Claims of racial discrimination in ATF stings to get rare hearing

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An ATF officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. | File photo

Back in July 2012, when national headlines declared Englewood a “battlefield,” an undercover ATF agent met on the South Side with a Gangster Disciple apparently itching to commit an armed robbery.

That gang member, Dwaine Jones, thought he was speaking to a disgruntled drug cartel courier. And Agent Dave Gomez seemed to play on racial stereotypes as he outlined his fictional need for a “professional crew” to rob 20 kilograms of cocaine from a stash house.

“What I like about you is that nobody can put me and you together,” the Hispanic agent told the black gang member during a secretly recorded meeting that would help lead to the arrest of Jones, an Englewood gun supplier.

The feds insist that line was part of a years-old ATF script that Gomez has also recited to Hispanic targets. They say their agents were in Englewood to battle pervasive crime at the mayor’s request. But defense attorneys say Gomez showed his true colors that day, muttering evidence that shows agents targeted people who did not look like them — “targets who were black.”

That’s why, between 2006 and 2013, black defendants made up 74 of the 94 people charged here in such cases, those attorneys say. And now, the ATF’s stash-house sting is getting unusual scrutiny at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

A rare joint hearing is set to begin Thursday to consider whether charges should be tossed in 12 criminal cases, overseen by nine judges, over claims of racial discrimination.

Defense attorneys say they can show “the ATF intentionally and disproportionately targeted black people and other people of color in its stash house operations.” But the feds say the defense attorneys’ analysis is “flawed from top to bottom.” In the case involving Gomez, they say the agent did not even select the targets.

“It is astonishing that defendants in twelve cases have accused ATF agents of racism based on claims this feeble,” one federal prosecutor wrote.

The two-day hearing will be a battle of experts who are expected to testify for hours.

Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan says the odds of the ATF properly charging a group with such a disproportionate racial makeup are less than 0.1 percent.

“These analyses show that the ATF is discriminating on the basis of race in selecting stash house defendants,” Fagan wrote in a 75-page report.

But the feds have their own expert, Max Schanzenbach, who wrote that, “a straightforward analysis using plausible comparison groups finds no statistical evidence of discrimination.” Schanzenbach argues that Fagan’s analysis was based on an overly broad portion of the population, including people who could not plausibly be expected to commit such a crime.

In other words, the feds say, Fagan’s numbers are based on a “fantasy home invasion lottery.”

Jones pleaded guilty in 2013 to a drug conspiracy and illegal gun possession, records show. The feds say he assembled a crew eager to rob a stash house, despite warnings from Gomez that it would be guarded by at least three armed men.

One of Jones’ crew members said he “wouldn’t give a f— about … goin’ in there, whackin’ they ass.” They even discussed slitting the guards’ throats and burning down the stash house.

When Jones and his crew were arrested — moments before they could put their plan into action — they were caught with two 9 mm handguns, a sawed-off shotgun, safety goggles, masks and zip ties fashioned together like handcuffs.

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