THE WATCHDOGS: Despite promises, feds’ fight against guns lagging

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon. | Sun-Times file photo

For all the promises from federal authorities to do all they can to help Chicago fight gun violence, their prosecutions of gun crimes here have remained stagnant, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.

“The Department of Justice will continue to do everything in its power to help the city of Chicago combat gun violence,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in July 2014, vowing to keep up “the federal government’s ongoing commitment to helping local leaders ensure Chicago’s streets are safe.”

“This year, our office has increased its intake of gun cases across the board,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in a speech last month to the City Club of Chicago. “We have many more federal gang and violent-offender cases charged and in the investigative pipeline. We have not and will not take our foot off the criminal enforcement pedal.”

But a Sun-Times analysis of court records shows that federal weapons charges in Chicago have actually fallen slightly over the past five years.

That’s happened even as the number of murders in Chicago has hit a 13-year high and federal prosecutors in some other major urban areas — Manhattan, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Detroit and Baltimore — have charged far more people with weapons offenses than the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has.

From July 2010 to June 2011, 92 people were charged in Chicago with federal weapons offenses, according to the court data. That fell to as low as 57 in 2014 before rising to 84 in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2016.

Federal prosecutors declined to file charges in dozens of other gun cases over that five-year period, including investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, records show.

Altogether over the past five years, 477 people have been charged with federal weapons offenses in Chicago.

In comparison, 499 were charged in Brooklyn, 563 in Milwaukee, 810 in Baltimore, 1,012 in Manhattan and 1,249 in Detroit.

Total prosecutions for all federal crimes also have declined in Chicago in recent years. In 2013, when Fardon took office, 982 people were charged with federal crimes, compared with 617 from July 2015 to the end of June.

The total number of federal prosecutions nationwide has fallen, too, though not as sharply.

Sources at City Hall and in the Chicago Police Department, ATF and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have expressed frustration with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, saying it needs to be more aggressive at a time of rising violence.

“The weapons charges are flat,” said a former supervisor in the Chicago division of the ATF, speaking only on the condition he not be named. “Almost everything else except weapons takes precedence. To me, that’s a cultural thing we need to overcome.”

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

In part, budget cuts appear to have played a role in why federal gun prosecutions have remained stagnant in Chicago. The federal government’s 2013 shutdown prompted the layoffs of more than 40 lawyers in Chicago — about a quarter of the U.S. attorney’s staff. Most of those positions have since been added back.

Also, in some cases, federal sentences for gun crimes aren’t as stiff as those in state court, so authorities have said they sometimes choose to go that route.

And federal prosecutors have said that rather than bringing a large volume of cases, they focus on cases they believe will have wide-ranging impact. In the speech last month, Fardon pointed to the ongoing trial of leaders of the Hobos, a “super gang” made of members of the Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples that’s been linked to killings.

U.S. Atty. Zachary Fardon speaking to the City Club of Chicago last month. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

His office also has touted a 2014 gun case in which 15 men were charged with the illegal possession or transport of firearms based on gun sales witnessed or initiated by ATF informants. That came after Holder, the attorney general at the time, temporarily boosted staffing at the Chicago ATF office to help fight gun violence.

A couple of the men in that case were involved in just one or two exchanges of guns, but one — Larry McIntosh — sold 22 guns and possessed at least 21 more firearms, according to prosecutors.

“When people like the defendant collect their vast arsenals of dangerous guns and then turn around and sell those guns to whoever is willing to buy them illegally on the street, a powder keg is lit,” prosecutors said in a court filing in McIntosh’s case.

McIntosh pleaded guilty to two counts of gun possession and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Eleven of the other defendants have pleaded guilty and got sentences ranging from 18 months to 100 months. Two of the others are awaiting sentencing, and another has a plea hearing set for December.

In another, higher-profile case, federal prosecutors decided to bring gun charges against a defendant in the April 2014 killing of 14-year-old Endia Martin in Back of the Yards. Vandetta Redwood is set to go to trial on federal gun charges Monday in that case.

Prosecutors say Redwood’s cousin had feuded online with another girl over a boy, and they challenged each other to a fight. They say Redwood egged on her cousin, then handed her a .38-caliber revolver, telling her to “shoot that bitch.” The alleged teenage shooter wounded her rival but killed Martin. Charged as a juvenile, she is awaiting trial.

Cook County prosecutors charged Redwood with mob action and obstruction of justice. But Cook County Circuit Judge Donald Panarese Jr. threw out those charges, finding that the cellphone video of the shooting was “choppy” and “poor.” A federal indictment against Redwood was announced in February 2016.

Despite those high-profile cases, defense attorneys say federal weapons charges in Chicago typically are brought mostly for illegal gun possession, rather than trafficking weapons.

Two of every three federal gun charges brought this year in Chicago have been for illegal possession or transport — a charge commonly wielded against felons caught with one or two weapons, records show. Five years ago, such charges accounted for less than half the total.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are charging fewer people with illegal gun sales, including “straw purchasers” with clean records buying guns for felons — a key source of illegal firearms in Chicago.

And charges for using a firearm in an act of violence or a drug crime have fallen by about 50 percent.

“The U.S. attorney is bringing a lot of the small gun cases: a felon in possession, a guy with one gun,” said John L. Sullivan, a longtime defense attorney who formerly worked as a federal prosecutor. “I think there are bigger fish to fry.”

An ATF source said he doesn’t have a problem with bringing possession cases. A larger volume of federal firearm cases — whether they’re complex conspiracies or cases against individual felons for possession — would serve as a deterrent to criminals carrying guns, the source said.

Defense attorney Heather Winslow said she doesn’t think the prospect of facing federal charges is keeping people in violent neighborhoods from carrying guns because the number of federal gun cases is so small.

“In terms of a general deterrent effect, it’s just not there,” Winslow said.

A defendant in a federal gun case put it this way: “People would rather get caught with a gun than without it.”