'Too frequent and too brazen': New task force gets tough on armed robberies

News-DemocratSeptember 12, 2013 

U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton was joined by regional police chiefs, and representatives from federal agencies to create a task force similar to a major case squad. Here, he speaks during a press conference announcing the Metro-East Armed Robbery Initiative Thursday afternoon.

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Criminals who are out robbing gas stations, restaurants and other businesses in the metro-east were put on notice Thursday by members of a newly formed armed robbery task force that they will be hot on their tails and if they are convicted, they will be sent to jail for a long time at prisons that are in remote parts of the country.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton said federal, local and state law enforcement officials are looking at individual cases to determine where they will get the most time for anyone who commits a crime in the metro-east.

Wigginton said Congress has given federal prosecutors tools that include lengthy sentences, often involving mandatory and minimum sentences.

The new task force called the Metro-east Armed Robbery Initiative was announced Thursday afternoon by Wigginton, who said it will operate similar to the way the Major Case Squad works regionally to investigate homicides. Law enforcement officers on the team will investigate robberies at businesses immediately.

The initiative came about as a response to the recent increase in armed robberies "which have affected local businesses and the patrons and employees, which in some cases have involved holding dozens of citizens at gunpoint, flight from the police, crossing of multiple jurisdictional lines and devastating physical injury and lasting emotional damage to victims," Wigginton said.

"These crimes are becoming too frequent and too brazen," he said. "They are hitting soft targets, businesses that attract patrons of all age groups, and businesses that are known to lack armed security during normal operating hours."

"This initiative will demonstrate that the metro-east is not a criminal comfort zone," Wigginton said.

One of the federal tools that will be used in this initiative is the Hobbs Act, which says interfering with commerce by violence is an offense that is punishable by up to 20 years. The person does not have to be armed to be sentenced to 20 years for a Hobbs Act robbery.

"Your case can go to federal court even if you don't rob a bank. The statute can address robberies of stores, restaurants and even crack houses. The commerce that is interfered with does not have to be legal," Wigginton said.

Wigginton offered as examples the Chili's robbery on Aug. 1 in Fairview Heights and the Circle K robberies on July 22 and Aug. 15 on West Main Street in Belleville. In both cases, the suspects were charged in federal court.

Federal prosecutors also have the "three strikes" tool in their arsenal. This means that anyone who commits a federal crime after having two or more serious violent felonies or one or more qualifying serious violent felonies or drug offenses can get mandatory life when an enhanced sentence is sought by federal prosecutors.

Belleville Police Chief William Clay Sr. met with Wigginton prior to Thursday's announcement and he commended Wigginton's leadership in putting together the armed robbery initiative. He talked about how sinister and scary a crime can be for the victim and the responding officer. Clay said he likes the idea that more agencies are doing a better job of communicating with each other because that is the way crime will be driven down.

Wigginton said suspects sentenced in federal court may be sent to prisons in the California desert or to cold South Dakota.

"You won't be serving your time close to your friends and family -- they won't be driving or flying to see you frequently. And you won't be serving time with your friends and guys you know from the neighborhood or the clubs you go to or where you live," Wigginton said.

Wigginton said law enforcement personnel are working together to "address regional crime problems, regardless of strict jurisdictional lines." He said the various agencies, including the St. Clair and Madison County State's Attorneys, the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Illinois State Police and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, are sharing intelligence, informants and information and are pooling skills.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly and Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons praised Wigginton for his efforts.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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