FOR 22 years, convicted murderer Larry ''King'' Hoover has reigned over the Gangster Disciples. From inside prison walls, he allegedly masterminded its ascent to one of America's most powerful and ruthless gangs: a 30,000-member, multimillion-dollar drug empire that stretches across 35 states.
Controlling entire housing tenements, schools, and streets, Mr. Hoover's blue-and-black clad foot soldiers have terrorized Chicago's inner city with murders and drive-by shootings over disputed drug turf, according to federal indictments. In recent years, Hoover has also allegedly schemed to strengthen the gang's political heft. He is accused of funneling drug proceeds to a
gang-linked political group, backing political candidates, and rallying thousands of protesters in marches on City Hall.
But now all of Hoover's reputed criminal engineering could come crashing down around him. He and 38 top deputies and collaborators face drug conspiracy charges in federal court - which they deny.
''We've got the head of the snake,'' says Jack Hynes, the chief gang prosecutor for Chicago's Cook County.
Criminologists say the crackdown on the Gangster Disciples - if successful - would demonstrate the kind of long-term, sophisticated, and tightly coordinated law-enforcement campaign needed to bring down entrenched urban gangs.
At the same time, as street gangs grow in number and geographic reach nationwide, the trial of the Gangster Disciples offers a troubling inside look at one of America's most elaborate gang cultures. The story of the Gangster Disciples is one of the evolution of a tiny rebellious street gang into a huge sophisticated business - one, some experts say, reminiscent of organized-crime syndicates of an earlier era.
It reveals, ironically, how state prison walls can sometimes shield and buttress gang leaders. It also shows how powerful gangs can so dominate neighborhoods that residents turn to them for protection and support, ultimately giving them social and political legitimacy.
US prosecutors see the trial of Hoover and his chief allies as a first, potentially severe blow to the gang's top-down organization. They expect to see the gang leaders shipped to remote federal prisons, ''severely crippling'' the gang's hierarchy, vast drug-dealing network, and other criminal operations, according to US Attorney James Burns.
''This is the heart of the gangster nation, the top of the pyramid for the Chicagoland area,'' says Chicago police Commander Donald Hilbring.
Hoover's gang fortress began to crack in late 1993. For six weeks, federal agents successfully tape-recorded Hoover's conversations with key gang leaders by using reed-thin devices concealed inside visitors' badges at the state prison in Vienna, Ill.
In the meetings, Hoover bragged about his control over Chicago drug-sale ''spots,'' millions of dollars worth of weekly drug revenues, and the activities of the activist group 21st Century VOTE. He also unwittingly divulged details of the gang's strict hierarchy, according to transcripts of the tapes.
The information on the tapes, substantiated by high-ranking gang informers, culminated an unprecedented seven-year probe that penetrated the gang's innermost circle, leading to the indictment in August of Hoover and the 38 others.
Verdicts are expected this week in the first Gangster Disciples trial, which opened last month in a US district court in Chicago. The eight defendants include ranking gang leaders and former Chicago police gang unit officer Sonia Irwin, a girlfriend of Hoover's chief street lieutenant, Gregory ''Shorty G.'' Shell.
Hoover, Shell, and nine other gang leaders are scheduled to go on trial in October, following a second trial of 20 gang leaders in May. Meanwhile, another wave of indictments of middle-ranking Gangster Disciples is expected soon. ''Now we're going after the nuts and bolts of the operation,'' Commander Hilbring says.
Several of the defendants in the current trial presented little defense. Those who did argued, among other things, that being a member of a gang doesn't mean you're a criminal - or engaged in criminal activity.
Prosecutors and criminologists agree that ensuring Hoover is cut off from gang contacts in a distant prison is the hardest but most vital step in decimating the gang.
The Mississippi-born Hoover came of age on the violent streets of Chicago's South Side. By the age of 16, he had, by his own account, been shot six times by rival gangs. In 1973, Hoover was sentenced to a 150- to 200-year prison term for the brutal murder of reputed drug addict William Young, who was suspected of stealing drugs from the gang Hoover then belonged to, the Black Disciples.
In 1974, the jailed Hoover founded the breakaway Gangster Disciples (GDs) with about 60 followers.
Prison walls sheltered Hoover from the lethal streets, enabling him to emerge in isolation as an almost mythical commander of the militaristic gang. Worshiped in the official prayer of what the gang calls the ''nation,'' Hoover imposed gang law and meted out punishments, or ''violations,'' that ranged from fines to severe beatings and death, prosecutors charge.
Prosecutors say the constant flow of GDs through Illinois prisons allowed Hoover, also known as ''The Chairman,'' to enforce his mandates through two boards of directors - one inside and one outside prison - and a cadre of ''governors'' and ''regents'' on the streets.
Hoover's lawyer, Anita Rivkin Carothers, calls his taped statements ''fanciful.'' ''I think it's implausible that he's running the gang from jail,'' she says. ''Who's going to pay attention to a person locked up for 200 years?'' Hoover has been denied parole 13 times since 1983.
Ms. Carothers contends that Hoover has shunned crime, abandoning the GDs and founding a new group called ''Growth and Development'' to promote economic progress and political empowerment among youths in minority neighborhoods.
But federal prosecutors are apparently confident that Hoover's own words, along with the testimony of turncoat gang members and undercover police, will convince jurors otherwise.
Impact of convictions
Convicting the gang's top brass would create a power vacuum and likely lead the GDs to fragment into smaller, less efficient and less sophisticated groups more vulnerable to local law enforcement, says George Knox of the National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University. Already, Chicago's South Side is quieter than usual, as the gang awaits the outcome of the trials. Gang members are selling drugs less brazenly and holding onto the money instead of sending it up the chain of command, police say.
Moreover, police say middle-ranking leaders are hesitant to step into the power void - especially since the murder in January of Charles Dorsey, a governor who attempted to take over the gang's day-to-day operations in Chicago last summer. If the gang splinters, drug supplies grow more tenuous, and morale and membership drops, ''hopefully,'' says Hilbring of the Chicago police, ''the chain will be broken.''