19 seized in illegal gun flow to gangs

Officers team up to target pipeline from Mississippi

By Jeff Coen
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 1, 2007

The arrests of 19 people in Chicago and Mississippi in a gun-trafficking conspiracy offer a snapshot into the illegal gun trade in which gang members here end up with high-powered weapons, federal authorities said Wednesday.

A loose organization made up of relatives, their friends and associates allegedly arranged for the purchase of more than 100 guns in Mississippi, where laws are relatively lax, and transport here for sale to gangs such as the Gangster Disciples.

About three dozen weapons eventually were recovered at Chicago crime scenes, including a shootout last year in which two people were killed and a police officer wounded, investigators said.

"When you add illegally obtained heavy-caliber firearms to the already volatile mix of gangs and drugs on the streets of Chicago, the result to say the least is an unacceptable level of violence," said Gary Shapiro, first assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Three people were in custody in Chicago and 15 in Mississippi after a team of agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and officers from the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police cracked down on the group early Wednesday. One suspect was already in custody.

Shapiro said gun-running operations like the one dismantled Wednesday contribute significantly to crime in the city.

It "threatens not only those who try to enforce our laws, but also the law-abiding citizens who only wish to live their lives in the neighborhoods that the gangs are trying to dominate," Shapiro said.

Recovered guns included two assault rifles and several high-powered handguns, he said.

Authorities said gun brokers in Chicago worked with traffickers, who recruited buyers in Mississippi. Those buyers made what are known as "straw purchases" at a group of three pawn shops and a gun store in Clarksdale and Tunica, Miss., falsely claiming that the guns were for them.

An ATF affidavit filed in the case outlines when weapons were purchased by alleged conspirators and when those guns turned up in Chicago.

On July 30, 2005, one of the buyers, Percy Strong, 54, of Jonestown, Miss., bought a 9mm handgun at Krosstown Trade and Pawn in Clarksdale, according to the affidavit Last October, Chicago police trying to thwart a gang hit in Humboldt Park pulled over a car full of New Breeds gang members who were on their way to shoot a rival.

The gang members pulled out an assault weapon and the pistol Strong had bought at Krosstown, authorities said. A shootout ensued that left two of the gang members dead and a police officer shot in the hand.

In December 2003, Strong bought another 9mm pistol from Krosstown. That weapon was recovered by Chicago police in the South Side bedroom of a convicted felon, along with a stash of drugs, according to the affidavit.

On Sept. 1, 2003, Strong bought a .45-caliber pistol at the same business, the affidavit states. Less than two months later, the gun was recovered after a Gangster Disciple street gang member used it to shoot someone in the 5700 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Another buyer, James Jiles of Clarksdale, bought a semiautomatic rifle at Mega Pawn in that town. Police executing a search warrant on the South Side in 2004 found the weapon in the possession of a member of the Mafia Insane Vice Lords, the affidavit states.

ATF leaders said they began to crack the network by analyzing gun data, discovering that between 2001 and last fall, 300 guns recovered by law enforcement in Northern Illinois came from the Clarksdale and Tunica shops. Records from those businesses were then used to identify the purchasers, who were questioned by investigators and who blamed others in the network.

Strong told the ATF he was recruited by Eddie Nesby, 25, of Chicago, who was among those charged. Nesby paid him $250 cash in addition to the cost of the gun, authorities said, but other buyers were paid as little as $20 or $50.

Many involved in the scheme knew where the guns were headed, investigators said, and attempted to destroy the serial numbers on many of the weapons. Most of the guns remain on the street and unaccounted for.

Other Chicagoans arrested and charged in the conspiracy in addition to Nesby were Julius Statham, 37, who allegedly bought some of the weapons in Chicago; and Antonio Brunt, 30, who along with Statham was accused of using a relative to obtain firearms in the South.

Attorneys for the men could not immediately be reached for comment.

Andrew Traver, special agent in charge of the Chicago ATF, said the case is a good example of how firearms-trafficking works. Traver called it a growing problem that involves more-sophisticated groups moving deadlier firearms.

"Back in the late '80s and early '90s, it was generally one person with a trunkful of guns who would drive up and sell them," he said. "Now we have these groups of people, where they recruit family members or associates in states that tend to have more lenient gun laws than Illinois."

Mississippi does not require a special firearm owner's identification card to buy a gun, authorities said, and has no waiting period.