CHICAGO – Jurors who heard the biggest gang trial in recent Chicago history on Wednesday convicted the core leadership of the Hobos, a group described by prosecutors as an "all-star team" of criminals whose ruthlessness reflected the kind of violence that led to the city's alarming spike in homicides.
To extend their power on the South Side, prosecutors said, the Hobos cultivated a reputation for brutality so terrifying to witnesses that some chose to go to jail rather than provide evidence against gang leaders.
The Hobos gang was "as bad as it gets," U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said after the verdicts, explaining that the six defendants led a gang that was integral to a cycle of violence that often begins with the recruitment of small boys seeking a sense of security and belonging.
The conspiracy allegedly involved the murders of at least nine people, including gang rivals and government witnesses. One victim was fatally shot in 2013 in front of his screaming stepchildren to stop him from testifying at the trial. Another incident involved the robbery of NBA player Bobby Simmons at gunpoint outside a nightclub for a $200,000 diamond-and-gold chain.
After hearing three months of testimony, jurors deliberated for six days before returning with a decision against accused Hobos boss Gregory "Bowlegs" Chester, alleged gang hitman Paris Poe and four others. All now face the prospect of life in prison when sentenced on June 23.
Poe looked over his shoulder at spectators during the reading of the verdicts, and he smiled as the jury left the courtroom. Chester hugged his lawyer before being led away to jail with his co-defendants. Tight security included keeping jurors' names permanently sealed.
Some witnesses were visibly nervous as they took the stand. One refused outright to speak against the gang, telling the judge, "I choose not to testify for the sake of me and my family." The witness was held in contempt and given a 60-day sentence.
The convictions followed a bloody year on the streets of Chicago. The nation's third-largest city logged 762 homicides in 2016, the highest tally in 20 years and more than the combined total of the two largest cities -- New York and Los Angeles.
Fardon said the verdicts should send a message to communities terrorized by gangs "that society cares" and "that somebody is here to punch back."
Defense attorneys did not speak to reporters.
Police have said repeatedly that most of the city's homicides involve gang connections, perhaps as many as 80 percent. There are more than 150,000 street-gang members in Chicago, though many are not active, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, a non-governmental group that advocates for law enforcement.
Racketeering laws used against the Hobos and other gangs enable prosecutors to go after individuals, not necessarily for specific crimes but for their leadership of groups that displayed patterns of illicit activity over years. The onus at the Hobos trial was on prosecutors to prove not only that the six men committed crimes, but that they coordinated their crimes.
Experts said an underlying cause of gang violence was the demolition of public housing starting in the 1990s that dispersed gang members into rival-gang neighborhoods. Others pointed to an unintended consequence of prosecuting gang leaders: Breaking up a gang's command structure leads to inter-gang rivalry that generates even more violence.
Other observers believe that the causes of violence are more varied, pointing to poverty and growing availability of high-caliber guns. And even when gang members are involved, deadly conflicts sometimes arise from insults or perceived slights rather than territorial disputes, gang expert John Hagedorn has argued.
The Hobos had fewer members than the Latin Kings, Vice Lords and other gangs. But they were well-organized, well-armed and quick to kill. Hits were often carried out in daylight, including one five-car drive-by shooting that killed two Black Disciple rivals outside a funeral home. Hours later, the Hobos celebrated the killings at a luxury hotel off Michigan Avenue, prosecutors said.
Poe was accused of killing a government witness named Keith Daniels, who was a gang associate-turned-informant, days after Chester's arrest and after Daniels testified to a grand jury in the racketeering case. According to prosecutors, he stood over Daniels and shot him more than a dozen times at close range as the man's 4-year-old stepdaughter and 6-year-old stepson looked on.
Chester, 39, was the only defendant to testify, insisting the Hobos gang did not even exist despite his full-arm tattoo emblazoned with the words: "Hobo: The Earth is Our Turf." And he said the supposed "Hobos horns" gang sign he flashed in photographs was merely a universal sign of celebration.
Born with badly deformed legs, Chester scoffed when asked if someone who struggled to walk could head a gang. "A crippled gang leader?" he answered. "No, sir."
Prosecutor Timothy Storino told jurors Chester led "not with his legs but with his head," calling him "smart as hell." Chester relied on others, sometimes children, to do the dirty work, authorities said.
Chester said he grew up poor in the now-demolished Robert Taylor projects where "only the strong survived" and faced ridicule because of his deformities. He described himself as a "hustler" who sold heroin, then invested in record labels and clubs. He said the other five defendants had nothing to do with his crimes and he had nothing to do with theirs.
Defense lawyer Beau Brindley told jurors that authorities manipulated evidence against Chester, likening the investigation to an archer who shoots an arrow and then draws a target around wherever it lands.