Wiretap ruling threatens case against reputed gang members
A disagreement over who was supposed to sign wiretap orders is raising questions about the future of a high-profile Lake County criminal case involving the arrests of 21 reputed gang members for drug and weapons sales nearly two years ago.
The wiretap orders were the crux of evidence in the investigation dubbed "Shut Down the Hustle" that led to charges under the Illinois Street Gang and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
In a handwritten decision last week, Lake County Judge George Strickland ruled prosecutors cannot use the wiretap evidence in trials because paperwork seeking the wiretaps was not signed by Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, as required by law.
Nerheim said he didn't specifically sign each wiretap order, but he authorized the chief of his office's gang and narcotic unit in writing to obtain the wiretaps.
"I believe the process was proper," Nerheim said. The ruling involves "the interpretation of a state statute," he said.
Nerheim said he will not dismiss charges against anyone affected by Strickland's ruling. His office is appealing to the Illinois Appellate Court, he said.
Only six of those charged in the investigation have pending cases, as the rest grabbed plea deals, he said.
In October 2014, law enforcement officials announced members of the 4 Corner Hustlers street gang were arrested after a nearly yearlong probe. It was the first time the RICO law had been used in Lake County.
RICO laws provide for criminal penalties for acts performed by a criminal organization.
In the Lake County case, authorities were able to charge higher-ranking gang members in connection with crimes committed by lower-ranking members acting on behalf of the organization.
Gregory Harris Sr., 43, alleged to be the gang's ringleader, was arrested and ordered held on $10 million bail.
He was charged with counts of RICO conspiracy, manufacture and delivery of cocaine, and street gang criminal drug conspiracy.
Authorities said Harris and other suspects had been distributing and selling cocaine, heroin and prescription pills, committing violent crimes and selling illegal firearms in Lake County.
Defense attorney Douglas Roberts filed motions to suppress all evidence obtained through wiretaps, claiming the orders were not signed by Nerheim, as required by law.
"The federal and state statutes require he (Strickland) rule that way," Roberts said. "Both limit the individuals who are permitted to apply for these very intrusive wiretap orders."
Roberts said he will await the appellate court decision but is confident the court will support Strickland's ruling.
"They didn't have authority to do what they did, and Judge Strickland didn't have any choice but to rule the way he did," Roberts said.
The ruling prompted an emailed statement by Democrat Matthew Stanton, a Gurnee resident who is challenging Nerheim for state's attorney in November. Stanton said Nerheim "abdicated" his responsibility by not signing the paperwork.
"Now this major case is down the drain, and these suspected gangbangers will probably skate," he said in the statement.
Nerheim responded by saying, "I would expect anyone seeking public office to use this ruling to their political advantage."