Chicago police are bracing for intensified gang violence following this week's year-long delay of the drug conspiracy trial of Larry "King" Hoover, allegedly one of America's most powerful gang leaders.
US District Judge Brian Duff's abrupt ruling marks a setback for federal prosecutors who were prepared to go to court on Oct. 7 against Mr. Hoover and five co-defendants, all alleged high-ranking leaders of the 30,000-strong Gangster Disciples (GD).
"We want to try this as soon as possible. Now [Hoover] will have more time to prepare a defense," says Cook County chief gang prosecutor Jack Hynes, who is part of a seven-year-old joint state, local, and federal investigation and crackdown on the Gangster Disciples' violent, $100-million retail drug trade.
Hoover, now serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for murder, has allegedly run the gang's lucrative drug empire from prison. After his indictment on the drug conspiracy charges last year, Hoover was moved to a federal correctional center in Chicago. Law-enforcement officials hope that by convicting Hoover and sending him permanently to a maximum security federal prison, they can effectively stop him from directing criminal gang operations.
Prosecutors also say the delay leaves their witnesses more vulnerable. "We always have gang members who want to get to our witnesses and intimidate them," says Mr. Hynes. Gang leaders have been charged with murdering two GD members, one a cooperating federal witness and another who was suspected of being a government informer.
Chicago police say Hoover's reprieve is likely to fuel battling between older GD leaders loyal to him and renegade GD factions. Upstarts have fought for control of lucrative drug turf since Hoover and 38 other alleged gang leaders and collaborators were indicted in August 1995.
"We expect more violence within the GDs," says Chicago Police gang unit Commander Donald Hilbring. "The more you drag things out, the more the loyal GDs will try to maintain their control over the younger renegades who want to go their own way."
Factionalism has plagued the GDs in the last year. Five groups, all with different names, have sprung up in Chicago's suburban Will County alone.
Meanwhile, rival gangs are attempting to profit from the upheaval in GD ranks by seizing territory and coopting members, police say. For example, the Black Disciples (BD), who have maintained a strained alliance with the GD for years, this summer violently took over several buildings held by the GD in Chicago public housing projects. As a result, scores and possibly hundreds of GD members "flipped," or joined the BD.
"If you were a GD living in a BD building, you'd be in trouble," says one Chicago Housing Authority police officer. "You would be beat or killed, and if they didn't get you, they might vandalize your house. It's much easier to swear loyalty to them and flip."
In deciding to postpone the Hoover trial, Judge Duff was swayed by arguments from defense lawyers who said they weren't prepared as they had recently replaced two other lawyers who withdrew.
"The main reason is the defense is not ready for trial," says a courtroom clerk for Duff. Currently scheduled for October 1997, the trial date could be moved up to next spring if another unrelated case on the judge's docket is settled.
Other issues complicating the trial include motions by the defense to bar prosecutors from using as evidence four hours of secretly taped conversations between Hoover and top gang lieutenants. The defense argues that the tapes aren't audible and that the remaining 60 hours of tapes must be transcribed.
The tapes, made in late 1993 in an Illinois state prison, helped persuade a federal jury to convict seven GD leaders and a Chicago police officer, the girlfriend of a gang leader, last March in the first of three scheduled trials. A second trial of 18 more GD leaders is scheduled for Oct. 21, but may also be delayed due to controversy surrounding the tapes.
In this week's ruling, Judge Duff also imposed a year-long gag order on attorneys and others involved with the case, possibly in response to a defense motion that the charges against Hoover be dismissed because of negative pretrial publicity.
*Previous articles in this series appeared Feb. 27; March 28; April 8; and July 15.