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Informant helps cops bust 'Murder Inc.'

September 11, 2004

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Informant helps cops bust 'Murder Inc.'

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September 12, 2004

BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter

The 26-year-old drug dealer roamed through the barbershops, clothing stores and abandoned lots of the West Side, talking freely with gang members about killings like most people talk about having lunch.

What his underworld pals did not know was that the onetime auto-repair worker was wearing a hidden recording device for the police.

The thousands of hours of conversations he captured on tape last year are expected to lead to arrests in 27 killings, making the heavyset high school dropout one of the Chicago Police Department's most valuable informants in solving gang murders.

"The guy said he would wear a 'wire,' and he gave us more than we ever expected," said Brian Sexton, supervisor of the Cook County state's attorney's gang unit.

At night, the man was locked up in suburban jails, where he gobbled pizza and shot the breeze with the cops like the genial town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Every morning, officers picked him up and handed him a new list of targets to tape-record.

Such "consensual overhears," which require court approval for an informant to make secret recordings of conversations, have been used for many years by the police in drug investigations and, to a lesser extent, in individual murder cases.

But Operation 5K -- named for the intersection of Fifth and Karlov, where the original target of the investigation lived -- was perhaps the most ambitious use of a hidden microphone to solve the gang killings that plague Chicago. Of the 599 slayings last year, gang-related motives were confirmed in 43 percent of the cases, police said.

Already, Operation 5K has resulted in the arrests of 12 suspects in eight killings -- six of which were gang-related. Three more murder cases have been closed because the suspect is dead.

The success of Operation 5K has spawned similar investigations. Covert recordings of La Familia Stones gang members, for instance, have led to seven arrests in four killings on the Northwest Side.

"In the gang culture, one of the hardest things to do is to get gang members to cooperate with the police. There is nothing better than having their own words on tape," said Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline, noting that several "wires" are now being used in murder cases.

The informant in Operation 5K was a convicted robber and drug dealer who moved easily in the gang world.

Prosecutors have disclosed his identity and turned over tapes to defendants in the murder cases. But the Chicago Sun-Times is not naming him because authorities say his life could be in danger if his role were known in the federal prison where he is now serving a two-year term. Without his cooperation, he would have faced a sentence of 15 to 20 years behind bars.

Operation 5K came into existence because police knew of the man's dealings with Labar "Bro Man" Spann and his alleged holdup crew, which the department was targeting in spring 2003. Spann lived near Fifth and Karlov.

Chicago Police investigators learned the man was in federal custody on drug and weapons charges. So police asked U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Billy Warren if they could talk to the man about Spann. The man agreed to cooperate with police in May 2003.

Once they interviewed the man, police realized he might know about 100 killings, most of which were unrelated to Spann.

Police told Assistant U.S. Attorney Edmond Chang that if the man were allowed to become a police informant, he could solve murders for the police while building federal gun and drug cases against career criminals. Persuaded, Chang went before a federal judge, and the informant was released to the police on the condition that he spend every night in jail.

"We're always looking for opportunities to assist the Chicago Police in trying to fight violent crime," Chang said.

Police housed the man in suburban jails between July and October 2003 as he secretly recorded conversations with gang members.

"He was highly intelligent and committed to helping us," said Dean Andrews, then head of police intelligence and now commander of the Grand Central Area detective headquarters. "Had he chosen a different path in life, he could have made something of himself."

Chilling conversations

Once on the street, the informant hung out with members of the Vice Lords and Four Corner Hustlers gangs. A few of the tape recordings captured suspects implicating themselves in killings, said Karen Kerbis, who as a gang prosecutor worked closely with police on Operation 5K.

"Some were out-and-out confessions," Kerbis said. "They described how they did it."

More frequently, the recordings led police to key witnesses.

"People who flat out denied to the police they didn't see anything suddenly remembered the murders in detail," Kerbis said. She would not release transcripts of the tapes until they are introduced in court.

The informant was effective because he is a "big, likable guy," Kerbis said.

"People went to him for advice," she said. "They would complain about gang rivals working their drug spots. He was the answer man."

The conversations were sometimes chilling, Kerbis said.

"It was like Murder Inc.," she said. "They talked about murder like I talk about shopping."

The informant told his street associates that he was out of federal custody because his mother owned some buildings and put them up as collateral for his bail, Kerbis said.

At night, he slept in jails from Glenview to Schiller Park. "He was like Otis in 'The Andy Griffith Show,'" Kerbis said. "The officers in the lockups got to know him."

Each morning, officers in the Chicago Police Department's intelligence section picked up the informant at the suburban lockup where he had slept.

The informant worked up to 12 hours a day while intelligence officers listened to the conversations and took notes in nearby "sound cars," Andrews said. Surveillance cars would cruise the neighborhood to protect the informant.

He was equipped with the latest snooping devices, more sophisticated than the microphones taped to informants' bodies in the old days, Andrews said. He would not reveal any specifics.

Every night, the informant was taken to the Homan Square police facility and interviewed by officers from the sound car, as well as homicide detectives. Intelligence officers would decipher the nicknames and other chatter on the tapes. Then the homicide detectives would update their files.

"It was exhausting," Andrews said, adding that a mountain of tapes and notes was locked in his office during the investigation.

It was a unique operation for the Police Department.

"This is the first time I can remember that we have done this on such a large scale" to solve killings, Andrews said.

As murder cases were being solved, the DEA, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated federal crimes, Andrews said.

The informant and a Chicago Police officer bought drugs from two major West Side dealers, leading to their arrests by federal agents, Andrews said. In another case, a suspect was caught with 11 firearms, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, $5,000 in cash, 45 grams of heroin, 14 grams of cocaine and a bulletproof vest.

The informant was a government witness in the federal trial of Martin Caldwell, who was sentenced to 57 months in prison in April for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Sexton said the informant provided police with a "bonanza" of evidence.

"Now detectives are coming to us more and more, wanting to do the same thing," Sexton said. "They're excited about using COHs [consensual overhears] in murders."

To obtain a consensual overhear, a police officer must fill out an affidavit explaining why it is needed. Then an assistant state's attorney asks a judge to approve the overhear, which lasts for 30 days. Each time another target surfaces on the overhear, prosecutors must seek a 30-day extension.

Critics want more scrutiny

Prosecutors said they frequently sought 30-day extensions at the beginning of Operation 5K because of all the new information the informant was gathering.

Defense attorney Jim Sorensen, who represents Operation 5K murder defendant Kevin "Kato" Cobbs, said he thinks judges are not giving enough scrutiny to applications for consensual overhears.

"I don't like overhears in the first place," Sorensen said. "A private conversation should be private. That ruffles my constitutional feathers."

Sorensen said he is less concerned about a secret recording that leads police to a witness than a recording purported to contain a "confession" to a murder.

"A juror can decide whether a witness is believable, as opposed to a statement on a COH that is being held up as a confession," Sorensen said. "You have not been warned what you said can be used against you. You don't know you're in an interrogation situation."

But Andrews pointed out that four murder suspects gave videotaped confessions to police after they were arrested.

"The consensual overhears were not our only evidence," he said.

Steve Peterson, commander of the Harrison Area detective headquarters, said secret recordings are part of the arsenal police must have to fight gang violence.

"The gangs have become more sophisticated," Peterson said. "So we have to be equally sophisticated in solving cases."

Andrews said he wishes Operation 5K could have lasted far longer than the four months that secret recordings were being made.

But police learned on one of the recorded conversations that a robbery was being hatched by Spann -- the leader of the reputed West Side robbery crew the Police Department was targeting when Operation 5K was formed, Andrews said.

"They were talking about doing another 'rip,' and we could not afford to have this go on and have another murder or robbery," he said. "We took the wire down."

Charges in eight killings have been brought since the Operation 5K recordings ended last October. Police expect to obtain charges in 19 more killings, Andrews said.

Most of the killings received little or no media attention, such as the fatal shooting of Marcus Galloway, who won about $100 in a dice game and was "trash talking" with the loser, Lorenzo Evans, prosecutors said. Evans, 23, is charged with the October 2003 murder.

But the June 4, 2003, slaying of Rudy "Kato" Rangel Jr. was in the media spotlight because he was a high-ranking Latin Kings leader. Rangel was later immortalized by New York rapper DMX in his song "A Yo Kato." He was wearing $350,000 in gold and diamonds when he was shot to death, prosecutors said.

Spann -- a Four Corner Hustlers member who uses a wheelchair because he was wounded in a shooting -- was one of the four men charged with fatally gunning down Rangel in a trailer used as a barbershop at 3010 W. Roosevelt. Spann also was charged in a separate robbery.

With Spann's arrest, Operation 5K -- launched to take him and his alleged robbery crew off the street -- had served its original purpose. But the other arrests proved the value of consensual overhears in solving gang murders, officials said.

"This is a strategy we are using more and more," Sexton said.


DARIUS JAMES, 23, in the fatal shooting of Larry Walls, 28, on March 19, 2003, at 4157 W. Adams in a dispute over drugs.

KENNY HOBSON, 29, in the fatal shooting of Shaughnessy Tate, 28, on Oct. 27, 2001, at 4652 W. Maypole in a dispute over drugs.

LORENZO EVANS, 23, in the fatal shooting of Marcus Galloway, 24, on Oct. 15, 2003, at 4727 S. Maypole, in an argument over a dice game.

KEVIN "KATO" COBBS, 31, in the fatal shooting of Bryan Williams on April 19, 2001, at 3800 W. Chicago.

LABAR "BRO MAN" SPANN, 25, in the fatal shooting of Rudy Rangel, 30, on June 4, 2003, at 3010 W. Roosevelt in an apparent robbery and possible gang-related hit.

MARCUS WARE, in the Rangel killing.

DONELL "SQUEAKY" SIMMONS, 23, in the Rangel killing.

MARTISE NUNNERY, 27, in the Rangel killing.

LEONARD LOMAX, 21, in the fatal shooting of Earke Wherry, 27, on Nov. 5, 2002, in a gangway at 1128 N. Leamington in a drug dispute.

MARK SMITH, 18, in the Wherry killing.

ANTWON ROBINSON, 26, in the fatal stabbing of a woman, Seville Pratt, 20, on Aug. 6, 2000, at 1444 N. Lavergne, during an argument. The informant learned Robinson was in Mississippi, where he was arrested, police said.

MAURICE EARSKINES, 25, in the fatal shooting of Ernest Moore, 21, on Dec. 23, 2002, at 4857 W. Hubbard in a retaliatory gang shooting.

Frank Main


John Christopher
Christopher -- a waste hauler with mob ties -- wore a wire for the feds in Operation Silver Shovel for more than three years, leading to convictions against six aldermen and a dozen others. As a mole, he doled out $150,000 in bribes to politicians in return for favors that included city contracts. He pleaded guilty to bankruptcy and tax fraud two days before FBI agents arrested the aldermen and other local officials in January 1996. He was sentenced to 39 months in prison and was relocated to another part of the country after his release. Christopher was far from the perfect informant: He illegally dumped debris in Chicago neighborhoods while he was working for the government -- and he failed to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars the feds paid him for his undercover assignment, officials said.

Robert J. Cooley
Cooley -- a former mob lawyer -- began working as a government informant in 1986 and wore a hidden wire for the FBI for three years. His work as a mole led to the convictions of Judges Thomas Maloney and David Shields, as well as former Ald. Fred Roti (1st) and former state Sen. John D'Arco Jr. (D-Chicago). Cooley admits he bribed Judge Frank Wilson in 1977 for the acquittal of mobster Harry Aleman in the killing of Teamsters union shop steward William Logan. Wilson later shot himself to death at his Arizona retirement home in 1990 after FBI agents interviewed him about Aleman's acquittal.

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