The internal war within a West Side street gang faction that allegedly led to the mistaken identity murder of a Chicago cop and his female friend was laid out in vivid detail in federal court Thursday morning as a former pal of alleged cop killer Jason Austin took the stand.
“It was survival of the fittest,” convicted drug dealer Jeffery Scott testified of the feud between Austin, a Travelling Vice Lord leader, and rival Mark “Quick” Thomas and Thomas’s cousin, Andrew “Snowball” Garriot, in the days leading up to Det. Robert Soto and Kathryn Romberg’s murders in August 2008.
“It was like the ‘Wild, Wild West,’” Scott said. “It was kill or be killed.”
Fearing Thomas, who had recently shot out the rear window of Austin’s car in a dispute over drug turf, Austin killed two people in a parked SUV who he believed to be Thomas and his girlfriend, Scott testified.
But after Soto and Romberg’s deaths were widely reported, Austin the next morning confessed to Scott “I effed up — I didn’t know it was a cop and a lady,” Scott testified.
Austin immediately set about trying to silence witnesses, Scott said. He told Scott’s younger brother, Terrance, and Troy Davis, who were both in the car when Austin jumped out and fired the fatal shots in the 3000 block of West Franklin, that the murders were “nothing to talk about,” Scott testified.
Terrance Scott was shaking and “looked like he’d seen a ghost” when he told his older brother he’d seen Austin commit the murders, Jeffery Scott said.
Det. Gregory Jacobson, who testified earlier Thursday, also gave details of how Austin allegedly intimidated witnesses against him.
After one witness, Dominique Shinaul, testified before a Cook County grand jury that she had been told to lie to police by Austin, Shinaul was attacked by Austin’s girlfriend, Tamika Howland, with a bicycle padlock, Jacobson testified.
When Howland later plead guilty to intimidation, court records show, Howland admitted she’d told Shinaul, “You’d better stop tricking on J. Rock,” referring to Austin.
Austin wanted Shinaul and other witnesses to pin the blame on Garriot, Thomas’ cousin, for the murders, Jacobson said.
Defense attorney Richard Kling, representing Austin, tried to score points by forcing Jacobson to admit that though Scott and other key witnesses against Austin changed their stories multiple times, they were never given lie detector tests.
Less important witnesses were given lie detector tests, Kling noted.
The testimony came on the second day of a federal sentencing hearing that is almost certainly the last chance that authorities have of holding Austin responsible for Soto and Romberg’s murders.
A double murder case against Austin in Cook County Circuit Court collapsed in 2008 after several witnesses recanted their statements against Austin, claiming they’d been coerced by police.
So federal prosecutors now hope U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow will take the murders into account when she sentences Austin for a series of drug dealing convictions.
In order to drastically extend Austin’s sentence, they’ll only have to prove he committed the murders “on the preponderance of the evidence,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as they would have had to prove at a trial.