‘King Rudy’ walks free after helping feds nab ex-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, dozens of others

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said the work done by Rudolph Acosta III in the years since his 2015 arrest amounted to the greatest case of rehabilitation he’d seen in his 29 years on the bench.

SHARE ‘King Rudy’ walks free after helping feds nab ex-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, dozens of others

Sun-Times file

A federal judge handed a time-served sentence Tuesday to a longtime Chicago-area drug dealer who pushed “off the charts” amounts of narcotics but then spent seven years helping prosecutors secure charges against dozens of people, including the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Erskine argued in court that Rudolph Acosta III, once known as “King Rudy,” became “one of the most prolific and successful cooperators with our office, probably in the last decade or so” — a high bar in a city where many cooperators of note have been unmasked in recent years.

As a result, Acosta left the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman on Tuesday a seemingly free man, despite guidelines that called for a life sentence. When he handed down his sentence, the judge told Acosta he’d likely be eligible for a halfway house.

The decision marked the end of an unusual sentencing hearing that featured talk of secret meetings, behind-the-scenes work by a defense attorney, advocacy from a Drug Enforcement Administration agent on behalf of a defendant and a judge saying another defense attorney should face “consequences” for calling Acosta a “coward.”

Erskine told the judge Acosta’s cooperation, either directly or indirectly, led to charges against 36 people in Chicago’s federal courthouse. Half of those were accused of drug crimes, he said, while the other half were accused of public corruption.

The prosecutor didn’t name names. But Acosta defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback confirmed Sandoval was among the three dozen charged as a result of Acosta’s cooperation.

Acosta’s legal odyssey in the last several years included a conviction against his father, also named Rudolph Acosta, for concealing material facts from the FBI about Sandoval.

Sandoval died in December 2020, several months after pleading guilty to corruption charges. The elder Acosta also has ties to former Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke, who faces a racketeering trial in November.

Steinback told Gettleman the elder Acosta also helped investigators, befriending a “pretty high-level drug dealer” to assure him and others that Acosta III was not cooperating with authorities after his arrest in November 2015.

The case against Acosta III simmered quietly in federal court for years after that arrest, even when charges were filed in 2021 against the elder Acosta, who received probation.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that Acosta III finally pleaded guilty. He admitted in a plea agreement that he helped distribute cocaine in the Chicago area as far back as the late 1990s, establishing ties with drug suppliers based in Mexico. Then, in late 2015, a customer working with law enforcement told Acosta III that drugs had been seized from his courier.

Acosta III responded by making threatening comments about the courier, including the courier would “end up losing a kid.”

Still, Gettleman said the work done by Acosta III in the years since amounted to the greatest case of rehabilitation he’d seen in his 29 years on the bench. That’s why he handed Acosta III a prison sentence of a year and a day — which Gettleman predicted would be wiped out by credits for time already served by Acosta III.

In doing so, he acknowledged there were two extremes to the case, and that Acosta III had at one point been dealing with drug amounts that were “off the charts.”

Steinback explained his client’s cooperation began with a secret meeting involving Steinback, Acosta III, a federal agent and prosecutors. He said the secrecy was prompted, in part, by Acosta III’s representation by another defense attorney, Joseph Lopez.

Steinback has a reputation for helping clients strike deals with the feds. That means his involvement would have signaled to Lopez that Acosta III planned to cooperate. And authorities considered that to be “dangerous,” Steinback said.

Later, after Acosta III’s cooperation became known, Steinback alleged Lopez publicly called Acosta III a “coward.”

Gettleman on Tuesday said he found that comment “reprehensible.” He told Erskine he hopes Lopez faces consequences for it. Steinback had tried to discuss the situation in court without using Lopez’s name, but Gettleman insisted it be said on the record.

Reached later by the Chicago Sun-Times, Lopez insisted “everybody knew” that Acosta III was cooperating as soon as he was released from federal custody in 2016. He said he knew about Steinback’s involvement in the case as well.

Lopez said he didn’t remember calling Acosta III a “coward.” Rather, he remembered calling him a “rat.” Regardless, Lopez declined to respond to the judge’s comments.

Erskine asked Gettleman to give Acosta III a three-year sentence, arguing in a court memo that before his cooperation, Acosta III “sought to profit” from the misery caused by cocaine and heroin.

But DEA Special Agent Tom Asselborn spoke up for Acosta III during Tuesday’s hearing. Acknowledging it’s rare for him to advocate for someone he’s arrested, the agent told Gettleman that “Mr. Acosta has changed his life” and “would never say no” when the feds needed his help.

“He has been rehabilitated,” Asselborn said.

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