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Team Ganging Up On Crime County Task Force Takes Tough Stand Against Gang-Related Cases

The bullet from Jeremy Johnson’s gun didn’t hit anyone, but the Spokane teenager may spend more time in jail than if he’d committed murder.

And that just tickles deputy prosecutor Dave Hearrean to death.

“Excuse the pun,” he said.

Hearrean doesn’t care if the pleasure he takes in Johnson’s fate seems harsh.

Johnson, 17, is a gang member who started a fight last summer near a Valley grocery store that ended with three people shot in a spray of bullets, he said.

As one of two prosecutors for the county gang task force, Hearrean has no sympathy for criminals like Johnson. He goes after them full time, asking judges for maximum sentences, pushing bail amounts to keep suspects in jail and having gang members arrested for intimidating witnesses.

“These people feed on violence,” Hearrean said. “They want respect and power and I won’t give them either.”

Johnson pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault - charges that together come with a standard sentencing range of between 22 and 30 years in prison.

Because he has no prior criminal record, Johnson would be looking at a 20- to 29-year sentence had he been charged with first-degree murder.

His friend and accomplice, Jose Mendoza, 20, goes to trial later this month for his part in the shooting. He is charged with five counts of attempted first-degree murder and five counts of assault.

If Mendoza is convicted, Hearrean said he’ll ask for a 100-year sentence for the Hispanic gang member. He grins when he thinks about it. One hundred years. He can hardly wait.

“We have to take a proactive approach to violent gang members,” Hearrean said. “It’s the only way to be clear about just how low our tolerance is for this type of crime.”

The team is Prosecutor Jim Sweetser’s way to target all types of gang offenses, including hate crimes and racial harassment. Whenever possible, prosecutors seek maximum sentences.

In the four months since it started, the task force has sent three gang members away for a total of 17 years. Dozens of other gang-related cases are pending, including at least 35 in Juvenile Court.

In one case last year, a neo-Nazi skinhead was sentenced to a year in jail for pointing a gun at a group of people on the North Side. Normally, the intimidation with a weapon charge would carry a one- or two-month sentence.

But a judge agreed with the gang team’s recommendation for a maximum sentence.

Sweetser said the team’s involvement may have kept the skinhead from drifting through the system like so many gang members do before they get into real trouble.

“These are tough cases,” Sweetser said of gang-related crimes. “You have witnesses refusing to cooperate, victims being intimidated … The cases used to fall apart. Not anymore. We have a whole team working it all the way through.”

Besides Hearrean and juvenile prosecutor Mark Cipolla, the task force includes a full-time investigator and two victim-witness advocates.

Building a case against gang members is difficult. Sometimes people, fearing retaliation, don’t want to testify.

“Whether it’s real or perceived, they have a real fear of the defendant,” said investigator Chris Hall. “It makes them reluctant to be truthful or provide information at all.”

That’s where Gwen McCormack and Alan Kellogg take over, by supporting victims and staying in contact with witnesses so they don’t vanish before trial.

In some cases the team can get an arrest warrant for a material witness, whose testimony is recorded on videotape. If the witness takes off, it can be replayed for a jury.

“By the very nature of these cases, some of our witnesses and even our victims are very mobile,” McCormack said.

They’re also easily intimidated by angry defendants or their fellow gang members.

Hearrean said they’ve even tried to scare him, in open court while the judge is distracted.

“One guy looked at me and mouthed, ‘You’re dead,’ while his attorney’s standing there pleading his case,” said Hearrean, who doesn’t have to be reminded of the Boston gang prosecutor who was shot and killed last year in one gang retaliation.

“But I’m not afraid of them,” he said. “I have a big gun.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo