Crime

Violent kidnapping leads prosecutor to call for change in the witness tampering law

A victim in an attempted murder, aggravated domestic battery and aggravated unlawful restraint case filed by prosecutors earlier this month again became a victim when she was kidnapped at knifepoint Monday.

Tiffany McCraw, 32, is listed as the victim in a case against John K. Houston, 36, of Cahokia, who was charged with the attempted murder of McCraw. Police said she was beaten and choked and held at Houston’s house at 2335 Maynor in Cahokia on April 11. McCraw was taken Monday by Mercedes M. Epps, 20, of Granite City, Brian K. Cooley, 25, of Cahokia, his brother Robert Cooley, 29, of Cahokia, and Felicia J. Gardner, 38, of Cahokia, police said. They were armed with boxcutters and knives, according to the charges filed on Tuesday.

“Threatening witnesses, even to the violent extent alleged in this case, is a very real and serious challenge in communities with violent crime involving parties that all know each other,” St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said. “It is a constant battle for police and prosecutors. We aggressively charge when we have evidence of harassment of our witnesses but a stronger deterrent is necessary.”

Cahokia police were called to 237 John St. in Cahokia on Monday at about 5 a.m., said Cahokia Police James Jones. The victim told police that she was being held there against her will. The victim was taken from a home in the 300 block of Ellen.

Brothers Robert and Brian Cooley, both of 312 Ellen Dr. in Cahokia and Gardner, of 137 Thomas St. in Cahokia, were charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint and tampering with a witness. The Cooleys’ bail was set at $300,00. Gardner’s bail was set at $250,000. Epps, of 1812 August St. in Granite City, was charged with aggravated kidnapping with a dangerous weapon. Her bail was set at $150,000. All remain in the St. Clair County Jail.

Kelly said the case underscored a need for changes in the witness intimidation and harassment statute. In Louisiana, Kelly said the law increases the sentence for a witness intimidation or harassment based upon the seriousness of the case in which the witness was to testify.

“Our current statutes is a one-size fits all sentence. The penalty for the harassment of a witness in a misdemeanor cases is the same as harassing a witness in a murder case,” Kelly said. “We need to raise the stakes for those trying to thwart justice and push back against attitudes that ultimately undermine everyone’s safety.”

Houston remains in St. Clair County Jail on the attempted murder, aggravated domestic battery and unlawful restraint charges. In January, Kelly was forced to dismiss aggravated domestic battery charges against Houston when the victim, who is not McCraw, became uncooperative and evaded a subpoena compelling her testimony against Houston. Kelly said he would pursue the the most recent case whether the victim cooperated or not. The victim in the first case, Nichole Kent Mobley, obtained an order of protection, but voluntarily dismissed it about a month later.

“In exceptional circumstances, we move forward not just with reluctant victims but outright hostile victims because the defendant is a clear danger to others,” Kelly said at the time.

On Tuesday, Kelly declined to comment on whether Houston would face charges in connection with the kidnapping, but said that the “investigation is ongoing.”

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570. Follow her on Twitter: @bhundsdorfer.

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

If you or someone you know is being abused, call the Violence Prevention Center of Southern Illinois at (618) 235-0890 or (800) 924-0096 or visit their wesbite at http://www.vpcswi.org

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