The federal gun case started with a traffic stop: Cicero police officers saw a car without a license plate and followed it.
The cops said they smelled marijuana, saw a handgun under the driver’s leg and arrested him. Rodtrell Branch — who was on federal probation for bank robbery — told the cops, “I’ve been caught redhanded,” adding, “I’m on federal paper,” according to the charge filed against him July 21 in federal court.
Branch was charged with illegal gun possession by a felon the same week President Donald Trump announced he planned to send 200 agents from several federal law enforcement agencies to Chicago to fight gun crimes alongside local cops.
The initiative, dubbed Operation Legend, has contributed to a surge of new gun cases being filed in federal court in Chicago over the past two weeks, according to sources and court records.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is among the federal agencies that have sent additional agents to Chicago, working with Chicago police officers to target gun violence on the West Side and South Side.
“Our strategy focuses on multi-agency coordination and the use of crime-gun intelligence to identify, arrest and prosecute these criminals,” said Kristen deTineo, the ATF agent-in-charge of the Chicago field division.
An ATF spokeswoman declined to say how many additional agents have been sent to Chicago.
Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Lausch, said federal prosecutors also “work directly with Chicago police officers and federal agents to charge firearm cases quickly and efficiently.”
The aim is to make felons think twice about carrying guns out of concern they’ll face federal charges and likely harsher punishment, sources say.
“We’re hearing, ‘The feds are here, the feds are here,’ ” said one law enforcement officer who’s part of Operation Legend.
About 20 people have been charged in federal gun cases in Chicago in the past two weeks — more than any other type of crime being filed.
There also was a bump in federal gun prosecutions in June, with about 20 cases that month, court records show. Many of those cases appear to have been filed in connection with looting and mayhem in late May and early June that followed the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
On May 26, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, said federal authorities weren’t doing enough to help the city fight gun violence, saying federal agents “were on the sidelines.”
The number of federal gun cases filed in June and July and early August total about the same as for January, February, March, April and May combined, court records show, though the coronavirus pandemic slowed federal prosecutions in Chicago early on.
The latest federal gun cases range from a Chicago man accused of trafficking guns authorities say he bought in Indiana to gun seizures made during traffic stops to cases in which cops monitoring police surveillance cameras say they spotted people carrying guns.
Operation Legend is named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed in his sleep June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri. Police say they believe someone targeted his family’s apartment. His death was part of a 40% increase in homicides there, according to the Justice Department. Federal agents were sent to Kansas City after the boy’s death.
In Chicago, the number of killings through July is up more than 50% compared with the same period of 2019. Dozens of young children have been struck with stray bullets here, and five have died. Murders also are up in New York and other big cities.
After a war of words between Trump and Lightfoot late last month, the president announced he’d send agents to Chicago to target gun crime as they’ve done in Kansas City.
In early 2017, even before he took office, Trump threatened to “send in the feds,” then followed that February by transferring about 20 ATF agents to the city to make gun cases. A 2018 Chicago Sun-Times analysis found that the number of federal gun cases rose in Chicago following that mobilization.
In June, Trump said “law and order” was needed in Chicago, calling the city a “war zone.”
Lightfoot, concerned Trump might send in federal agents to confront protesters as he did in Portland, Oregon, initially pushed back, saying she didn’t need “leadership lessons” from the president.
But after being assured the agents would be helping Chicago cops fight gun violence, Lightfoot said “we welcome actual partnership.”
Some Chicago cops say they’ve become demoralized by seeing gun offenders repeatedly being freed on bail in Cook County Criminal Court and that they also welcome the help from the feds.
“The tact and gun teams love it,” said one Chicago police sergeant, speaking on the condition his name not be used. “That’s great for the city.”
Police Supt. David Brown has repeatedly criticized the Cook County criminal justice system, saying it shouldn’t be allowing bail for violent offenders who commit new crimes.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said that doesn’t fit the data her office has gathered. She said federal and Cook County prosecutors have worked together for years to decide which gun cases meet the legal threshold to file those cases in federal court. Comparing how gun cases are handled in the federal and Cook County court systems is like “comparing apples and oranges” because of the legal differences, she said.
The number of gun cases brought in Cook County’s courts dwarfs the number filed in federal court, Foxx said.
But she said she understands the need for Operation Legend.
“I think it’s meant as a triage for what we’re seeing this summer, which feels like a bloodbath,” Foxx said in an interview. “What is required is for all of us to work together.”
Many of the people charged with federal gun crimes in the past two weeks are felons previously convicted of gun crimes in Cook County’s court. Some got state prison time for those previous gun cases, and others got probation, records show.
Among them is Clarence January, a reputed member of the Black Disciples street gang charged in an FBI investigation. January, 27, has been convicted of illegal gun possession twice in Cook County and was sentenced to probation in 2015 and in 2010, records show.
In another of the federal gun cases, Benjamin Cortez-Gomez, 27, was charged last month with illegally purchasing guns as a felon. He’s accused of transporting seven guns from Indiana to Chicago last month and has prior gun convictions in Cook and DuPage counties.
Cortez-Gomez, who goes by the nickname Bennie Blanco, used Snapchat to send an ATF informant photos of guns he’d bought in Indiana, according to the charges against him.