CHICAGO — Amid heightened security in the courtroom and unrest on Chicago streets, a federal trial opens here today of a man alleged to be one of America's most powerful street gang leaders. The case is a crucial test of whether the government's latest strategy for dismantling powerful gangs can work.
For years, law-enforcement agencies worked drug-conspiracy cases from the bottom up, most often arresting juvenile "foot soldiers." The trial of Larry Hoover and high-ranking associates in the Gangster Disciples will show whether the government can effectively target older leaders who are often insulated behind the scenes.
If the trial ends in Mr. Hoover's conviction, it could hasten the splintering and breakdown of the 30,000-strong Gangster Disciples (GD), one of the largest and most tightly structured street gangs in the country.
Federal prosecutors say that for the past 23 years, Hoover ran the Gangster Disciples from a state prison cell in Vienna, Ill., where he is serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for a gang-related murder. He and 38 GD associates are charged with conspiring since 1970 to run a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise trafficking cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in large parts of Chicago and its suburbs. Another wave of indictments of GD leaders is anticipated soon.
But Hoover, who has spent half his life in prison, asserts that he is a reformed gang leader who pushes not drugs but black political empowerment. He and his attorney see the case against him as a political attack in response to his efforts to register poor blacks to vote.
The Hoover trial starts amid mounting concern in Washington over the rapid growth of gangs and the spread of gang violence nationwide. More than half a million gang-related crimes are reported a year, and youth crime has been rising for over a decade, according to the US Justice Department.
"Gang violence is one of the most difficult issues we face," Attorney General Janet Reno told President Clinton last year during a briefing on the Gangster Disciples and other gangs.
The Hoover trial is one of the first cases in which prosecutors attacked the criminal activity of gangs by targeting suspected gang leaders.
"This was the reverse, really, of the traditional way of working big drug conspiracies where you went bottom up," says US Attorney Jim Burns, who heads the joint federal, state, and local task force investigating the Gangster Disciples.
Secret tape recordings
Central to the prosecution's case are secretly taped conversations between Hoover and other reputed GD leaders in late 1993. The meetings took place at the state prison in Vienna, where Hoover has been incarcerated since 1973.
In government transcripts of the tapes, Hoover is quoted talking about everything from the gang's drug dealing, internal politics, and discipline to the "Godfather."
"I'm gonna lay it down all over the city, and whoever selling weed, they gone give me one day a week on weed. Whoever selling pills, one day a week on drugs," Hoover is quoted as telling Adrian Bradd, a co-defendant, on Nov. 21, 1993. "I figure I can get ... 'bout three hundred [thousand dollars] a week, easy."
A week later, Mr. Brad tells Hoover "dope all up, good, good, good." "We might be, like I say on the road again," Hoover says, and starts singing "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Hoover also talks about running GD operations in other cities, giving out free drugs to entice addicts, and buying million-dollar mansions in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"Hey man, say drugs is a dirty business but it's your thing," says Gregory Shell, Hoover's alleged right-hand man on the street and another co-defendant, in another tape. "Yeah," Hoover replies.
"There are some damaging things in the tapes," concedes Hoover's defense attorney, Anita Rivkin Carothers, who has so far unsuccessfully fought the government's use of the tapes in several appeals and motions.
Both Ms. Carothers and Hoover contend, however, that the prosecution is twisting the truth by using only four hours of selected excerpts from a total of more than 60 hours of taped conversations.
"This is contrived and misconstrued," Hoover told the Monitor in an interview in December. "I had hundreds of visits, and we talked about everything from sports to the [expletive] going on in the streets. It's just talk."
Indeed, the defense maintains that unused portions of the tapes likely contain evidence to support Hoover's claim that he is interested in furthering the political clout of the African-American community.
The tapes "talk about registering people to vote, too," says Carothers, referring to Hoover's role in founding a Chicago political action group called 21st Century VOTE (Voices of Total Empowerment). After failing to compel the government to provide complete transcripts of the tapes, which are unintelligible without special equipment, she is now having them transcribed independently.
"Basically this is a political prosecution," contends Carothers. "This is a man who was imprisoned for 25 years, who registered 10,000 black voters, and they indict him."
A GD 'roster'
Another crucial piece of evidence is a detailed, 27-page roster of the GD leaders, their "counts" (or numbers of recruits), and their territories, including any "opposition" gang forces. Investigators found the document at the offices of a business run by Hoover's common-law wife, Winndye Jenkins.
Prosecutors say the document proves that Hoover ran a militaristic, top-down organization and closely monitored drug-sales turf. The defense counters that Hoover asked a friend to draw up the chart to help him promote peace between rival gangs.
"The roster they found, they said it was a dope roster, but I had that so, if something happened in the community, I knew who to contact," says Hoover. "I had a rapport with the other [gang leaders] to deal with conflicts that arose in the streets."
Last week, attorneys for Hoover and eight co-defendants asked to postpone the trial on the grounds they were unprepared. Judge Harry Leinenweber, however, denied the motion. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. The selection of an anonymous jury begins today.
Law-enforcement officials and gang sources say that Hoover and his associates are likely to be convicted, as were eight GD leaders in a first trial a year ago.
Still, few predict that the huge gang, while weakened, will quickly retreat from violence and drug peddling on Chicago streets. Emerging splinter groups of young, armed GD members - although less sophisticated and more vulnerable to targeting by police - are more prone to petty rivalries and random violence, community leaders say. Meanwhile, tensions are building as rival gangs try to muscle into GD drug turf and recruit disaffected rank and file.
"It's coming to an end," says a ranking GD member who deals drugs on Chicago's South Side. "When they locked up the 39 [GD leaders], things started getting wild." With hundreds of members switching to rival gangs, "it makes us look bad," he says, admitting that he now regrets becoming a GD.
*August 1993: At a parole hearing, Larry Hoover wins the support of several prominent Chicago politicians and community leaders, but is denied parole.
*October 1993: Mr. Hoover is instrumental in organizing a gang peace summit in Chicago.
*November 1993: Federal agents successfully set up a wiretap on Hoover, then in state prison in Vienna, Ill., by installing tiny monitor transmitters with paper-thin batteries on visitor's badges worn by close Hoover associates.
*Early 1995: A Hoover-backed political group, 21st Century VOTE, supports two candidates in Chicago aldermanic elections. Both lose.
*April 1995: Using a search warrant, federal investigators comb the offices of Save the Children Promotions and find a 27-page document that they describe as an elaborate Gangster Disciples organizational chart.
*Aug. 31, 1995: Hoover and 38 other alleged top Gangster Disciples leaders and associates are indicted and most of them taken into custody in a sweep by federal agents.
*March 1996: The first of three scheduled GD trials ends with the conviction of all eight defendants: seven reputed high-ranking GD members and a Chicago police officer who was allegedly the girlfriend of Gregory Shell, considered Hoover's right-hand man.
*March 17, 1997: Second GD trial opens for eight more alleged gang leaders including Hoover, Shell, and other men believed to be his top street lieutenants.
*March 26, 1997: A third trial of the remaining indicted GD leaders is scheduled to begin.