Feds' latest focus is on gun, drug cases
“The feds look for major crimes, and they follow political directives from Washington (D.C.),” Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary said.
For instance, the federal “safe schools” directive that followed the Columbine High School massacre was supplanted by a “safe neighborhoods” directive, which in turn was replaced in emphasis by “safe streets,” the current anti-gang effort, O’Leary said.
“So now they’re going after organized gangs and, therefore, they’re indirectly going after guns and drugs,” O’Leary said.
Local and federal authorities on May 15 and 16 arrested 10 men—three from Janesville, six from Beloit and one from South Beloit, Ill.—on federal charges including conspiracy to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
So when do authorities make the proverbial “federal case” out of a crime?
In his opinion, O’Leary said, political winds in Washington change the direction of enforcement.
The Columbine killings raised a cry for more school safety, O’Leary said.
“It was—and is—a very successful program.”
The anti-gun initiative of “safe neighborhoods,” he said, was a reaction to the dispute between people calling for more gun control and the National Rifle Association’s position that more gun-control laws were not needed because current laws were sufficient.
So the current Republican Bush administration directed U.S. attorneys to focus on enforcing existing gun laws to diffuse the political issue, said O’Leary, a Democrat.
“When (President) Bush came into power, there was a huge push for the gun initiative.
“That’s fallen off now,” the district attorney said. “Back when it (safe neighborhoods) was in full swing, they’d call me and say, ‘Can we have this (gun) case?’ Now, I must call them.”
Jeff Anderson, an assistant U.S. attorney for 27 years, handles most of the federal drug and anti-terrorism cases in the Western District.
“Generally, we make these decisions (when to take cases) in cooperation with the local district attorneys,” Anderson said. “We don’t make it a habit to take cases from a DA’s office.”
O’Leary said his prosecutors handle everything that comes through the door.
“We’re a volume business.”
And federal prosecutors—U.S. attorneys and their assistants—do a niche business.
This year is a classic example.
The Rock County District Attorney’s Office had filed 660 state felony cases as of early June.
In the same period, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin filed 93.
And the western district comprises 44 counties.
Federal investigations are lengthy, complex and usually involve many officers and agents, Anderson said.
“The longer-term investigations usually focus on larger criminal operation,” he added.
It takes time to develop cooperating witnesses, verify their information, conduct surveillance and wire taps and convene grand juries, Anderson pointed out.
But, he added, federal resources are not unlimited, especially in a federal district as large as Wisconsin’s western district.
“Given the rural nature of our district, we have a limited presence in the 44 counties we cover,” Anderson said. “We have a limited number of FBI and ATF agents in our district, so we rely to a great extent on cases referred to us by local law enforcement. …
“We can’t take all the cases referred to us.”
The large number of state cases with which the district attorney’s office must deal results in most criminal cases being resolved not by trial, but by plea agreement.
A higher percentage of federal cases go to trial and result in conviction.
The feds have the resources and time to develop complex cases, O’Leary said, noting the recent arrests of 10 men in a cocaine-trafficking case that the Gangs-Rock County Safe Streets Task Force (G-ROC) investigated for 18 months using wire taps and controlled drug purchases.
“Look at the number of cases we handled in 18 months,” he said.
In the last 18 months, the Rock County DA’s office filed more than 2,000 felony cases, according to the Rock County Clerk of Courts Office.
Of 77 people charged because of G-ROC investigations, 51 have been convicted and sentenced. Excluding two life sentences, the average sentence has been 17 years, according to the FBI.
“We like to think we’re investigating and putting the cases together well, so we don’t lose,” FBI agent Todd Brookhiser said. “The whole purpose of any investigation is successful prosecution.”
One of the biggest differences between state and federal court is that penalties in a federal case generally are more severe than in a state case.
For instance, O’Leary said, a felon possessing a firearm probably will get a state sentence of a year or less, while the same crime would warrant a five- to 10-year federal sentence.
“They have different laws,” he noted. “And the major difference between the federal and state sentences is their sentencing guidelines. Looking at the guidelines, they can tell you within months of what a sentence will be.
“State sentencing is totally at the discretion of the judge.”
A person possessing more than 5 grams of crack cocaine will be sentenced to a minimum five years in federal prison, Anderson said.
The same amount of crack carries a state maximum of 15 years, but sentences vary so widely that Rock County Deputy District Attorney Perry Folts would not hazard a guess as to what the average sentence in Rock County is.
Over the line
Another benefit of federal prosecution is that agents can cross state lines to investigate cases and prosecutors can wrap charges from different local jurisdictions into a single case, O’Leary and Brookhiser said.
Brookhiser coordinates G-ROC.
Because Rock County sits on the Wisconsin-Illinois line, criminals, especially drug dealers, conduct illegal business between the states and victims can live on either side of the state line, O’Leary noted.
“One of the nice things of being the feds,” Brookhiser said, “is that they (criminals) can’t run and hide. That’s our purpose.”
Led and sponsored by the FBI, the G-ROC task force includes three local officers—one from the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and one each from the Janesville and Beloit police departments—but it generally develops its cases independently of local investigations, Brookhiser said.
“We control what we investigate and concentrate on,” he said. “The task force is targeting specific crimes to try to reduce violent crime and gang activity in Rock County.”
Though not specifically a drug task force, G-ROC uses drug investigations to target violent crime and criminal gangs, Brookhiser said.
The local officers are assigned to G-ROC full time, said Janesville Deputy Police Chief David Moore.
“Typically, all our cases go to the (Rock County) district attorney’s office,” Moore said, “but some could go directly to federal prosecutors. Felon in possession of ammunition is not a state charge, but they (federal prosecutors) would take that if a serious criminal was involved.”
Moore and O’Leary said their working relationships with federal authorities are good.
Given the large caseload with which his office deals, O’Leary said he “absolutely” likes the U.S. Attorney’s Office assuming responsibility to prosecute a case.
Examples of Rock County cases tried in federal court:
-- Jeremy C. Schade, Janesville, sentenced to 220 years on eight convictions of producing child pornography. Still faces trial on 17 state charges: six of sexually assaulting children, 11 of possessing child porn.
-- Skye Archambault, Orfordville, sentenced to 122 years for robbery of a bank in Footville in November 2007—2 years for the actual robbery, 10 years additional because a gun was involved.
-- Four men from Rockford, Ill., also sentenced for the Footville robbery: Matthew Evans, 31 years, 10 months; Curtis Seaberry, 13 years, one month; Donald Thompson, 10 years, four months; Troy Thomas, 142 years.
Drug trafficking, crack cocaine:
-- Jerome Hughes, Janesville, life sentence.
-- Arthur Conner, Beloit, life sentence.
-- Nicole L. Howe, Janesville, 10 years.
-- Kennard Johnson, Beloit, 122 years.
-- Abdul D. Harriel, Janesville, 92 years.
The Gangs-Rock County Safe Streets Task Force started in 2005.
Personnel: Two FBI agents; one federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent and three federally deputized local officers provided by the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and Janesville and Beloit police departments. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, state Division of Criminal Investigations, U.S. Marshal’s Service help as needed.
Seized: About $250,000 in cash and property, 20 guns and multiple kilograms of cocaine and other drugs.
Cases: 77 people charged, of which 51 have been federally convicted and sentenced. The average sentence has been 17 years excluding two life sentences.
Perry Folts, deputy district attorney for Rock County, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office generally learns about cases in one of three ways:
-- The local DA’s office calls and asks if federal prosecutors are interested in a case.
-- Local police contact the U.S. attorney or federal law enforcement agencies.
-- Cases are developed by joint-jurisdiction task forces, such as G-ROC, the Gangs-Rock County Safe Streets Task Force.