Thriving area still harbors deadliest police beat of city

Gangs hold grip in Logan Square

By David Heinzmann, Tribune staff reporter. Staff reporter Darnell Little contributed to this report
Published February 2, 2004

The streets surrounding the 3500 block of West Belden Avenue look safe enough. Families walk the streets, the restaurants and shops are busy, there aren't any boarded up houses, hardly any gang graffiti.

It is a neighborhood where the metal folding chairs at community policing meetings are filled by a mix of middle-age Hispanic mothers, young, single professionals and ambitious landlords riding the wave of the Chicago housing market as it surges through Logan Square.

But down the alley behind the houses on Belden, inside one tidy, gray vinyl-sided garage last summer, the neighborhood became the deadliest police beat in the deadliest city in America.

On July 30, four men from different parts of the country entered the garage and closed the white overhead door as they transferred at least $97,000 in drug proceeds from one vehicle to another. Just one man emerged from the garage. He left the bodies of the other three and a .45-caliber handgun on the floor.

Edgar Juarez, 28, Gerardo Jacobo, 30, and William A. Wallace, 37, were murdered in police patrol Beat 1413, a 28-block area in the Logan Square neighborhood that is home to 13,000 people.

Despite the strong community fabric across these streets--bounded by Armitage, Kedzie, Wrightwood and Central Park Avenues--more people died in Beat 1413 in 2003 than in any of the city's 279 other patrol sections.

In addition to the mostly Hispanic working families, schoolchildren and business owners on Fullerton Avenue, this neighborhood is rife with gangs that have been killing each other for years.

Missing is the "tagging" of buildings and garage doors with gang-related graffiti. Police and former gang members say it has fallen out of favor because it draws police attention to their drug-dealing turf.

The heart of the Imperial Gangsters turf lies in and around Beat 1413 of the Shakespeare Police District. The beat's western border--Central Park Avenue--forms a boundary with the rival Spanish Cobras. Gang and drug conflicts accounted for at least half of the 10 murders here last year.

Eight were shot

The first murder victim in Beat 1413 last year was Jorge Pacheco, 31, killed in an unsolved drive-by shooting in the same block as the triple murder. Three of the killings were domestic disputes or drunken quarrels that turned violent. One was a dispute over a gold chain. Eight of the 10 were shot to death.

Police made an arrest in two of the slayings, and a third suspect killed himself. An arrest warrant has been issued for a man from New York in the triple murder. Police believe he has fled to Mexico.

Despite the number of killings in Beat 1413 last year, police think the worst days are behind this neighborhood. Gentrification is gradually shoving the gangs west, police say. Although the people who live near Central Park tend to be lower income and less educated, census data show the median household income in some blocks on the east side of the beat is about $65,000.

The base of operations for the Spanish Cobras is adjacent Beat 2525 in the Grand-Central Police District. Total shootings in Beats 2525 and 1413 declined slightly in 2003.

"It's not as bad as it was four or five years ago," said one veteran tactical officer who has worked the area for years. "They used to shoot at each other across Central Park."

So far this year, there have been no murders or shootings in 1413, according to records. But there has been a shooting, as well as the first homicide of the year--the mistaken-identity gang slaying of Joseph Budakovic--a few blocks west in Beat 2525.

While police say the Logan Square area is gradually getting less violent, they acknowledge the gangs will not flee any time soon. While the Imperial Gangsters control most of Beat 1413, the Latin Kings control an area near Kedzie and Armitage. Immediately west of the beat, the Spanish Cobras and factions of the Maniac Latin Disciples are entrenched. All of them deal narcotics from the alleys, gangways and run-down apartments of the neighborhood.

Police say most of the violence in the beat is related to ongoing disputes between the IGs and the Cobras, as they are known in police shorthand. Other shootings involved disputes with the other gangs. Most of the violence is related to the drug trade.

"There are some problems, the IGs are there," said Grand-Central Area Deputy Chief Maria Maher, who commands the patrol division in the five districts of the Northwest Side. But she points out that cooperative efforts between Shakespeare and Grand-Central District officers have been effective in recent years.

"We worked in unison," she said. "Even though the gangs don't respect boundaries, they are very aware of boundaries. We got together and extended our boundaries."

Maher said both districts had conducted street roll calls on Central Park--beefing up their visibility on the turf border between the gangs.

Longtime residents still pay the price of living in midst of the gang battleground.
"From time to time, they clear them out, but then all of a sudden they start again," said Sally Heyl, 70, who has lived on the 3400 block of West Belden for 29 years. "The police move them, but they don't eliminate them."

She raised two children on her own in the beat, she said, and spent nearly every day volunteering at their school in order to make sure they did not get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Her 31-year-old son is a security guard who lives at home with her. Her daughter, 32, lives on the Far Northwest Side and does not like to visit because she fears for the safety of her own young children, Heyl said.

To be sure, there is less violence in the Logan Square neighborhood than in some areas on the West and South Sides. And the Northwest Side community has become a hot real-estate market in recent years, filling up with well-heeled yuppies and rehabbed condo buildings with units selling for more than $300,000. About 68 percent of the residents in the beat are Hispanic, 22 percent are white and 7.5 percent are black, according to census data.

About 21 percent live below the poverty level; 26 percent of families are headed by a female; and 43 percent of adults 25 and older don't have a high school diploma.

The main commercial thoroughfares--Armitage and Fullerton--are lined with busy restaurants and groceries, and there is little of the blight that often accompanies high-crime urban areas.

Mistaken identity

Statistics show most murder victims have criminal records nearly as long as their killer. But gang violence also claims law-abiding people who have the bad fortune of living and working in high-crime neighborhoods.

For Ismael Zermeno, 25, whose criminal record consisted of one pending misdemeanor theft charge, it was a case of mistaken identity.

On a cool, windy afternoon last April, Zermeno was on his way home from a day-laborer job. As he walked along Sawyer Avenue just north of Armitage, two members of the Imperial Gangsters fell in behind him across the street.

As one of them later told police, they had come onto the block, which is Latin Kings turf, looking to shoot a rival gang member.

Elio Gonzalez, a 5-foot-5, 130-pound 19-year-old member of the Gangsters who was on parole for a marijuana-dealing conviction, walked across the street, pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and allegedly shot Zermeno twice in the back of the head, according to authorities. He never said a word to his victim, according to prosecutors who charged him with murder.

Zermeno was not a member of the Latin Kings, prosecutors say. Gonzalez's companion, who was not charged in the case, claims he told his friend the victim did not look like a gang member, but he shot him anyway.

There were 31 murders in the Shakespeare District in 2003. In the Grand-Central District west of Central Park Avenue, there were 29 murders.

That's fewer than in several other districts. As it does most years, the Harrison District, which straddles the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side, had the most murders in 2003 with 57. The Englewood District, which covers most of the Englewood neighborhood, tied with the Marquette District--on the West and Southwest Sides--with 50 murders. Together, those three districts accounted for more than a third of the murders in 2003.

Some believe the gang problem in Logan Square is slowly waning because there are fewer children. There was a 12 percent drop in the number of people under age 17 between 1990 and 2000, census data show.

At the Boys and Girls Club of Logan Square, Arnulfo Nava runs an outreach program to try to keep kids out of gangs and to toss life preservers to the occasional gang member who wants out of the chaos.

A former adolescent Latin King himself, Nava knows the gangs well.

"We used to keep a map" that tracked gang turf, he said. "But we got tired of it. It was moving all the time."
From Nava's perspective, much of the violence among Hispanic gangs is driven by two factors: false pride and a lack of sobriety.

"They live in a place where they are judged by their actions. So if someone slaps me, I'm going to shoot them," Nava said. Over the years, he has never had a conversation with a gang member who said he had shot somebody when completely sober.
"Everyone I've ever known drinks something before they do a hit," he said.

$97,000 in cash

While the triple murder in July was related to the gang and drug problems in this neighborhood, it was not typical of the violence here. The victims were not even from Chicago and were engaged in the drug trade several rungs above the usual mayhem on the streets of Logan Square.

Jacobo was an immigrant landscaper from the Los Angeles suburbs, Wallace was from San Antonio but had at one point gone by the name Ramirez and had lived in Georgia, police said. Juarez lived in a little brick house near Midway Airport, but had almost no history here, and police believe he was a recent arrival from Mexico.

The suspect named by police in an arrest warrant is Jose Fuerte of New York. The three victims, along with Fuerte, were likely involved in carting drug money across country, said Grand-Central Area Detective Jim Gilger.

Police believe the four had driven a mini-van to Chicago from the East Coast, probably New Jersey or Rhode Island. Some of the money may have been intended for dealers here, but most of it was probably headed toward the Mexican border and the drug cartels that supply cocaine to the United States, Gilger said.

In one of the cars in the garage and at another location in the city, police recovered $97,000 in bundles of tens and twenties. They don't know how much money the killer may have made off with after the shootings.

Fuerte was not from Chicago and was completely unknown to police here. But his fingerprints were in the van, and they traced him to a criminal record in New York, Gilger said.

The detectives fear he has fled to Mexico, but getting him back here would be difficult, Gilger said. The Mexican government would be unlikely to extradite him because he is eligible for the death penalty.

In Santa Ana, Calif., the progress of the investigation is of little consequence to Jacobo's family. They stay in touch with the detectives from time to time, saysAcquileo Valencia, Jacobo's father in law.

"They asked me about drugs, but I know nothing," he said. Valencia is much more focused on the damage left in the wake of Jacobo's murder--his daughter who no longer has a husband, and a 9-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy who no longer have a father.