Theft linked to gang activity; man sentenced to six years

URBANA — A Champaign County prosecutor Wednesday successfully linked an Urbana man's theft conviction to gang activity and persuaded a judge to give him the maximum sentence for the crime.

Judge Tom Difanis sentenced Ellis Nash, 32, of the 500 block of East Green Street, to six years in prison for possessing a laptop computer in December that had been stolen from an Urbana school in July 2011.

"There is no doubt Mr. Nash is a gang member and a gang leader," said Difanis. "I'm not sure we can assume he was directing them (younger teens) to burgle, but he provided them a place to get rid of their stolen goods."

Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Weber had Urbana police officer Mike Cervantes lay out for Difanis how police came to suspect Nash was acting as a fence for a group of younger men.

Cervantes explained that his department and the sheriff's office in December were investigating several residential burglaries in east Urbana.

A witness told police about a Dec. 7 break-in on Sunny Lane that involved five young men, four of whom she recognized from having been in her home. They also talked in her home on previous occasions about burglaries, and one even tried to sell her a Wii system that she suspected was stolen, Cervantes recounted.

Building on that information, police interviewed some of the youths and learned that they took stolen items to Nash's former home on East Elm Street in Urbana. A court-ordered search of the home turned up the Macintosh computer stolen from Thomas Paine School in late July for which two teens were arrested.

Teanna Davis, 19, Nash's girlfriend and the mother of his child, testified she bought the computer for $150 from one of the teens who came to their home as a present for herself.

Also in the home was a shoebox full of leather-bound notebooks filled with gang symbols, oaths and literature, Cervantes said, that purported to be written by members of the Four Corner Hustlers, an offshoot of the Vice Lord Nation.

"All that I hate, I must kill. All that I don't have, I must take," were among the writings that Cervantes read to the judge.

On cross-examination, Nash's attorney, Bruce Ratcliffe, tried to suggest that there was a prayerful tone in the notebooks and that dates in the books suggested they were written more than a couple years earlier.

Ratcliffe had Nash's mother testify about what a good father he is and how he had changed since being in boot camp in 2005. However, she admitted to Weber she didn't know about a felony theft conviction he received after his release from boot camp.

Weber asked for the maximum six years for Nash, saying evidence proved his actions were gang-related.

"This is what a gang leader does. He pulls the strings from his safe corner and lets others take the fall," Weber argued. "He's infecting the lives of young people."

Ratcliffe asked for a community-based sentence, dismissing "all this gang stuff as irrelevant. He was in the Four Corner Hustlers, but he isn't now."

Nash gave an eloquent statement to the judge saying how the birth of his daughter has changed him, that he's employed, preparing to pay child support and getting help for substance abuse.

Noting Nash's four prior theft convictions and a prior residential burglary conviction, Difanis said he didn't think Nash was dangerous but said he and others had to be deterred.

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