Chicago gang member Alvin Vaughn was arrested in 2017 on relatively minor federal charges of being a felon in possession of weapons at a suburban gun range, but it was immediately clear that something bigger was brewing.
The criminal complaint against him stated investigators were conducting an ongoing investigation into a violent street gang named Goonie Boss, of which Vaughn was a known member. Investigators asked Vaughn specifically about reputed leader Romeo “O-Dog” Blackman and other associates. And they seemed to already know a lot about the violence the gang had been inflicting on the Englewood neighborhood.
“They had me on (being a) felon at a gun range,” Vaughn testified in a federal courtroom Wednesday. “But then they got to asking about me and Romeo and everybody else, and that’s why I got to talking.”
Vaughn is now one of several key cooperators in the sprawling racketeering case against Blackman and two of his alleged associates in the Goonie gang, a violent faction of the Gangster Disciples that federal prosecutors say terrorized a small area of the South Side beginning in the late 2010s.
The indictment alleges Blackman, together with Terrance “T” Smith and Jolicious “Jo Jo” Turman, are responsible for 10 slayings and six attempted murders in an 18-month span from 2014 to 2016. Each of the defendants is charged with committing murder in furtherance of a racketeering conspiracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence upon conviction.
Testifying over parts of two days, Vaughn, 32, put jurors at the center of the city’s modern gang warfare, where splintered groups allegedly engage in a shockingly petty cycle of violence with rivals, shooting at “opps” as an almost daily routine and bragging about it on Facebook and other social media.
He testified about several of the slayings at the heart of the indictment, including the January 2014 killing of Johnathan Johnston, who Blackman allegedly suspected of being a police informant.
Months later, Vaughn said, he saw Blackman and Smith retrieve a gun from his home shortly before a shooting outside a nearby convenience store where a young woman was killed. Minutes after that shooting, Smith returned and washed his hands with bleach, Vaughn testified.
Dressed in a dark track suit, Vaughn, whose family has long-standing ties to the infamous Gangster Disciples, didn’t cut the same profile as other cooperators in recent gang trials.
Last year, a series of older, gang lifers, some who were admittedly ruthless killers themselves, lined up to testify in the trial of Wicked Town gang leader Donald Lee and an associate, Torance Benson, leading to sweeping convictions by a federal jury.
A similar scenario played out in the 2021 trial of Four Corner Hustlers boss Labar “Bro Man” Spann, where many co-defendants accused of racketeering and murder cut deals with the government and testified against Spann. Like Lee and Benson, Spann is now facing a mandatory life sentence.
Unlike those informants, however, Vaughn is no convicted killer. In fact, aside from the case involving handling guns at the range in Waukegan, for which he received a 20-month sentence, his most serious conviction came more than a decade ago when he pleaded guilty in Cook County Criminal Court to being a gang member in possession of a weapon.
During his testimony, Vaughn did admit to participating in shootouts with rivals as a youth, but said he doesn’t think he ever actually shot anybody.
“When you a kid, you just shooting,” Vaughn testified.
On cross examination, attorney D’Anthony Thedford, who represents Smith, tried to pin down Vaughn on how he was sure he never hit anyone.
“An ambulance never came, the police never came,” Vaughn said. “So that means I didn’t hit nobody.”
The Goonie trial, which is headed into its third week Monday, is the latest in a string of major racketeering cases brought by the U.S. attorney’s office aimed at the leaders of Chicago’s fractured gang factions that prosecutors say are driving the city’s rampant gun violence.
Later this year, five alleged members of the South Side’s “O Block” gang faction are set to go to trial on a racketeering conspiracy indictment accusing them of a pattern of violence that includes the downtown slaying of Chicago rapper FBG Duck in 2020.
In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paige Nutini said that under Blackman’s tutelage, the Goonies “shot first and asked questions later.” They targeted people they suspected might be snitching to police, committed many shootings during daylight hours so people would see the chaos, and constantly prowled the neighborhood looking for rival gang members, a routine they called “sliding,” she said.
And to boost the impact, Goonie members often turned to the internet, where they “broadcast their violence on social media using Facebook to brag and to taunt their rivals,” Nutini said.
Lawyers for the defendants, meanwhile, said prosecutors have thin evidence when it comes to many of the individual acts of violence alleged in the indictment, and that many of the government’s witnesses — including Vaughn — cannot be trusted.
The defense also warned jurors not to let their feelings about gang violence get in the way of the facts.
“This case is not a referendum on street gangs,” Patrick Blegen, who represents Blackman, said in his opening statement. “The government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Goonies were a racketeering enterprise and that they committed these acts.”
The evidence so far has indeed showed that the Goonie gang wasn’t out to protect a lucrative drug market or other illicit business that was raking in cash. In fact, the gang seemed to generate little money at all.
Vaughn testified that he sold drugs, but only in small amounts. Sometimes to raise money to buy guns, he’d take drugs on “consignment” from a dealer and not pay him back, he said. “I’d make up a story, tell ’em the police hit the crib or something,” he said.
Other than the shootings, a large part of the gang’s presence seemed to be online. Prosecutors also took Vaughn through a series of Facebook photos of various Goonie members, including many where they’re holding up the gang’s “B” sign and pointing guns at the camera.
There were also numerous Facebook group chat sessions where members allegedly talked about the gang’s activities, including one where everyone is reminded to put $10 “into the pot” as part of a general gang fund.
Security has been tight at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse for the trial, with spectators required to lock up cellphones before entering the courtroom. Court filings detailing the testimony of alleged co-conspirators were also kept under seal, and U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey has prohibited prosecutors from disseminating trial exhibits to the news media.
Weeks before the trial began, Blakey denied a defense motion to allow the defendants to sit at the trial without leg shackles, citing accusations by prosecutors that Blackman had offered a fellow inmate $25,000 to kill one of the cooperating witnesses in the case. A court filing by prosecutors does not identify that witness, but said Blackman knew through evidence discovery in his own case that the witness had testified before a state grand jury.
Security became an issue again during Vaughn’s testimony Tuesday, when Blackman’s brother, Rosco, who attended the trial as a spectator, allegedly “leaned” toward Vaughn as he was being led out of the courtroom during a break and said words to the effect of, “I’ll get you,” according to a criminal complaint filed against Rosco Blackman this week.
Vaughn later told investigators that he’d seen Rosco Blackman in the gallery during his testimony. At one point, Blackman had exited the room and appeared to be looking at Vaughn through the courtroom door window and mouthing words at him, the complaint stated.
Vaughn “understood the mouthed words to be a threat intended to influence (his) testimony,” the complaint stated.
Vaughn also told investigators, however, he “was not scared” of Blackman.
Like his brother, Alex, who testified last week, Alvin Vaughn took the witness stand under an immunity deal that shields him from prosecution, as long as he tells the truth.
He told jurors that while staying out of prison was certainly on the forefront of his mind when he decided to turn against his fellow gang members, there were also other motives.
Among them, he said, was getting “justice” for three brothers who were felled by gun violence, including his younger brother Atlantis, who was shot in the head at age 16 the year Vaughn was arrested in the gun range case.
And Vaughn said he’d also tired of the gang life and wanted to make a change for himself and his family, including his nine children.
Attorneys for the defendants, meanwhile, blasted Vaughn’s recollection of events and his alleged motives for testifying, suggesting in their cross examinations that his deal was so sweet his testimony could not be trusted.
“You don’t want to be sitting over here, because this is serious business to be over here,” attorney Christopher Grohman, who also represents Blackman, asked Vaughn at one point, gesturing toward his client at the defense table.
“Yes, sir,” Vaughn responded.
In a sentencing filing in Vaughn’s federal gun case in 2018, prosecutors said that Vaughn was at a “crossroads.”
“He can continue down this violent path that ends in heartache for his family, children and friends or he can make better choices and live a productive life from here on out,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Albert Berry, the lead prosecutor in the Goonie case, wrote. “If the defendant is the ‘sweet’ child and ‘awesome’ father his mother claims him to be, he will show those characteristics with his future actions. He will turn away from his past and look toward his future.”
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Vaughn’s attorney, Michael Schmiege, said in his sentencing filing that Vaughn had suffered a traumatic childhood beset by violence at every turn. In addition to experiencing three of his brothers being shot and killed, Vaughn was physically abused by his father and sometimes forced to hide his uncle’s guns and drugs when police came to the housing complex where they lived, Schmiege said.
Not only was Vaughn ready to turn away from the lifestyle — he had to, Schmiege said.
“Given the extent of Mr. Vaughn’s cooperation with the government, he will not be able to return to his former gang-affiliated lifestyle,” wrote Schmiege. “He will have no choice but to reintegrate himself into society as a law-abiding citizen.”
Near the end of his testimony Wednesday, Vaughn was asked why he initially lied to police when they questioned him about his role in the Goonie gang in 2017. He paused and said, “I felt like they couldn’t protect me, (so) I was just trying to see what they had against me.”
So why did you decide to come clean? he was asked.
“To make a change, like …” Vaughn said, his voice trailing off without finishing the answer.