WATCHDOGS: More fed gun cases, but Chicago trails other cities

Before he was replaced, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said he had made gun crimes a top priority. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

In his final days as U.S. attorney, Zachary Fardon declared that, as Chicago has faced a surge in violence not seen in two decades, his office had made gun crimes a top target.

“Last year, this U.S. attorney’s office prosecuted more gun cases than we have in any year since 2004,” Fardon said before resigning Monday as part of a Trump administration purge of top prosecutors nationwide. “So anyone who suggests that we haven’t stepped up and stretched our resources to fight and help tamp down on gun violence is sorely mistaken.”

It’s true that federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Illinois opened 105 weapons cases in the year that ended Sept. 30. That was up from 73 a year earlier and was the highest annual total in at least two decades, according to court records.

But that’s just part of the picture. Few of the cases involved traffickers — those at the top of the illegal gun-distribution chain, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of court data.

For more than 60 percent of the defendants, the most serious charge was illegally transporting or possessing firearms, the Sun-Times analysis found. For about 20 percent of them, it was using a gun in a drug deal. Even fewer were charged primarily with the more serious offenses of trafficking or selling guns.

And the number of gun prosecutions by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago continues to trail many other big cities grappling with violence and gangs. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Detroit pursued about twice the number of gun cases last year as those in Chicago. In St. Louis, they pursued nearly three times as many.

Fardon has called such comparisons “apples-to-oranges,” noting that “different districts have different state gun laws and local prosecutor offices.”

Other law enforcement sources say U.S. attorneys in those cities have made it a higher priority to team up with police and state prosecutors to go after repeat gun offenders.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. | Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to make gun cases a top priority.

“We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets,” Sessions said in a speech Wednesday. “This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes.”

The Trump administration’s first budget blueprint proposes a $175 million boost in Justice Department spending to “target the worst of the worst criminal organizations and drug traffickers” in Chicago and elsewhere. It doesn’t say how the money would be used.

In an open letter on the city’s gun violence, Fardon said the U.S. attorney’s office for Northern Illinois has 12 fewer attorneys than it did a decade ago as a result of budget constraints imposed by Congress.

“If you want more federal gang and gun prosecutions, we need more full-time, permanent federal prosecutors in Chicago,” Fardon wrote.

At a meeting with other police chiefs Thursday in Washington, D.C., Supt. Eddie Johnson asked Sessions to hire more federal prosecutors to go after gun cases in Chicago.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (center) meets with big-city police chiefs, including Supt. Eddie Johnson (second from right), at the Justice Department on Thursday. | Getty Images

“For a city that’s struggling with gun violence, we have one of the lowest federal gun-prosecution rates, and that should not be,” Johnson told Sessions, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

Johnson also asked the Justice Department to assign more federal agents to work with police in high-violence areas and also to expand Project Exile, which targets felons in possession of guns for federal prosecution.

Sessions has praised that program but made no promises to Johnson, according to Guglielmi, who says, “The attorney general was very, very receptive.”

President Donald Trump has tweeted repeatedly about violence in Chicago, threatening to “send in the feds,” though never saying what that might mean. Sources in the Trump administration have said dozens more federal gun agents are coming to Chicago.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General nominee Rod Rosenstein. | Getty Images

Rod Rosenstein, the Maryland U.S. attorney awaiting hearings on his nomination for deputy U.S. attorney general, has been credited with boosting gun prosecutions in his state. Johnson was expected to meet with him Friday.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland says many federal gun-related cases in Maryland are prosecuted through Project Exile because sentences for gun crimes generally are higher in federal courts than in state courts. The spokeswoman says that, beyond illegal gun possession, the cases often involve violent crimes such as armed robbery.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, the downstate Republican who is the senior member of his party’s congressional delegation from Illinois, is leading the search for a nominee to succeed Fardon.

“The congressman’s focus will be on finding people who will address corruption and the violence in Chicago,” says Jordan Haverly, a spokesman for Shimkus.

The Sun-Times reported in October that gun prosecutions in Chicago had remained flat for years despite a surge in violence to levels not seen since the 1990s. It also reported that federal prosecutions here lagged behind New York City, Baltimore, Milwaukee and other cities.

Sources in his office and in other law-enforcement agencies say that, following the publication of that story, Fardon pushed for more gun cases.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S attorney’s office, denies that Fardon made such a push but declined to comment further.

Fardon has said his office focused on pursuing gun cases that would make an impact and not trying to boost numbers to look good.

In one case that went after a source of weapons on the city’s streets, Warren Gates, a convicted felon from Chicago, was sentenced in January to 63 months in prison.

Gates was one of 11 people indicted in connection with a 2015 theft of more than 100 Ruger firearms worth an estimated $51,000 from a Chicago rail yard. Federal authorities accused the group of flooding Chicago streets with the stolen firearms.

Gates bought some of the guns and resold them, court records show. Six other defendants in the case face trial next month.

One of the recovered Ruger firearms has been linked to a shooting in Chicago on Jan. 22, 2016.

But, in the majority of cases federal prosecutors pursued under Fardon’s leadership, the most serious charge was illegal transport or possession. Such charges take gun offenders off the street but rarely reach high-level traffickers.

In December, Arian Bailey, a convicted felon, pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing a gun in connection with drug dealing. He was sentenced to 65 months in prison.

Bailey was arrested last year in Jeffery Manor on the city’s Southeast Side after police officers reported seeing him duck behind a car to hide a loaded .40-caliber Glock handgun.

“In a city that has seen its shootings and homicides skyrocket in the past year, drug distribution and carrying guns to further that distribution should not be tolerated,” federal prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.

But Bailey’s attorney, Yelena Dolgosheeva, says he carried the weapon for protection, noting that he had previously been shot and that the mother of his children had been murdered.

“He was, on the evidence, a minor, occasional drug dealer, and he lived in a neighborhood where, unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, a lot of people carry guns,” she says.

Dolgosheeva doesn’t think the U.S. attorney’s office would have pursued Bailey’s case before the big increase in the number of killings in Chicago last year. “There has been a lot of pressure on the federal government to take on a lot of cases they would not normally take on,” she says.

Other law enforcement agencies want the U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute even more felons caught carrying guns, which they say has been a key part of the aggressive approach in other cities struggling with violence.

Guglielmi says such cases are essential in sending a message that illegal guns won’t be tolerated.

“You’re changing the culture of carrying a weapon,” he says. “Where there’s demand, there’s supply. In Chicago, there’s no repercussion for carrying a gun.”

Previously from Chicago