The January robbery of an East St. Louis church -- during Sunday services -- compelled law enforcement officials on both sides of the Mississippi to act, and act fast.
A surge of federal agents working with local law enforcement in high-crime areas led to indictments of 159 people in St. Louis and East St. Louis since April, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.
The indictments for gun, drug and robbery offenses included 47 federal cases in Illinois.
Since the undercover operation and investigations began, 267 firearms, more than 25 ounces of meth, more than three pounds of crack and cocaine, more than seven pounds of marijuana and more than 1.5 pounds of heroin were purchased or seized from high-violence crime areas in East St. Louis and St. Louis, prosecutors from Missouri and Illinois said.
"Statistically, East St. Louis is the most-violent city in America," said Stephen Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois. "The law-abiding citizens of East St. Louis, not to mention the law-abiding citizens of Southern Illinois, are grateful for the very intense and dangerous work spearheaded by the ATF and done in conjunction with ATF's federal and local law enforcement partners in this intense surge of enforcement to seek out, disrupt and prosecute those violent and dangerous offenders who make life intolerable for the rest of us."
Wigginton is also the chairman of the attorney general's advisory committee on violent crimes.
As such, his job is to find ways to combat violent crimes. Wigginton told a crowd of reporters at a news conference at the Eagleton Federal Center in downtown St. Louis that criminal offenders have been criss-crossing the river "to commit crimes -- causing confusion among the two jurisdictions.
"We decided to address it," Wigginton said. Addressing it meant bringing agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department together with local and federal agents. Wigginton said Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, directed all 93 U.S Attorneys to go after the worse of the worse offenders.
"He said this is not the end, but the beginning of our assault on violent crimes," Wigginton said.
Richard G. Callahan told reporters and others in the room that the men and women behind him who were law enforcement agents from across the nation and Missouri and Illinois was the way of the future. He said because of the work the agents have done for four months, "We will feel the impact for years to come," Callahan said.
He said by cooperating the agencies can more effectively deal with violent crime and criminal offenders.
Larry Ford, special agent in charge with the Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said a trigger that served as a strong catalyst for agents was the church robbery in East St. Louis where gunmen stormed into a worship service and robbed parishioners.
"I was watching the news and saw this story -- unbelievable," Ford said,
"This got our blood boiling. We wanted the opportunity to restore the community and return freedom to the community," he said.
Marino Vidoli, special agent in charge with the ATF office in Kansas City, said, "said the collaborative effort between the agencies allowed for greater impact."
More than 80 U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents were drawn from throughout the country to work with local, state and federal agents from the St. Louis area. They targeted known violent crime areas in St. Louis and East St. Louis. The 159 indictments included 99 in Missouri and 11 in St. Louis city.
The effort was named the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership. Prosecutors said the 159 defendants together had more than 1,700 previous arrests, with 78 percent of them previously convicted felons.
Todd Jones, acting director of the ATF office in Minnesota said "Today's work is by no means finished. ATF will continue to work with our partners to identify and target those responsible for the violence that has plagued St, Louis and East St. Louis. As we take these individuals off the street, we in law enforcement are sending a powerful message that the violence these individuals bring will not be tolerated.
Some speakers focussed on the a shooting that left a 9 -year-old boy dead from a bullet wound to his head this week in St. Louis. The child was sleeping in the rear of an SUV where his father was a passenger. An unknown gunman fired several bullets, which police believe may have been intended for the father or the driver of the vehicle.
"Everyone should be outraged and saddened whether we know the victim or not or live in an area where gun violence is a regular occurrence," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.
Vidoli said in determining who the shooters are, agents are using the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. Currently ATF is using a unique ballistic comparison system that allows technicians to digitize and automatically sort bullet and shell casing signatures and matches can be found at an accelerated rate. So, guns used to commit crimes in Missouri that were also used in East St. Louis can be quickly identified and investigators can generate leads quicker with this system, Ford said.
In this surge, 265 guns were put into the system, Vidoli said.
Ford said the technology is great because it points us towards those who're responsible for pulling the trigger.
"We're most interested in those who're responsible for homicides. (The network) allows us to connect the dots from all jurisdictions.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.