URBANA – A.J. Gant was just trying to protect his property, his neighborhood, according to his wife, Ruby Rodriguez.
"This man has done service to the community," Rodriguez said. "He is completely a changed man. I can't see why they are picking on him."
Gant, 57, faces a minimum 15 years in prison – where he spent most of his young adulthood – if convicted on a federal charge of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. His trial in U.S. District Court in Urbana is scheduled to begin Monday.
Family members and friends say he turned himself around and stayed out of trouble for eight years. They say it's unfair that federal prosecutors are trying to lock him up now, so long after the events that led to his current problems.
Gant's case stems from an incident more than 2 years ago and comes after charges were dropped by Champaign County. Gant was discharged from his latest parole in October 1995 after serving 10 years in state prison on a drug conviction.
"He's already paid for that," Rodriguez said.
She said Gant was trying to protect some rental property on Church Street that had been plagued by drug dealers in the neighborhood.
"He was protection to me for those apartments," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said it seems to her that the arrest of her husband is unfair and something authorities have against him personally. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass said Gant is a "very serious risk to the community" and a "violent felon."
Bass said Gant's case is being prosecuted as part of the federal "Project Safe Neighborhoods" program, aimed at locking up convicted felons who use or even merely possess firearms.
"I think the program is successful in this (central Illinois) district, with the object of targeting convicted felons, particularly felons who have a record of violent offenses," Bass said. "That's who the program was intended for, and that's who we have been successfully pursuing so far."
Jan Paul Miller, U.S. attorney for the 46-county Central District, was among officials who launched a media campaign on Monday promoting the Safe Neighborhoods message that "Gun Crime = Hard Time."
Citizens who know about a felon carrying a gun are urged to call Crimestoppers anonymously.
"Often the people who actually live in the neighborhoods have the best information about who is committing crimes in their neighborhoods," he said.
The message also is directed at felons, warning them that they face severe federal prison sentences if convicted of carrying a gun, particularly in a crime of violence or drug crime, Miller said.
"Gun violence cannot and will not be tolerated," Miller said. "We are working together to identify, prosecute and incarcerate criminals who illegally carry guns and threaten our communities."
Federal prosecutors have had good cooperation from local and state departments who determine who are the most dangerous criminals in their areas. When such a felon is caught carrying a firearm, officials determine which court system, federal or state, offers the most severe penalties for the particular circumstances, Miller said.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, a career criminal who has a gun faces a minimum federal sentence of 15 years to life in prison; any convicted felon with a gun faces up to 10 years in prison; drug dealers who have guns face a minimum sentence of five years in prison on top of any other sentence for drug crimes on a first offense and a minimum of 25 years in federal prison for a second conviction.
In Gant's case, Judge Michael McCuskey has ruled that prosecutors can only tell jurors that Gant is a convicted felon, but the judge cautioned Gant's defense attorney, Carol Dison, against doing or saying anything that would open the door for prosecutors to present additional evidence about Gant's criminal history.
According to court records, Gant has been convicted and sentenced to prison as follows:
– January 1971, armed violence and battery; two to 10 years in prison for armed violence and five months for battery; paroled in November 1975.
– April 1979, aggravated battery; two years in prison; paroled in November 1979.
– January 1986, possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance; sentenced to 20 years in prison; paroled in February 1995.
State charges of aggravated battery that accused Gant of striking a man with a gun; striking his own daughter, Angie, with a gun; and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon were filed by the county on May 21, 2001, two days after the alleged incidents. They were dismissed Oct. 12, 2001.
Champaign County State's Attorney John Piland said county prosecutors had problems with one aggravated battery charge because Angie Gant said she was struck accidentally by Gant.
"She said, 'He didn't intend to hurt me,'" Piland said.
The state's attorney said his assistant, Elizabeth Dobson, talked to federal prosecutors in June 2001 and let them take the case against Gant.
But it wasn't until April this year that a federal complaint was filed against Gant for the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in June.
An affidavit in the federal case was filed by Champaign police Detective Don Atkins, who reported that police responded to a report of shots fired in the 300 block of East Church Street on May 14, 2001. A 55-year-old Champaign man told police at the time that Gant fired a shot in his direction, near 307 E. Church St. Gant also struck the man in the head with a loaded gun, according to the affidavit.
Former Officer Jay Warren, now with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reported at the time that he went to 307 E. Church St. and saw Gant with a gun in his left hand. Warren said in his report that he also saw Gant throw the gun in the grass between the fence and sidewalk at a house at 302 E. Church St. Warren said he recovered the gun, a .38-caliber special, and discovered one cartridge had been fired, the affidavit said.
'Safe Neighborhoods' targets armed felons
Two Champaign men accused of a series of convenience store robberies in Champaign County face severe federal prison sentences, if convicted of federal weapons charges.
U.S. Attorney Jan Paul Miller said in a news conference Monday that Semaji Warren faces a minimum sentence of 57 years in prison and Ross Thacker faces a minimum of 32 years, if convicted of all the weapons charges they face.
Miller, along with local Crimestoppers officials and Champaign County State's Attorney John Piland, announced a media campaign to encourage people to call in tips about convicted felons with guns. Billboards and advertising in newspapers, radio and television will be paid for with federal money from the "Safe Neighborhoods Project," which aims to get convicted felons with guns off of the streets, Miller said.
Warren, 22, who listed an address in the 200 block of North Third Street, is accused of using a firearm in robberies at the Casey's in Philo on Jan. 29, a Colonial Pantry in Champaign on Jan. 30 and a Big Foot in Champaign on March 22, Miller said.
Thacker, 22, who listed an address in the 600 block of Ridgewood Court, is accused of participating in the robberies of the Casey's and the Big Foot stores, according to Miller.
Thacker was sentenced in September 2002 to six years in state prison for robbing a Colonial Pantry store in Champaign after he was found in the area with more than $200 cash and a blue stocking cap. In exchange for that plea in Champaign County Circuit Court, two other state charges were dismissed.
Both face federal charges of interference with commerce by robbery and with using a firearm in a violent crime. Both are scheduled to appear in federal court again Nov. 20.
Thacker was sentenced to four years in prison for residential burglary in 2000. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to charge Thacker for car burglaries in southwest Champaign. Warren was also arrest- ed for those car burglaries.
Examples of other federal "Safe Neighborhoods" weapons cases:
– Hymme Dale Hogue, 36, who listed an address in the 200 block of East Park Street, Champaign, was sentenced recently to seven years and four months in federal prison for possession of a weapon by a felon.
Hogue was previously convicted in 1992 with aggravated battery with a firearm, and he admitted shooting a man in the foot during an argument. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Hogue was also sentenced to prison in 1989 after he pleaded guilty to a robbery charge and admitted mugging a University of Illinois student.
Hogue's federal charge stems from an arrest by a Champaign police officer who reported receiving information that Hogue had a handgun in his car on Jan. 22. Further investigation led to seizure of a 9 mm handgun and four bullets. Hogue argued, unsuccessfully, that he was under duress and obtained the gun to protect himself
– Cloyd Netter, 31, who listed an address in the 1500 block of Queen's Way, C, was sentenced in March to 12 years in federal prison and five years of supervised release. He pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon and admitted having a handgun in front of the American Legion in July 2002. A Champaign police officer saw Netter with the gun after being dispatched to investigate a report of shots fired.
Netter was originally charged in state court, but those charges were dismissed in lieu of the federal case. Netter's prior convictions include an aggravated battery case from 2001 and a possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance case in 1994. He also was convicted in 1992 of shooting a man in the arm.
– Natris Lamont Morris, 26, of Bloomington, formerly of Danville, faces federal charges of possession of a handgun in furtherance of a drug crime and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Morris was arrested in Champaign on a traffic stop Sept. 3. He gave an address on Bismark Road in Danville at that time. Police found suspected marijuana, a solid block of about 4 ounces of cocaine, 18 pills that tested positive for the club drug known as "ecstasy" and a loaded handgun.
A subsequent search of Morris' apartment in Bloomington led to seizure of about 1.7 pounds of cocaine and two more handguns.
– Charmell D. Brown, 19, who listed an address in the 1900 block of West John Street, Champaign, was charged by federal prosecutors in late July with unlawful possession of weapon by a felon.
Brown was previously convicted of aggravated unlawful use of weapons and sentenced to three years in prison on Dec. 17, 2001.
He was arrested again by Champaign police following a shooting at Burch Village family public housing at 504 E. Bradley Ave. on July 24. A Champaign police officer followed a car leaving the complex and saw Brown get out in the 1400 block of West Beardsley Avenue in Urbana. The officer reported seeing Brown carry a black semi-automatic handgun in his right hand while running from police. Brown later admitted he had picked up the gun and ran because he had the gun when police came to investigate the shooting. He denied any involvement in the shooting.
– Michael Ross, 30, who listed an address in the 1200 block of West Beardsley Avenue, C, was charged by federal prosecutors in a complaint accusing him of unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon. Ross had previously been arrested by Champaign police on Sept. 28 after police discovered a sawed-off shotgun near a house where he had been. Ross later admitted he obtained the illegal gun for protection against a drug dealer who was owed about $500 by Ross, according to court records.
You can reach Steve Bauer at (217) 351-5318 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.