Crime & Courts

FBI-WPD gang task force targeting ‘the worst of the worst’

Wichita police and the FBI have joined forces to go after the most violent gang members in the city.

The partnership has an FBI agent working with a detective and officer from the Wichita Police Department’s gang unit to review unsolved homicides and build cases against gang members with a history of violence.

“They’re targeting the worst of the worst,” police Capt. Scott Heimerman said.

Working with the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the team is looking for the evidence necessary to get violent gang members off the streets.

“If you are a gang member and you get caught with a pistol in this town, you are going to go to prison – period,” Heimerman said. “If you have a felony conviction, it will be federal prison.”

The crackdown won’t be limited to the perpetrators of crimes, Heimerman said. Even crime victims who are found with guns and are convicted felons face prosecution.

“I don’t care if you’re a victim or not,” Heimerman said. “If you’re a gang member and you had a gun and you’re a felon, I’m going to charge you.

“We’re done messing around with these gang member felons.”

The partnership’s roots reach back to last June, Police Chief Norman Williams said, when John Sullivan, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Wichita branch, met with him and floated the idea of having an FBI agent work with police in whatever way was most needed.

Combating violent gang activity is one of the FBI’s top priorities, agency spokeswoman Bridget Patton said, so when resources became available to assist Wichita police, they were contacted.

“If we can help, that’s great,” Patton said. “Gang activity can touch everything – human trafficking, drugs, homicides.”

She said the FBI is a part of joint task forces in cities around the country, including Kansas City, Mo.

After taking some time to figure out how a partnership with the FBI would best work, Williams said, the department reached out to the FBI in November and said, “Let’s make it happen.”

Within a matter of weeks, working in tandem with the FBI-WPD partnership, U.S. marshals arrested Marquel Dean, 27, in Garland, Texas. Dean, whom court records identify as a member of the Crips gang, is accused of trying to run over a Wichita police officer with a stolen car on Nov. 30, 2012.

He avoided capture on outstanding warrants for more than a year, committing “new crimes,” a Sedgwick County District Court document states, until he was arrested in Texas. Dean spent 10 months on the U.S. marshals’ “Top 10” list prior to his arrest. He is being held in Sedgwick County Jail on bonds totaling more than $1.1 million.

Williams credited the FBI for the arrest, saying its connections and expertise were vital in finding Dean.

After a couple of years of relative peace, gang violence in Wichita flared again last March and persisted through the summer. The violence included several gang-related shootings, including the murders of James Gary in a parking lot near 11th and Mosley on July 14 and Kolby Hopkins in an Old Town parking lot early on the morning of Sept. 22. Those two homicides are getting special attention from the task force, Heimerman said.

While evidence indicates both shootings were gang-related, Heimerman said, Hopkins was not a gang member nor a target in the Old Town shooting. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We have not gotten to the point where we can close the cases,” he said of the Gary and Hopkins homicides. “We have made advances and we continue to make advances on a weekly basis to get to that point.”

The partnership has the luxury of putting fresh eyes and additional resources into investigating cases, he said. It eases the burden on detectives who have to take on fresh cases as they occur.

Members of the task force meet regularly with local and federal prosecutors to confer on various cases, Heimerman said.

“Both sides are on board with helping us with whatever we need,” he said.

The task force is in position to deal “a pretty substantial blow to violent criminal gang activity,” Heimerman said. “This group will go after the most violent, the most active, members until the violence ceases.”

Heimerman said he could not rule out federal or state Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — or RICO — investigations conducted by the task force. More than two dozen gang members in Wichita were convicted on federal RICO charges of drug trafficking and racketeering stemming from indictments first filed in 2007.

They were the first indictments in Kansas history under the federal RICO act. The indictments alleged the defendants, who were members of the Crips, were operating an ongoing criminal enterprise in which they used violence and the threat of violence to protect their drug trafficking organization.

RICO convictions on a federal level mean long prison sentences that do not reduce “with good behavior” like state sentences can, he said. Gang members convicted of federal crimes are also looking at serving their sentences a long way from home, making it difficult for family members and loved ones to visit.

The success of the RICO investigation and convictions had a chilling effect on gang activity in Wichita for a few years, Williams said.

“Trust me, those four letters are very well-known in the gang culture,” Williams said. “They want nothing to do with RICO.”