By Jane Prendergast and Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A yearlong federal investigation into a Cincinnati street gang is dragging on too long, city officials say, leaving members free to commit more violent crimes and deal drugs.
FBI agents and Cincinnatipolice have been investigating the Tot Lot Posse, a group based in the West End neighborhood - where police say they're responsible for intimidating residents, widespread drug sales and homicides. The gang's name comes from a children's playground on Linn Street.
Such federal investigations, which can result in longer prison sentences, usually are kept secret. But the length of the Tot Lot investigation has frustrated Mayor Charlie Luken, who wants to know what's holding up the case police have promised will make the biggest dent in the operations of a Cincinnati gang.
Federal authorities can prosecute people for interstate drug dealing and can prosecute gangs as organized crime rings, raising the potential penalties.
Luken sent a letter March 18 to the Cincinnati office of U.S. Attorney Gregory Lockhart. It calls the delay in indictments unacceptable and says the city deserves an explanation.
"From my point of view, we have dangerous people walking city streets, and we're unable to get them off," the mayor said Wednesday. "The scuttlebutt is pretty much out there that this is going on."
A spokesman for Lockhart would neither confirm nor deny an investigation into the Tot Lot Posse. But he did say federal authorities appreciate the issues Luken raised in his letter.
"We have received the letter and we are sensitive about the concerns of the mayor and the community," said Fred Alverson.
FBI officials said they have been involved for some time in an investigation with Cincinnati police, but they would not identify the target of their probe. Several Cincinnati officers are assigned to work full time with the FBI.
"We've been working together on a joint investigation that has culminated in the past few months," said FBI spokesman Jim Turgal. "We're getting ready to take the final step."
If that final step is taking the case to a federal grand jury to seek criminal indictments, it will be up to the U.S. Attorney's office to set the schedule. Federal prosecutors run the grand jury and determine if and when to seek indictments.
In the federal system, the grand jury meets twice a month. The next meeting is April 7.
Capt. Vince Demasi, acting commander of the Cincinnati Police Department's investigations section, consulted with Luken before the letter was sent. Demasi said he prefers not to discuss federal investigations. But in this case, he said, he thinks the city is getting a "we'll-get-to-you-when-we-get-to-you" attitude from federal authorities.
"We're talking about people who've committed felony drug crimes, about people who've been linked to shootings,'' Demasi said. "Left unchecked, they're going to be left to do what they do best, which is commit crimes.''
The man charged with shooting at Officer Patrick Galligan in February has Tot Lot gang tattoos, police say. But investigators said they still can't determine if Michael White targeted Galligan.
Galligan was the detective who convinced a shooting victim to testify last year against gang member Charles "Little Charlie'' Murrell Jr., whom District 1 commander Capt. James Whalen described as "one of the biggest threats in town.'' Murrell is serving a 16-year prison sentence for shooting a man in 2003.
In a letter to the judge, Murrell wrote that maybe God was trying to send him a message by sending him to prison "'cause I was going to end up getting killed out there.''
The city turned to federal authorities in the current Tot Lot investigation because of the possibility of longer federal prison sentences. The investigation started more than a year ago, about the same time that a member of the gang was charged in the drive-by shooting that left a 17-year-old mother dead, Demasi said. Witnesses in that case testified that Murrell provided the gun.
The West End, between Over-the-Rhine and Interstate 75, is one of Cincinnati's oldest neighborhoods and was an elegant place to live a century ago. But suburban flight, absentee landlords and a high concentration of low-income housing have changed the neighborhood.
While overall crimes of violence have dropped, the West End had the second highest number of killings in the city last year - nine. Adjacent Over-the-Rhine recorded the most - 10.
"We've heard about the investigation from the police,'' said Dale Mallory, president of the West End Community Council. "We're all waiting to see what shoe is about to drop.''
Turgal said the investigation with Cincinnati police is "an important case for the downtown Cincinnati area."
And although the FBI does not determine when a case goes to a grand jury, Turgal said he understands Luken's eagerness for a resolution.
"We are doing everything we can," he said, "to bring it to a conclusion."
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