Appellate ruling deals blow to Lake County RICO case

Lake County prosecutors will turn to the Illinois Supreme Court in hopes of saving what's left of a much-publicized racketeering case that led to the arrests of nearly two dozen suspected gang members on drug and weapons charges in 2014.

A state appellate court dealt the cases a blow this week by backing a lower court decision that ruled authorities improperly filled out paperwork seeking wiretaps. Justices ruled unanimously that evidence obtained through the wiretaps is barred from court.

Richard Dvorak, the attorney for one of five defendants remaining in the case, said the decision should bring end the prosecution.

"All the evidence in the case was derived from the wiretaps," said Dvorak, who represents James M. Allard of Beach Park. "Their case is destroyed. They can't go forward without that evidence."

Cynthia Vargas, spokeswoman for Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, said the office will ask the state supreme court to overturn the decision. The high court could take on the case or refuse to consider the appeal.

The arrests of Allard and 20 others were hailed at an October 2014 news conference as a strike against a street gang heavily involved in the illegal drug and gun trade across Lake County.

Led by the FBI and involving investigators from Mundelein police, Waukegan police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group Group, the Lake County sheriff's office and other law enforcement agencies, the yearlong probe that led to the arrest was dubbed "Shut Down the Hustle," after the street gang it targeted.

It was the first time Lake County used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that targets organized crime, authorities said at the time.

After most of the defendants quickly took plea deals, Lake County Judge George Strickland ruled in October 2016 that prosecutors erroneously filled out paperwork to obtain wiretaps. At issue was who signed the requests. Under state law, it's the responsibility of the state's attorney. But in this case, the forms were signed not by Nerheim, but by his assistant state's attorneys.

Dvorak called this week's appellate decision "historic" in that it's the first time an Illinois court has ruled on that issue.

He said he will ask that Allard, who's been in custody since his arrest, to be freed while the supreme court decides whether to hear the case.

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