The rise of a reputed Chicago gang kingpin

When Ernest Moore was gunned down on the West Side two days before Christmas in 2002, a Chicago police evidence technician with a video camera captured the tragically familiar aftermath.

Red police tape straddled the wrought-iron fences on the block, flapping in the chilly gray afternoon. Bystanders chatted as numbered placards marked shell casings littering the intersection, right in front of a display of white plastic reindeer.

A sedan sat perched with its rear tires on the curb, doors wide open, windows shattered and the windshield pocked with six ragged bullet holes. Slumped over in the driver’s seat was Moore, a skinny 21-year-old known in the neighborhood as “Pee Wee,” his blood soaking the car’s center console.

In a city awash in gang conflict and gun violence, the motive for Moore’s slaying that day seemed routine: a dispute over drug turf at a nearby park, where rival gangs peddled heroin and crack.

But now, in a federal courtroom two decades later, prosecutors have alleged the killing was a crucial step in the ascension of Donald Lee, a reputed gang assassin who they say “literally shot his way to the top” of the Wicked Town faction of the Traveling Vice Lords in the early 2000s.

Lee and one of his alleged associates, Torance Benson, went on trial last week at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on racketeering conspiracy charges alleging they were part of a criminal enterprise responsible for a “devastating” amount of violence, including 19 murders as well as dozens of armed robberies and assaults dating back to July 2000.

In opening statements to jurors on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jimmy Arce said that Moore’s killing was one of three murders orchestrated by Lee over a three-year period that solidified his control of the Wicked Town gang and its lucrative drug markets.

Six months after the Moore shooting, prosecutors say Lee completed his rise by fatally shooting John “Forehead” Johnson, the then-leader of a faction of the rival Four Corner Hustlers that controlled narcotics sales one street over from Wicked Town’s territory.

Attorneys for Lee and Benson have argued the prosecution’s case is built largely on the testimony of other Wicked Town members who are cooperating with authorities in order to get a break in their own cases.

Some of them are serial killers and admitted liars, while others have been paid by the government both in money and in promises of reduced sentences, attorney Lisa Wood, who represents Lee, said in her opening statement.

Wood and defense attorney Steven Shobat, who represents Benson, also said prosecutors have little or no physical evidence tying their clients to some of the shootings, while others may have been the result of self-defense or mistaken identification.

Jurors in the first week of the scheduled two-month trial have been given a crash course on the long history of gangs on Chicago’s West Side, beginning with the testimony of Marquel Russell, one of the founders of Wicked Town, who told the jury he grew up in gangs as a “rite of passage” after his father, a Traveling Vice Lord, was murdered in 1978.

Russell pleaded guilty to racketeering and is expecting prosecutors to recommend a sentence of 10 to 20 years behind bars in exchange for his truthful testimony.

Russell said he was “blessed in” to the Vice Lords as a teenager, learning the gang’s faith-based “statement of love” and other ritualistic principles that he says focused on “how to conduct yourself as a man.”

When his older brother went to prison for attempted murder in 1994, Russell said he became the de facto leader of Wicked Town, which was constantly in conflict with factions of the Four Corner Hustlers and other street gangs with nearby territory.

In 1996, Russell was shot in the abdomen and partially paralyzed, causing him to briefly relinquish control of the gang. He suffers from nerve damage “to this day,” he said, and walks with a pronounced limp.

He recalled for the jury how Lee was still a “little kid” when he was choked to the point of nearly passing out during a fight on the street. Russell said he was impressed when he saw Lee “come to” and start hitting his opponent with glass bottles.

“I liked him,” Russell said. “He was a little scrappy kid. He wasn’t going for nothin’ like that.”

By the late 1990s, Lee had become one of the gang’s “shooters,” acting as muscle on the street, according to prosecutors.

The first slaying Lee was accused of in the Wicked Town indictment occurred in July 2000, when he was 17. According to prosecutors, Lee fatally shot Lemont Ware during a gang-related brawl in the 5100 block of West Ferdinand Street.

Lee told detectives at the time that he saw his friends getting beaten up and ran to get a gun his gang kept stashed in a nearby yard. When he returned, he shot Ware, who he said was punching one of his friends, then fired a few more shots before running into a house.

Court records show that a Chicago police detective and a Cook County assistant state’s attorney took notes of Lee’s statement, but he was not charged with Ware’s shooting at the time.

The events that led to Moore’s slaying in 2002 began a day earlier, when a simmering feud between Wicked Town and the Four Corner Hustlers over drug sales in Sweet Clover Park boiled over, according to testimony last week.

Nashon “Bootie” Johnson, 42, a longtime Wicked Town member who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors, told the jury on Wednesday that a confrontation erupted in the park between him and rival gang member Aaron Blumenberg, who went by the nickname “Ears.” During the argument, Blumenberg left to grab a gun and came back, yelling before firing it “into the ground,” Johnson said.

The groups dispersed, but the violence only escalated. Later that day, Johnson said, Lee burst through his door with the news that someone had shot at his little brother, Deonte, also a Wicked Town member, Johnson said.

Johnson said that Lee suspected the shooter was Blumenberg. The next day, Johnson, Lee, and two other Wicked Town associates, Maurice Earskines and Jasper Adams, went out “to look for Ears and kill him,” Johnson said.

Near Cicero Avenue and Lake Street, the group spotted a gray Mercury Grand Marquis they believed may have been involved in the shooting and began following it, Johnson said. After about a half a mile, they pulled in front of the Mercury at the intersection of Hubbard Street and Lamon Avenue.

“Jasper said shoot the driver to stop the car,” Johnson testified. He said Lee, who was in front passenger seat, “leaned out of the window and started shooting” at the Grand Marquis with a black revolver. Earskines jumped out and continued firing as the other occupants bailed out and ran.

Henry Stevenson, 47, testified Thursday that he was in the car with Blumenberg and Moore that day. Stevenson said he’d been involved in the ongoing dispute over the park turf, and that they were riding around themselves, looking for revenge against Johnson.

He said they’d stopped by Johnson’s house but were told he wasn’t there. With Moore behind the wheel of the Grand Marquis, they’d stopped at Hubbard and Lamon and were “checking out some females” when all of a sudden he heard the “Pow! Pow!” of gunshots and “saw Pee Wee slump over.”

Stevenson said he got down on the floor of the car and then bailed out and ran with Blumenberg through an alley, making their escape. Moore was struck in his left cheek, shoulder and back and was pronounced dead at the scene, according to court records.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who was carrying a semi-automatic pistol that Jasper had given him, said he pretended the gun jammed and never actually fired. In reality, he’d kept the safety on because “I was scared,” he said.

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“I never took it off safety,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to kill the people in the car. Me and Ears was childhood friends.”

Johnson pleaded guilty earlier this year to racketeering conspiracy, admitting in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he participated in the murder of Moore and attempted murder of Stevenson and Blumenberg, and also that he trafficked narcotics on behalf of the Wicked Town enterprise.

As with Russell, prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence of 10 to 20 years for Johnson, instead of life, he told the jury.

Earskines, meanwhile, was charged in 2004 in Cook County with first-degree murder stemming from Moore’s shooting. He pleaded guilty in January 2006 and was sentenced to 25 years in state prison. Records show he’s due to be released in 2029.

At his plea hearing, Cook County Judge Stanley Sacks told Earskines that he’d be nearly 50 years also when he’s released — “if you survive 23 calendars inside.”

“That’s a long time, Mr. Earskines,” Sacks said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “But keep this in mind: At least you can see your family on visiting days. Mr. Moore can’t do that with his people.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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