Hobo jury gets history lesson about Chicago street gangs

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Nicholas Roti. who commanded the Bureau of Organized Crime, speaks to the media at the Dirksen Federal Building about the Sinaloa Cartel last year. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Federal prosecutors gave jurors a lesson in the history of Chicago’s street gangs Thursday when they called their first witness in the trial of the Hobos “super gang.”

Nicholas Roti, the former chief of the Chicago Police Department’s organized crime bureau, testified about the origins of the Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples. Fireworks were expected during a defense attorney’s cross-examination, but the exchange did not turn as confrontational as anticipated.

The Hobos have been described as a “conglomerate” of Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples — an elite and exclusive “all-star team” forged in the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side. Six alleged Hobo leaders are on trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, tied to nine murders by federal prosecutors.

Roti told jurors that the Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples were founded by Larry Hoover and “King David” Barksdale, respectively. He said concerns about other gangs led to “almost like an arms race.”

“They were building up, and they were worried about other gangs being bigger than them,” Roti said.

The two gangs eventually merged into the Black Gangster Disciple Nation in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Roti testified. But he said the merger fell apart after Hoover went to prison and Barksdale died. Decades later, additional prosecutions split the gangs into factions, some controlling as little as a city block. The demolition of Chicago’s public housing projects in the mid-2000s — such as the Robert Taylor Homes — fractured them further.

“They were dispersed into neighborhoods across the city but with no real, in the beginning, with no real thought,” Roti said.

Beau Brindley, defense attorney for alleged Hobo leader Gregory “Bowlegs” Chester, had been expected to question Roti about his role in a settled federal lawsuit about the so-called “code of silence” at CPD. But Brindley never posed those questions.

The judge had also barred Brindley from asking Roti about his connection to the controversial police facility at Homan Square.

Instead, Roti told Brindley that “virtually all” street-level drug dealing in Chicago is controlled by gangs. He also admitted to Brindley that he once told the Chicago Sun-Times the Hobos were “a conglomeration of some of the heaviest hitters in Chicago. They were a very, very bad bunch of dudes.” Brindley used the quote to question Roti’s objectivity.

“It’s accurate as far as I’m concerned,” Roti said.

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