, agreed to testify against four teenage co-defendants awaiting trial.
The 36-year-old Chicago native had been facing first-degree murder charges and a possible sentence of life in prison. Instead, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of facilitation to commit felony murder and was sentenced to 20 years.
Prosecutors Jerry Kitchen and Amy Weirich said the defendant's cooperation warranted an exception to Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons's ban on plea bargains in cases involving murder and certain other violent crimes.
"Typically the scenario is that the least involved individuals cooperate (with authorities), but in this case Mr. Grimes, who was at the top and was the catalyst for starting the whole thing, has accepted responsibility," said Kitchen.
"Part of the agreement in pleading guilty was that he would testify truthfully (in future trials) if called upon to do so," he said.
Weirich said Grimes has a prior armed robbery conviction from Chicago, but no felony record since his arrival in Memphis five years ago.
Grimes can be considered for parole after serving six years of his 20-year sentence, although parole is not guaranteed.
Grimes's plea was arranged with the approval of Overton's widow, Karyn, who gave birth to the couple's first child six weeks after her husband's death. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised on their behalf, including $10,000 from talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
"In the eyes of the law it was fair, but as far as just, I don't think anything could be just," she said outside of Criminal Court. "He (Overton) is gone and there isn't anything they can do to ever bring him back. The path he (Grimes) chose to take permanently changed my life and the lives of four others who are still in jail."
Overton, 35, was killed on Oct. 12, 1999, when four juveniles in a stolen car speeding from police rammed into the officer's cruiser on North Hollywood south of Interstate 40. Authorities say the youths had been shoplifting, or "boosting," some $5,000 worth of designer clothes at the Raleigh Springs Goldsmith's store to replace missing gang money and possibly as part of a gang initiation.
Charged with murder in the perpetration of a felony are the driver, Quinton 'Bo-Peep' Sanders, and Vincent White, who were both 16 at the time of the crash, and Lorenzo Bates and Derrick Dean, who were both then 15. All were students at Fairley High School.
Grimes was not among those in the car, but he told police after his arrest he had ordered Sanders and White to find a way to replace $300 missing from the gang's money box which was used for bonds, cars, weapons or other items.
He told them before the accident that if the money was not replaced by morning, they would be punished by the gang or "whooped."
"I figured they would either steal clothes or cars to pay back the money, but I didn't know where they would steal them," said Grimes, who was arrested on a tip from another gang member charged in an unrelated robbery. "We either chop the cars or flip them for (sale) and Bo-Peep was selling the clothes over in the Benchtree apartments."
Sanders is scheduled to be tried on March 26 before Criminal Court Judge Joseph Dailey, while the cases of the others are pending.
There have been protests from some quarters against the severity of the charges in this case, mainly because of the youthfulness of the defendants and the fact that they apparently didn't intend to kill the officer.
However, Tennessee law allows a first-degree murder charge if a suspect kills someone, even accidentally, while committing certain felonies.
In this case, the defendants can be charged with first-degree murder because they caused Overton's death while committing a felony - theft. Their attempt to elude police is considered a continuation of that crime.
In a similar case, two men were charged with capital murder for their actions leading to the death of police officer John Robinson less than two months after Overton's.
Chico McCracken, 24, and William Wilson, 28, face charges of first-degree murder in perpetration of an aggravated robbery. Robinson, 39, died shortly after his cruiser crashed while he was pursuing the men, who were suspected of robbing a man at gunpoint.
Sanders's attorney, Steffen Schreiner, said Friday that Grimes's plea and offer to testify is "a very important development in this case. This is big news. It could have an impact on my client's case."
He said he would confer with Grimes's attorney about what his testimony might be and then talk with Sanders, his family and prosecutors about how his client will proceed.
Attorney Larry Copeland, who represented Grimes, said his client was sorry for his gang involvement and wanted to make what amends he could by pleading guilty.
"Mr. Grimes has become very remorseful for his activities," he said, "and after looking at the facts and evidence, we agreed it would be in his best interest to enter the plea."
Grimes told police he was made an ambassador in the Blackstone Rangers in 1993 in Chicago and that he has been in Memphis since 1995.
As ambassador in Memphis, he said, he had complete authority over the gang here and would "get a piece of everything. Drugs, whatever you make money off of, cars, jewelry, whatever."
He said he made Sanders a gang officer and chief of security for the Whitehaven area and that his specialty was stealing cars. He said White was "a foot soldier" with no rank who was "a thief, a rogue. He boosted clothes from the mall and he could steal anything."
The other two defendants - Bates and Dean - were hoping to become gang members by going through "creation," which Grimes said was a Friday-to- Friday initiation during which tasks were given them by superiors. He said the shoplifting incident that led to Overton's death may have been one of their tasks.
Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.