Feds take over after Chicago prosecutor failed to file charges in murder of National Guard soldier for three years

The federal government has filed charges in the death of National Guard soldier Chrys Carvajal after the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx failed to. (Army/Wikimedia Commons)

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
Chicago Tribune
(TNS)

Two reputed leaders of the Milwaukee Kings street gang were indicted last month on charges of shooting and killing 19-year-old National Guard member Chrys Carvajal in Belmont Cragin on July 3, 2021. The indictment was unsealed last week.

That Gary “Gotti” Roberson, 40, and Joseph “Troubles” Matos, 41, will stand trial for the brutal, nonsensical slaying is a good thing. But this comes after nearly three years, even though evidence linking at least one of the suspects to the crime reportedly was in the hands of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office soon after the killing took place. The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx determined at the time there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute despite the pleas of Carvajal’s family and Chicago police.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago now is prosecuting the case, now considerably more complex given that the violation of federal law must be invoked to put the evidence before a jury. That’s because the feds can’t just charge someone suspected of murder with the crime of, yes, murder. That’s the state’s job. If the feds are to put someone on trial for killing another human being, there must be special circumstances attached, such as the murder of a federal official or the act taking place on federal property. Lacking those specific circumstances, federal prosecutors must convict a suspect not just of murder but also of committing the act while also doing something else that violates federal law.

In the case of Roberson, who is in custody and has pleaded not guilty, and Matos, who is subject to a warrant and at large, they are charged with racketeering. The drive-by murder of Carvajal they’re alleged to have committed a little after 1 a.m. as he was walking to his car to get something while attending a Fourth of July weekend party with his girlfriend was in furtherance of their gang activities, according to the May 14 indictment. So prosecutors must prove not only that the two reputed gang leaders killed Carvajal; they also must show that the reason for the slaying was to “maintain and improve” their leading positions within the Milwaukee Kings.

Of course, it would be far simpler and more straightforward to prove the facts surrounding the slaying itself. If the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had brought the charges, that’s all they would have to prove.

For Carvajal’s family, the delay in justice for their loved one has been excruciating. Here was a 19-year-old son of Chicago, spending time with his friends and family after completing National Guard training and just before deployment, a young man whose future was bright. “He was working to become a … police officer as well,” Carvajal’s sister Jennifer Ramirez told WTTW a year after his killing. In a swipe at prosecutors, she said, “He was going to serve and protect your city. The least you could do is bring justice.”

Chicago police who worked on the case were upset the state’s attorney’s office wouldn’t proceed. Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, in whose ward the killing took place, tweeted at the time that police provided local prosecutors with three eyewitnesses and video evidence, according to CWBChicago, a news site that tracks Chicago crime news. “This family deserves justice as well as the hundreds of families who have unsolved murders pending #pleasedoyourjob,” Villegas tweeted.

Additionally, Chicago police provided evidence that the car and phone of one of the suspects was at or near the crime scene at the time, according to CWB.

It wasn’t enough. In a statement to WTTW in 2022, Foxx’s office said it “conducted a thorough review” of the evidence Chicago police had amassed. “At that time, it was insufficient to meet our burden of proof to file murder charges,” the office said.

A family friend, Marcos Torres, who was working to prod Foxx’s office into action, told WTTW, “What is the message we are sending to our citizens here in Chicago if you are doing the right thing, if you are serving your county and you get killed right here in your own streets and the people who are in charge to prosecute, don’t prosecute.”

Indeed. From what we’re told by those with extensive courtroom and law enforcement experience fighting gangs in Chicago, this isn’t an isolated case. In Chicago — more often than people might like to admit — the feds have to intervene in what probably ought to be a locally handled prosecution if justice is to be served. These sorts of examples occurred regularly before Foxx’s time as state’s attorney as well, we’re told.

Prosecutions of gang members can be difficult, no doubt. Legitimate fears of retaliation often require police and prosecutors to provide assistance to witnesses, for example, in the form of finding new housing outside the neighborhood the gangs in question terrorize. The feds working in Chicago do that kind of work a lot.

But even when the feds step in, there’s a price to pay for local reluctance to prosecute in the absence of overwhelming evidence. The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office surely have compiled more evidence in this case during the intervening period. But they also have had to build a separate racketeering case against the two murder suspects and have had to work to prove that the killing was done for the purpose of solidifying the position of the two within their “enterprise.” Additionally, in a case like this, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago must get approval from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., to proceed. Such bureaucratic processes are time-consuming even when a case is straightforward.

Small wonder it’s taken nearly three years to bring this relatively bare-bones indictment.

Since 2021, a family has had to wait and fret about whether action ever would be taken, all the while knowing the identity of at least one of the suspects. Since 2021, two purported gang members have been free to continue to do what gang members so often do.

Are there victims of other crimes who would have been spared had prosecutorial action been taken sooner?

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