Drug trial tracks gang's shift to Rockford

Investigators say case shows the spread of gang violence from Chicago as public housing projects have been torn down

By Jeff Long and Liam Ford
Tribune staff reporters
Published May 15, 2007

When members of the Titanic Stones, a gang from Chicago's South Side, began moving to Rockford seven years ago, they saw untapped heroin markets controlled by local criminals who couldn't compete with their drug connections and brand of violence, federal officials say.

The northern Illinois community also was attractive to the Chicago gang members because they could start fresh in a place where local police weren't familiar with them, said Andrew Traver, special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

You go out there and you're unknown," Traver said. "The Rockford police do the best they can, but they're not the Chicago Police Department."

In a case that investigators say illustrates the spread of gang violence from Chicago as public housing developments in the city have been torn down, the trial of two former Chicago men affiliated with the Titanic Stones began Monday in U.S. District Court in Rockford.

Bradford Dodson and Montrell McSwain face federal charges of drug conspiracy and use of a firearm to further a drug conspiracy, according to prosecutors. Dodson and McSwain were recruited from the South Side to come to Rockford in 2002 and 2003 as part of the growing Titanic Stones presence there, authorities say.

A ready market

The gang saw a ready market in Rockford, especially selling heroin, and eventually took over all the traffic in that drug, authorities said. Gang members have been implicated in four Rockford slayings, according to ATF officials.

"As [public housing high-rises] basically come to an end in Chicago, that displaces a lot of families," said Todd Reichert, an ATF supervising agent based in Rockford. "Unfortunately, there is a large gang element that lived there."

Also on trial is Lee Allen, of Rockford, described by his lawyer Monday as a former heroin addict.

Prosecutors say the Titanic Stones used him to fortify drug houses in Rockford against raids by police and other gangs. Local gang members from Rockford were never allowed any significant positions among the Titanic Stones, Reichert said. Allen is charged with aiding and abetting the conspiracy.

The three men were among 16 indicted in September 2005 after a five-week investigation by the ATF and the Rockford Police Department that used video and audio surveillance of a Rockford drug house that an informant had helped establish for the gang. The 13 others indicted, including leader Darrell Davis, have already pleaded guilty and await sentencing, according to ATF officials.

"What you are going to see in this courtroom is the ultimate reality television," Assistant U.S. Atty. Mike Iasparro told jurors in opening statements Monday for the trial expected to last a week. "Dealing drugs. Talking about violence."

Defense lawyers said prosecutors would have little evidence that large quantities of drugs were sold.

Chicago gangs long have sought to extend their reach to towns outside the Chicago area as well as to the city's suburbs.

Crackdowns on gang activity in the city have accelerated the trend in recent years, some experts said.

Over the last two decades, police departments in small towns and cities throughout the Midwest and other parts of the country have reported influxes of Chicago gang members. Places as far as Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Winona, Minn., as well as larger cities such as Little Rock, Ark., have seen Chicago gangs or people loosely tied to them recruiting young people.

Smaller Illinois communities such as Bloomington-Normal, Peoria and Decatur also have had to deal with Chicago-based gangs infiltrating their communities in recent years, according to local and federal authorities.

Move to city

For years, Rockford has dealt with gang members migrating to the city from other places, including Chicago and Milwaukee, said Deputy Police Chief Greg Lindmark.

In most cases, gang members move to town because they have family or friends there, Lindmark said. It's much less common for a gang to specifically target Rockford as a new place to set up shop, he said.

In smaller cities and the suburbs, gang members find they are able to outmaneuver local gangs, while having easier access to more lucrative drug buyers, said Jim Wagner, executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission.

"They find easier pickings because the departments don't have the staff that the [Chicago Police Department] has, and they also find that the clientele has more money," Wagner said.