Federal gun prosecutions soar in East St. Louis; residents ask for more police officers

News-DemocratJuly 13, 2013 

— Customers streamed in and out of the liquor store at 1032 Bond Ave. on a recent warm afternoon.

Kids rode up on their bikes, stepping inside to buy ice cream and sodas, while young men stood around the parking lot, waving at passing cars and draining tall cans of malt liquor.

From up the street, outside the nearby John Robinson Homes, and hard by the decaying shell of the old Lincoln High School, Anthony Culpepper cast a wary eye.

"That place is a magnet for trouble," Culpepper said of the liquor store. "Because they're not trying to control it down there ... They need to shut it down."

Federal and state law enforcement agencies have responded to frequent shootings in the area with a task force targeting crime "hot spots" around the city, including the neighborhood around liquor store -- an unprecedented surge that has resulted in record federal gun prosecutions, making Southern Illinois one of the busiest jurisdictions nationwide, federal figures show.

Despite all the resources thrown at the problem, however, the killings continue. In late June, two young men were shot outside the liquor store, including a 24-year-old who died after suffering multiple bullet wounds.

Even with the police crackdown in the neighborhood, crimes are still occurring, said Culpepper, who was interviewed during a visit to his girlfriend, who lives in the public housing complex.

"Everybody wants a gun now," he said. "Because the violence has come up. They're trying to protect themselves. We need more police out here."

With the East St. Louis Police Department understaffed because of budget cuts, federal authorities have moved in with a multi-unit task force known as W.A.V.E. (Working Against Violent Elements) that focuses on getting guns and violent criminals off the streets of East St. Louis and nearby towns with the worst gun violence rates.

W.A.V.E. has been making waves both on metro-east streets and across the U.S. Justice Department because of the gun crackdown that has yielded dozens of arrests, indictments and convictions for gun and drug crimes.

Five years ago, the Southern Illinois judicial district -- which includes Madison and St. Clair Counties, as well as 36 other counties -- was ranked 43rd out of 93 judicial districts.

As of June, however, Southern Illinois was ranked 10th out of 93 judicial districts on a per capita basis.

Southern Illinois outstripped much more populous judicial districts as Eastern Missouri, Northern Illinois and Washington, D.C., according to an analysis of Department of Justice records conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University.

What's more, federal records show sharp increases in the quality of convictions, with Southern Illinois on track for a 62 percent increase in firearms convictions for 2013 compared to 2012 -- 116 versus 72 -- and a nearly 240 percent jump since 2008-2009, Department of Justice records show.

Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois, credited the W.A.V.E. program's success to its focus on surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

"We operate with a lot of intelligence, whether it's working with our Illinois State Police and local law enforcement, or the St. Clair County Sheriff's office," Wigginton said.

The W.A.V.E. program does not go after law-abiding citizens who own guns, including those taking advantage of Illinois' new conceal-carry law, Wigginton said.

"We are targeting individuals who are quote 'prohibited persons,'" he said, citing a list that includes felons, defendants under indictment and people in possession of stolen firearms.

W.A.V.E. focuses on hot spots where people congregate, he said.

"We don't have organized gangs, per se," he said. "We don't have the Bloods or Crips. What we have are the neighborhood gangs, loosely affiliated people who've grown up together, who dropped out of high school, who don't have jobs. They pick up guns, they do robberies."

The guns that wind up in East St. Louis are often purchased out of state, at gun shows, or they've been stolen, Wigginton said.

On Thursday, Wigginton took part in a news conference with Richard G. Callahan, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Missouri, to announce that 159 people in East St. Louis and St. Louis had been indicted on gun, drug and robbery offenses, with 46 from St. Clair County.

Federal authorities used a variety of tools to deceive and nab their prey, including the setting up a fake tattoo parlor in either Missouri or Illinois -- Wigginton won't say where -- for a sting operation during which undercover agents helped set up illegal gun transactions.

In addition, Hispanic federal agents ventured into the metro-east posing as members of a drug cartel "wanting to do work here in East St. Louis," Wigginton said, a ruse that enabled them to find "out who the people were in the gun and drug trade in East St. Louis."

Residents and business owners near the corner of 83rd and State streets, in East St. Louis -- another hot spot targeted by the W.A.V.E. team -- said the crackdown has helped push away crime, but a lot more still needs to happen before they will feel safe.

Michael Patterson's mother lives across the street from the Mobil gas station where, in late April, a 38-year-old Belleville man was shot to death.

Despite the W.A.V.E. team's successes, the young men continue to hang out at the gas station, or get drunk at the car wash nearby, while drug-dealing continues unabated, Patterson said.

"I feel a little safer. It's better than it was," Patterson said. "But you still got people hanging out on the corners. Because they like to hang out. Some people need to start going to church."

A few hundred feet away, and directly across the Mobil station, stands Pop's, a drive-through liquor store managed by Tony Bassim, an immigrant from Iraq.

Bassim said he, too, feels a little safer. But what's needed is a permanent, highly visible police presence in the area, he said.

He said there are times he doesn't see any police officers in the neighborhood.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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