Saturday, May 8, 2004

Tot Lot arrests now at four

Roundup a relief; still at issue is length of the case

By Dan Horn and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Police and FBI agents rounded up more suspected members of the Tot Lot Posse Friday, dealing another blow to a gang that is blamed for wreaking havoc in Cincinnati's West End.

The arrest in Atlanta of a fourth suspect, Jimmar Long, means authorities now have caught several of the men they describe as leaders of the Tot Lot gang.

As some of the suspects began to make their first appearances in federal court Friday afternoon, police and some West End residents expressed relief that a year-long federal investigation seemed to be paying off.

"I'm just glad that somebody had the patience and the resources to stick with it until they got them," said Capt. James Whalen, commander of Police District 1. "I just think there's got to be some gratification for the average Joe who doesn't have to see these guys in their brand new SUVs and $500 sports jerseys just driving around the community."

More arrests are expected as authorities scour Cincinnati and other locations for suspects.

But even as the long investigation began to pay dividends with arrests, federal and local officials renewed a dispute over how the probe should have been handled and whether it took too long to resolve.

Federal prosecutors raised concerns Friday that public comments Mayor Charlie Luken made last month that were critical of the pace of the investigation might be complicating efforts to find suspected gang members.

They fear the mayor's statements may have tipped suspects that arrests were imminent.

"The effort to locate the defendants in this case could have been hampered by the advance publicity," said Bill Hunt, the chief assistant in Cincinnati to U.S. Attorney Gregory Lockhart. "We hope the mayor's comments publicizing our investigation did not contribute to the FBI's difficulty in attempting to locate these individuals."

Luken, who wrote a letter to Lockhart last month complaining that the investigation had bogged down, said again Friday that he believes his complaints got the investigation moving forward.

"They dropped the ball," Luken said of federal prosecutors. "Until that letter was written, nothing happened."

Prosecutors have said they cannot discuss the investigation in detail, but they insist they have moved as quickly as possible to resolve what police describe as a complex case involving drugs and guns.

The four men arrested - Long, Antwynne Beavers, Eric Johnson and Raymone Johnson - all face federal charges of drug distribution or conspiracy to distribute drugs. The federal indictment is sealed by court order, but authorities have confirmed the charges are drug-related.

Police say the gang members are from all over the Cincinnati area but have concentrated their activities in the West End and Over-the-Rhine. The gang took its name from a children's playground on Linn Street.

Hunt would not say how many suspects remain at large or how much difficulty police and FBI agents have had in finding them.

At least some, though, have turned up close to home.

The 30-year-old Beavers, known as "T.Z." or "T-Zoney," was found Thursday about 5 p.m. in a car at a major intersection in the West End. Eric Johnson, 27, was arrested a few hours later in Walnut Hills and his brother, Raymone Johnson, 24, was caught Friday in the West End.

All three men will appear in federal court Tuesday for a hearing. It's unclear when the 21-year-old Long, described by police as the No. 2 man in the gang, will be sent back to Ohio from Atlanta.

News that authorities have started to break up the Tot Lot Posse drew praise from Dale Mallory, president of the West End Community Council. But he has another idea, too: He wants to break up what's left of the Tot Lot playground on Linn Street, which has become a symbol of the gang's presence in the community.

"If they want to meet me over here with a Bobcat and a sledgehammer, tell them to just set the time and date," Mallory said of the city, which owns the lot. "I'd just like to end the whole Tot Lot Posse perception."

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