On the street, he was known as Mr. Untouchable.
A small man with a long scar across his neck, drug wholesaler Adrian Bradd owed his hands-off status and some very lucrative business to childhood buddy Larry Hoover, the reputed leader of Chicago's largest gang, the Gangster Disciples (GD).
"[Hoover] was the brother I never had," recalls Mr. Bradd, who grew up with the gang leader on Chicago's South Side.
But loyalties forged on the street, it seems, run only so deep.
In dramatic testimony last week as a federal drug conspiracy trial drew to a close, Bradd offered compelling evidence to support government allegations that Mr. Hoover and other gang leaders oversaw a $100 million-a-year retail narcotics enterprise.
The testimony could be crucial to convicting Hoover and his top lieutenants, say law-enforcement officials. This case is considered a major test of the government's new, top-down strategy to uproot American gangs. The federal crackdown on the GD hierarchy is "the most significant coordinated effort ever ... to combat the scourge of street gang narcotics trafficking and violent crime in Chicago," says US Attorney James Burns.
Federal authorities charge that for the past 25 years Hoover has built up the 30,000-member Gangster Disciples' militaristic organization and drug trade from state prison, where he is serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for a 1973 gang-related murder. If convicted in this case, Hoover faces a mandatory life sentence isolated from the gang in a remote federal penitentiary. Jury deliberations are expected to begin today or tomorrow.
The defense claims that Hoover and his top associates had shunned crime and were solely dedicated to transforming the gang into a political force for black empowerment.
Nevertheless, defense attorneys acknowledge that Bradd's testimony severely undermined their arguments. "This is the most devastating testimony of the trial, and that I've ever seen in a courtroom," says Alexander Salerno, who represents Hoover's reputed underboss, Gregory Shell. Mr. Salerno joined other defense attorneys in a failed motion to declare a mistrial.
The defense reopened its case last week after Bradd, who is one of Hoover's six co-defendants, decided during a sleepless night to take the stand on his own behalf. Unintentionally, however, he implicated Hoover in controlling vast drug turf, brutally enforcing gang discipline, and laying down a city-wide, $200,000- to $300,000-a-week tax scheme on drug revenues.
"One thing was clear, if you didn't sell drugs for Larry one day a week, he would shut you down, right?" asked Assistant US Attorney Ron Safer.
"Yes, that's what I understood," Bradd replied. Across the courtroom, Hoover, who had appeared relaxed and even jovial at times during the seven-week-long trial, looked on stone-faced.
Bradd helped substantiate critical government evidence by providing details of drug trafficking that he and Hoover discussed in late 1993 in conversations secretly taped by federal agents. The government taped more than 60 hours of Hoover's talks by planting tiny transmitting devices on prison visitor's badges.
Voter registration drives
Still, the picture of Hoover that emerges from the trial remains complicated. For even as government tapes and turncoat witnesses detailed the gang's drug business, they demonstrated that Hoover was backing voter registration drives, community clean-ups, and other forms of social activism. Moreover, government evidence suggested repeatedly that Hoover saw the benefits of moving beyond a life of crime.
Most revealing were Hoover's taped discussions with John Baugh, a young, college-educated GD recruit from Chicago's South Side who repeatedly visited Hoover in prison. On the tapes and in testimony, Mr. Baugh described how he ran the GD operation in Peoria, Ill., eventually making more than $3,000 a week selling cocaine. But he and Hoover also talked in depth about using the organization to steer young gang members into jobs and politics.
"I'd like to be in a position to get to a point where I could stop selling drugs," Hoover told Baugh on Dec. 11, 1993, at the state correctional center at Vienna, Ill. "But I would ... have to be able to replace it with something else."
"Right," Baugh says.
"We gone stop these drugs, and we gone have business," Hoover says.
Hoover also talked with Baugh and his right-hand man, Shell, who allegedly oversaw all GDs in Chicago, about rallying young gang members to elect local officials responsive to the needs of the black community.
"They got to get 'em out and vote," Hoover tells Shell on Nov. 6, 1993. "We got the power to put anybody in [office] that we wish," Hoover says later in the conversation. "All we got to do is do it. That's the bottom line."
Hoover's idea of enlisting street muscle behind good causes held great appeal for many people inside and outside the gang. Hoover tapped into this sentiment, recruiting community activists for 21st Century VOTE, a political group launched by Hoover in 1990.
"Mr. Hoover was the driving force," testified Theodore McNeal, a restaurant owner who volunteered at 21st Century. "A lot of what we did, the marches, the meetings ... he advised me that we needed to move on those issues."
A latter day Al Capone?
Still, such positive aspirations never eclipsed the hard pull of drug money, Baugh and other witnesses testified. On the tapes, Hoover calls drugs a "cold reality" and source of "self-preservation" for black inner-city neighborhoods. "It's wrong," Hoover tells Baugh, "but I got to feed my child."
Drug profits, along with a mafia-style organization, were the binding forces that held the gang together, prosecutors allege, citing Hoover's taped references to the "mob," Al Capone, and John Gotti.
"What we doing. Ain't no difference than what they did in the, in the 1930s, you know," Hoover tells Bradd during one taped conversation.
"Same thing, just a different twist," Bradd replies.
* Eighth in an occasional series. Previous articles are available on the Monitor's Web site (www.csmonitor.com).