Winning A Gang War

Ron Safer felt his bright future as a federal prosecutor sliding into the abyss. His supervisor, Dan Gillogly, was talking up the rich possibilities of a new case. But here's what Safer heard: you want me to take on the biggest narcotics gang in the country, the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples, with 50,000 members in 35 states. And you're handing me an investigation that in three years has turned up squat about a mob deadlier than Al Capone's. Safer asked if federal agents had developed any informants within the so-called GDs--a paranoid group notorious for killing members who betrayed it. Gillogly just laughed. As the supervisor went on, Safer did some calculations in his head. It's late in 1992. My four-year hitch with the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago expires on July 10, 1993. Baby-sit this dead-end case for a few months and ... I'm outta here.

As the days passed, other thoughts gnawed at Safer. The GDs had spread their drug peddling to cities from coast to coast, and now the "gang nation's" exalted leader, Larry Hoover, was threatening to make a comeback. He was in prison for ordering the murder of a man who had stolen dope from the gang. But he had somehow run his vast empire from his cell for two decades, and Safer feared Hoover might soon persuade a parole board to release him. The prosecutor had personal reasons to stop that from happening. As a boy in Queens, N.Y., he had asked his parents what they had done to stop the beatings of civil-rights workers in the South. How would he answer his own kids when they asked what he, a government prosecutor, had done to stop young people with guns from killing one another?

Seven years and seven trials later, Safer has an answer. This NEWSWEEK reconstruction chronicles the ups and downs of the most ambitious assault on any major gang in U.S. history. Turning the Gangster Disciples' tight organization into a weakness, Safer's federal agents and prosecutors attacked the gang's leadership while deploying crafty street cops to spread confusion--and turn informers--in the lower ranks. The payoff: the team has toppled what amounts to a drug cartel with profits estimated at more than $100 million a year --surpassing those of Barnes & Noble or Mutual of Omaha. The battle goes on. Within days, NEWSWEEK has learned, more federal indictments are expected to take down another busload of GDs leaders.

Until recently, the GDs seemed invincible, a pyramid with Hoover alone at the top. "King Hoover" or "Chairman Larry" got a taste for thuggery early in life, pummeling youngsters who teased him for his stutter. He was smart and manipulative, a reader of Machiavelli who tried to project a positive image through food giveaways to the poor. The reality was very different. In Chicago alone, authorities pinned 75 homicides a year on the gang. The typical victims were rival gang-bangers, innocent bystanders--or GDs who cheated their higher-ups out of drug proceeds. During the early '90s, desperate residents on one Chicago street used mock coffins to protest killings the police could not control. Cells fanned out to other cities, mostly in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest; the GDs used 8-year-olds to carry guns and drugs. Nobody crossed Hoover: even minor infractions, like failing to answer a beeper page, earned "pumpkinheads"--near-fatal beatings above the neck.

The Feds, meanwhile, couldn't get their act together. When Safer first got the case, he found that the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration were refusing to pool their resources. Safer nixed the dual investigation; the DEA stayed with him, while the FBI instead chose to work some tangential cases. Safer's strategy: convict Hoover of running a drug gang, and send him from his cell at a cushy jail in southern Illinois to a distant federal prison--forever. But how could the DEA catch Hoover giving orders? Tapes of his telephone calls showed that when GDs callers mentioned gang business, Hoover interjected: "Come see me."

Then Safer got a lucky break. Charles (Jello) Banks, a GDs officer arrested on a drug charge, offered to tell all about the gang in return for a lighter sentence in his own case. Jello, a charming, roly-poly orphan, laid out the GDs' secret structure. Two boards of directors (one for street operations, the other for GDs in prison) oversaw governors, regents and enforcers. Jello's account of the drug trade helped the Feds win court approval to bug Hoover and his visitors.

But where to hide the bugs? Safer naively urged tapping telephone receivers in the guarded room where prisoners and visitors face one another through glass. DEA agents explained that the prison in Vienna, Ill., was more like a college campus than like Alcatraz. Hoover greeted visitors in a lunchroom. From there, within bounds, they were free to roam. Rick Barrett, a DEA supervisor, recalls debating whether to bug the room's ashtrays, salt shakers, wall clock or even a Coke machine. The problem: Hoover liked to wander.

One day an agent working a different case stormed into Barrett's office to complain about an assistant U.S. attorney. Barrett noticed that the agent hadn't bothered to remove the visitor's badge that he had worn to see the prosecutor. "You know," Barrett teased, "that badge is transmitting everything you say back to the U.S. attorney's office." As he spoke, inspiration struck: what if the Feds developed microphones and transmitters so thin they could fit inside a prison visitor's badge? Barrett found a company that would craft the spook gear for $1,500 a badge. The devices could relay Hoover's conversations to a listening post in Chicago, 350 miles to the north.

After six weeks, one of Hoover's visitors idly picked at her badge and uncovered four tiny screws. By then, though, the Feds had 55 hours of evidence from conversations between Hoover and his high command suggesting the extent of their drug empire. DEA higher-ups urged Safer to stop the investigation and indict Hoover. Safer refused, arguing that other GDs would simply replace the leader; instead, he asked for more agents to help cut deeper into the gang. The DEA balked. So Safer went to an unlikely source: the Chicago police. In the streets, many cops resent the Feds: they think the G-men are arrogant. But Safer managed to sell police brass on the idea of crippling the GDs. The cops gave Safer 15 officers, all angry to be now working for the Feds and also bickering among themselves. (The narcotics cops assigned the gang cops to office space in a furnace room.)

Safer's first meeting with his new teammates was a disaster. When he declared that together they would bring down the GDs leadership, the cops laughed derisively. And when he disclosed that surreptitious taping had yielded enough evidence to indict Hoover and five other top GDs, a police investigator named Jim Darling catcalled, "Then go ahead!" But the cops weren't completely cynical. Darling thought Safer seemed sharp, and he envied the stiff federal sentences for drug distributors. The prison tapes had established a "dry conspiracy," lots of words but little to prove real crimes. On one tape the Feds had caught Gregory Shell, Hoover's deputy, saying he was buying a Chicago restaurant, June's Shrimp on the Nine. Could they prove it was a base for GDs drug peddling?

Safer got court permission to plant a tiny camera and mike inside the restaurant, and specialists installed the devices at 3 a.m. one day. But the gang had its own spies. At 8 a.m., Shell strode into June's and looked up at the hidden lens. "You ain't got s--t," he said, "and you ain't gonna get s--t." In a secret monitoring room across 79th Street, Chicago Det. Mary Hodge threw up her hands. "I'll be damned," she muttered.

Meanwhile, Hoover was telling parole officials he had transformed the GDs into a reform group, Growth and Development, that could steer urban youths away from crime. Some of his GDs joined orderly marches to ask for better schools and health care. The makeover appealed to two groups. Several black politicians, including a few aldermen, figured that if they supported Hoover's attempt to be paroled, he would reward them by having GDs get out the vote in elections. And some African-Americans, desperate to stop street crime, were ready to believe that Hoover was a changed man. Several activists even compared him to Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.

Worse, the investigation was stalled. Safer had recruited another federal prosecutor, a rising star named Matt Crowl, in part because Crowl's cheery Iowa personality would help build some team spirit among the cops and federal agents. But the police were dragging their feet. Darling and the others couldn't fathom why Safer wanted them to bust dime-bag drug deals on street corners. Weren't they after the GDs' leaders? A frustrated Safer lectured the cops on federal criminal statutes. First, a drug gang is a "continuing criminal enterprise," or CCE. Second, if you're the leader of a CCE, federal law can put you away for life. Third, Hoover is responsible for his lowliest co-conspirators--the street humps who sell the drugs.

After that, the cops spent early 1995 busting GDs for drugs--and turning some of them into informants. Darling especially wanted the third ranking GDs, Darryl (Pops) Johnson. At about the same time, Mary Hodge unearthed a gem. IRS agents working for Safer had raided the offices of a rap-concert-promotion company run by Hoover's common-law wife. In the 16 file drawers of seized documents was a folder marked L.H., SR. PERSONAL. Inside was a 27-page organization chart that named each GDs leader by rank, region and corresponding rival gangs (labeled "opposition forces"). Hodge took the pages to an ecstatic Safer and Crowl. It was time to indict.

First Safer had to finish an unrelated trial. He gave his final argument on June 9, 1995, and went home, exhausted, to spend the night watching TV with his wife. The call came late: Jello Banks had just been assassinated at a GDs drug corner on Chicago's South Side. He'd been shot six times in the head--twice from the back and four more times in the face. Jello's death devastated Safer. Four days earlier, one of Darling's cops had heard that the GDs suspected Jello and planned to kill him. Safer and Dave Styler, another prosecutor, had strongly urged Jello to come in from the cold. But he had stayed on the streets. "Mary, they're gonna kill me," he'd once told Hodge. "And when they do, you gotta promise me you'll get Pops." A few weeks earlier, evidence from a wire Jello wore had helped Safer get approval to wiretap Pops Johnson. And now, hours after Jello's death, the government recorded Pops on a mobile phone. He was saying he wanted to give a car to the GDs who had shot Jello.

The indictments aimed high: 38 top GDs plus a cop who'd helped them. At dawn on Aug. 31, 1995, some 250 law officers swept through Chicago, arresting the GDs. Hodge and two federal agents flew to Hoover's prison in a DEA plane, arrested him on federal charges and brought him back to Chicago. Hoover confided that this was his first plane ride. After 22 years in prison, he behaved like a curious child. When he pointed at one building, Hodge told him: "That's the Sears Tower."

It was time to go to court. A few defendants pleaded guilty; the rest were split up for three trials. In the first, a DEA analyst, Sue DeGuzman, testified about the "link association" she'd built from phone-company records to track 600,000 calls among key GDs. And jurors heard Hoover, on tape, instructing Shell on the wisdom of occasionally giving young GDs free drugs to sell. "You bring them along," he counseled. "They know they wouldn't have anything without you." The verdict: all eight defendants were convicted. Within six days, four GDs were killed by rivals eager to grab new turf.

King Hoover himself went on trial with six other GDs in the second group. Hoover's attorney argued that her client was a politician persecuted by the government. Outside the court building, the GDs rallied by the hundreds. Chants of "Free Larry" rose to the courtroom from marchers on the sidewalks 19 floors below. One day Safer walked near Hoover's chair, and the star defendant murmured, "Aren't you scared?" Safer shrugged it off. If Hoover wanted me dead, he told himself, I'd be dead. Finally, on the day of the verdict--May 9, 1997--armed officers ringed the base of the court building. But the only action was in the courtroom, where Hoover and the others were found guilty. The third trial ended with convictions against 12 of 13 defendants two months later.

Now it was time to do what Jello had asked of Hodge: get Pops. Safer's investigation hadn't stopped after the 1995 indictments. The police were amassing new evidence against GDs who had replaced their fallen leaders. Safer also wanted to do right by Jello. "The Banks murder, to this day, eats at me," he says now. "There is no question I'm responsible for his death. I could have pulled him off the street. I didn't."

Crowl thought that pinning the murder on Pops would be impossible. In 1996, though, Darling's officers had built dope cases against several eyewitnesses to the killing. Safer then issued subpoenas that compelled them to appear before a grand jury exploring Jello's murder. Some GDs, confronted with the drug evidence, agreed to talk about the murder. Safer told the mother of one surly GDs: "I don't want to put your son in jail for protecting a murderer--but I will." During a punishing lunch hour with Mom, the GDs became a government witness. Pops and his shooter, Quan Ray, were eventually charged and convicted.

The old code of silence is broken. "We bring them in now and they're all talking on one another," says Steve Worsham, a gang investigator for the Chicago police. Safer and his allies have put away 80 of the gang nation's top operatives. (All those convicted have filed notice of appeal.) By early November, the Justice Department is expected to indict a new crop of about 20 GDs, and prosecutors promise still more indictments. Safer is the first to admit that remnants of the GDs are still selling drugs. But the group's death grip on black neighborhoods is much looser. "There used to be lawlessness on those streets," Worsham says. "It's just not like that anymore."

Crowl now heads up the government team. Last February Safer moved on to a Chicago law firm. He no longer has his only souvenir of the case, one of the prison visitors' badges. Safer showed it to Bill Clinton when he traveled to Washington to accept congratulations for bringing down the GDs; the president, fascinated by the electronic toy, walked off with it. What Safer does carry is his guilt over Jello's death. That and the knowledge that his new office is high in the Sears Tower, a building Larry Hoover, who's in a locked-down cell at a federal Supermax prison in Colorado, will never see again.




                  Larry Hoover



    Oversee prison and street members



       Control large geographic areas



           Oversee retail drug sales



            Supervise specific sites


Security officers/enforcers

       Punish rivals and rule-breakers



      Low-ranking street dealers have

                  riskiest jobs