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Alleged leader of Hobos gang takes the stand

Hobos gang member tattoos.

Federal prosecutors say the photo shows a tattoo on Gregory Chester, alleged leader of the Hobos gang. The tattoo declares the gang's slogan: "The Earth Is Our Turf." | Provided photo

The man with the nickname “Bowlegs” slowly walked to the witness stand, faced a federal judge and raised his right hand.

Then Gregory Chester — the alleged head of Chicago’s Hobos “super gang” — kicked off his dramatic surprise testimony Wednesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, where prosecutors have been putting Chester and five other accused gang leaders on trial for more than 12 weeks.

Dressed in a dark suit and a maroon tie, Chester listened to defense attorney Beau Brindley ask if Chester was “the leader of a group they called ‘the Hobos?’ ” Chester leaned toward the microphone and said, “No I am not.”

Then Chester went further, testifying that the Hobos street gang never even existed.

Chester said the word “Hobo” referred to a murdered friend from the now-demolished Robert Taylor housing project where he grew up. He also ridiculed the idea that a handicapped person could lead a street gang. Chester said he has a bone disease that “causes my legs to go bow” and prevents him from moving quickly.

“A crippled gang leader?” Chester said. “I mean, no sir.”

By taking the stand, Chester has now exposed himself to cross-examination by prosecutors intimately familiar with the evidence against him and the other alleged Hobos. Chester testified for about 90 minutes on Wednesday, and he will continue Thursday morning. However, to accommodate other witnesses, Chester’s cross-examination may not begin until next week.

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Federal prosecutors who are putting Chester and others on trial for racketeering have tied the Hobos street gang to nine murders and several other crimes. Authorities have described the gang as a conglomerate or “all-star team of the worst of the worst” of Chicago’s street gangs. Chester has been identified as “the undisputed leader of the Hobos.”

Among the Hobos’ alleged murders was the April 14, 2013, execution of FBI informant Keith Daniels. The feds say Daniels was executed for cooperating with authorities against the gang. Before he died, Daniels told a federal grand jury that, “I understood that ‘Bowlegs’ was the leader of the Hobos,” referring to Chester by his nickname.

Chester, 39, said he grew up in a housing project where “only the strong survive.” Faced with nicknames like “Pops” for moving too slow, Chester said he made alliances with members of multiple gangs. However, he said he grew up in a building controlled by the Gangster Disciples and was primarily affiliated with that group.

That project is where he said he had a friend named Antwan Howard, who was robbed and killed on July 3, 2000. Chester said Howard’s nickname was “Hobo,” and “he was like the Michael Jordan of our neighborhood.” After Howard was killed, Chester said he had Howard’s nickname tattooed on his right arm.

That tattoo also features hands holding a bag of money and a revolver, images of the Robert Taylor homes, and the words “The Earth Is Our Turf.” Chester testified that it was all symbolic of Howard, his life and his death. “The Earth Is Our Turf” was a popular rap song written by Howard, Chester said.

“Hobo is not a gang,” Chester testified.

Finally, Chester admitted he sold large quantities of heroin — $80 a gram and no less than 50 grams at a time — and he even said he sold drugs to Daniels, the FBI informant. But he said he never shared that money with his co-defendants in the racketeering trial.

And he said he made enough money that “I never needed to rob no one.”