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State and local prosecutors may try to end a gang war in Atlanta by using the legal equivalent of the atomic bomb — the Georgia RICO statute (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations). Gwinnett County District Attorney Daniel J. Porter is enlisting prosecutors in DeKalb and Hall counties, the state Attorney General’s office, as well as Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore partner John E. Floyd, to help him build a racketeering case against members of the Vatos Locos. Members of the Hispanic street gang are suspects in a series of robberies, carjackings and shootings in the Atlanta area, including the Oct. 30 shooting of two teenage girls in Norcross, Ga. “I’m not absolutely sure that this can happen but I’m in a position to look into it,” Porter says. “There have been a lot of pledges of cooperation.” Mechelle Torres was shot to death and a friend, Robin Rainey, was shot in the throat in a late-night incident at Pinckneyville Park. According to Porter, gang leaders may have ordered two teen girls, Janeth Olarte and Hasia Sauceda, to shoot the victims as a sort of gang discipline or vengeance. The victims had been seen with members of a rival gang, Sur 13. Signs of the turf war between the gangs glisten in spray-painted “tags” in both urban and suburban neighborhoods in metro Atlanta. Five have been charged in the shooting, Porter says, and two are still at large. One of those, Porter says, may have returned to Mexico. The Georgia RICO statute often is used in civil proceedings. Federal courts generally handle criminal charges under the U.S. version of the statute. DeKalb District Attorney J. Thomas Morgan says the state statute rarely is used against gangs. “It has not been used very much to prosecute violent street gangs,” he says. “In fact, I can’t think of a case in the state where it’s been used.” Using the RICO statute allows prosecutors to cast a giant net for gang members. At trial, prosecutors may bring up crimes committed in other jurisdictions as elements of the racketeering charge. Racketeering carries up to a 20-year sentence, and elements proven in the criminal case can then be used in a civil RICO case, which carries the possible penalty of triple damages. It also allows the courts to seize the assets of the corrupt organization. Prosecutors might approach the racketeering charge in two ways under the statute: They could show that an informal group was formed for the purpose of acquiring property�including U.S. currency, or they could show that a formal enterprise exists by virtue of committing crimes. Ga. Code Sec. 16-14-4 (a) and (b). Unlike the federal RICO statute, the Georgia law does not require the state to prove that a formal “enterprise” exists for the purposes of committing crimes. Thirty-one states have RICO statutes, and they have been used successfully in California and Illinois to prosecute gang members. However, according to a 1995 study by the National Institute of Justice, fewer than 17 percent of large-county prosecutors said they have used it against gang members. Augusta, Ga., lawyer Michael C. Garrett of Garrett & Gilliard, who has defended several state and federal RICO cases, says pursuing a street gang under RICO makes some sense because such groups qualify as organized crime. But prosecuting racketeering cases is so time-consuming and labor-intensive that prosecutors on the county level are hesitant to do so, he says. “It requires just a tremendous amount of investigation and manpower,” he says. In some cases, he says, prosecutors pursue racketeering charges against defendants simply to freeze or seize their assets, or to enter evidence of other criminal activities at trial. “I’ve seen RICO abused a good bit by prosecutors,” he says. And the statute is tricky, he says. That’s why many DAs have to call in outside expertise to put a case together. Under those circumstances, he says, it’s hard to predict what a jury might do. “The lawyers have trouble with (the statute) so I’m sure jurors have trouble, too,” he says. Porter says he recognizes that pursuing a racketeering case faces a lot of obstacles. “The problem is you can’t just prosecute somebody for being a member of a gang,” he says. “You’ve got to link them to a criminal enterprise as a knowing participant in a criminal enterprise.” Porter says the jurisdictions involved have met on the issue, including a seminar on racketeering earlier this month. For the most part, he says, the other DAs are “on board with the idea of a unified prosecution.” Other prosecutors may have charges pending against members of the Vatos Locos in their jurisdictions, he says, but pursuing the defendants under the racketeering statute could finish the gang in Georgia. Pursuing racketeering charges would allow the state to jail anyone who participated in the gang with knowledge of its criminal activities. “If we can put the gang out of business, they [the other DAs] won’t have to worry with their cases,” he says. Morgan says his office suspects a series of crimes in DeKalb may be linked to the Vatos, and two of the suspects in the Gwinnett shooting are DeKalb residents. He says his office has offered to help Porter in any way it can. The problem, he says, is that in order to get convictions specific to the offenses the gang members would have to be tried in every separate jurisdiction. “The problem is we don’t have a statewide grand jury to try all these cases in one place,” he says. “Every year we try, but the Legislature just brushes us off.” Assistant Attorney General Darryl A. Robinson says his office will not handle any RICO prosecution, but it will be available for research and advice if Porter needs it. “This is Danny Porter’s case,” he says. “Anything within the bounds of what we’re able to do, we’re willing to do to help him out.” Floyd, of Bondurant Mixson, declined to comment on the pending prosecution. Porter and Robinson also declined to discuss Floyd’s role. Porter said only that his office would make use of “all available resources.” Floyd worked with the Assistant Attorney General David S. McLaughlin and Augusta Circuit District Attorney Daniel J. Craig on the 1998 conviction of Dr. Richard Borison, who is serving a 15-year sentence on racketeering and theft charges for stealing between $10 million and $11.5 million in research money from the Medical College of Georgia. Robinson calls Floyd “one of the preeminent experts in the field of RICO litigation.” Porter says it’s too early to be certain of the success of a RICO prosecution, but the approach shows “promise.” He’s looking for a way to level the gang in one stroke, he says. “In a way I kind of feel like the offended one here,” he says. “They come into my county and they commit a murder and it’s the first I ever heard of them.”

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