The Gang's All Fear

The Crips who raped a retarded girl sprang from a 'hood where too many kids aspire to the thug life

He told Judge Martin at the sentencing of three Chipman Road defendants that he has "strong feelings for these young men. I believe in these young men. . . . The [prosecution] keeps saying, 'Gang members, gang members.' The jury didn't believe it, so why do they keep saying it?"

Tillman asked the judge to be as lenient as possible, so the trio could "get back the life they left a few years ago."

That life -- by some of the defendants' own accounts -- was dominated by their membership in the Park South Crips. Tillman explains that he was talking about the young men being out of jail, after which they could re-enroll in school or find a job.

The house on East Chipman Road where the gang rape occurred in February 1997.
The house on East Chipman Road where the gang rape occurred in February 1997.
The house on East Chipman Road where the gang rape occurred in February 1997.
Paolo Vescia
The house on East Chipman Road where the gang rape occurred in February 1997.

"Where was the community is a fair question," he says, responding to Detective Stuart's accusatory comments. "Seems like nobody is there to do anything for those kids."

Tillman pauses, then quickly diverts the bulk of the blame to his nemesis, the Phoenix Police Department:

"A community like Park South has to make some real decisions that other communities don't have to make when it comes to dealing with the police: If someone in Park South calls the police and the police overreact, and someone gets killed -- and that has happened, if you look at the record -- then the person who called has blood on his hands.

"The police should have known about that house on Chipman, that nobody was hanging in there but those boys. With all of their supposed intelligence, they didn't know what the hell was going on. The police continue to fail that community -- they failed to help out a 13-year-old boy who had been abandoned."

A Tough Case

News accounts in February described how Laura Reckart -- the original Chipman Road case prosecutor -- had resigned because of threats she'd gotten from unidentified Park South Crip gangsters.

Actually, the 10-year veteran of the County Attorney's Office says she quit after a difference of opinion with her supervisors over the direction of the case. Reckart says they'd wanted to, and later did, offer the defendants far softer plea bargains than she'd contemplated.

"It's true I got threatened [by the gangsters]," she says, "and that was awful. And it was very frustrating, to put it mildly, being called a racist by some of the defense attorneys, and by Oscar Tillman. But the bottom line was, I didn't want any of the defendants to be probation-eligible, and my bosses did."

Chief deputy county attorney Paul Ahler disagrees with Reckart's analysis.

"Typically, we wouldn't offer probation on a gang rape," Ahler says, "but this wasn't a typical case. We never felt that these guys were innocent, but we weren't even sure if the victim was going to be able to testify because of her mental capacity and other legal issues. No one tried to intentionally undercut Laura. She's a good person and a good prosecutor. She worked this case very hard, got personally attacked by the other side, it wound her really tight."

He adds, "We don't go forward with cases just because public sentiment is telling us to go forward, which it was in this case. And we're certainly not going to drop a case because Oscar Tillman says we should. All in all, it was a tough case."

Joe Heileman, who took over from Reckart, says he made the decision to offer the controversial plea deals.

"Nobody in my office told me what I had to do with the case," says Heileman, a longtime prosecutor whose closing argument at the rape trial was compelling.

"The people who ended up going to trial were the ones who would have had to go to prison under the deals we offered -- that's because they had known the victim before that night, and knew she was retarded and vulnerable.

"I think the only reason we got convictions is that we did plead some people out. It wasn't a circus at trial, with 10 defense attorneys taking their crack at cross-examining that girl. I made the decision, and I think it was the right one."

Reckart says she would have compared the gang to a pack of wolves in her opening statement. She expresses frustration that Heileman and co-prosecutors Patricia Hicks and Brad Astrowsky couldn't sell the gang-related charges to the jury.

That job became tougher, Reckart concedes, after Judge Martin ruled that the jury wouldn't get to hear TaRon Auzenne's crucial 1997 statements to detectives -- "Put fear in people's hearts," and other self-incriminating comments.

Reckart attended the trial as a spectator, wearing bright-red dresses that flaunted her animus against the defendants: Members of the Crips despise the color red, which is what their rival gang, the Bloods, wear.

"The color was to tell them, 'You will not intimidate me, and I'm still here,'" she says. "'You're not gonna scare me like you tried to scare the victim and the neighborhood.' I believed that girl, and I thought the lack of support she'd gotten on this case was unconscionable."

Laura Reckart now is working part-time as a judge in the City of Glendale.

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