Shaun Healy is a retired Supervisory Special Agent for the IRS’ Criminal Investigative Division. He also served as an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia and is a recognized expert in Money Laundering and the Bank Secrecy Act.
The POP v Bloods and Crips
I worked many cases with Tom O’Connell, the Pissed off Prosecutor (POP) during his days as a federal prosecutor in Las Vegas. He was known by a different acronym then (TOC), and was, in those days, making life decidedly unpleasant for a continual series of hard core criminals and assorted miscreants. It was in fact an honor and a privilege to work investigations with him, investigations which were always challenging, but above all else, were always – fun.
One case always comes to mind when reflecting on what made the POP such a unique prosecutor; that was the case US v Govan et al. During the early/mid 1990s Las Vegas was plagued by a series of armed, takeover style robberies of various casinos. In April of 1994, a takeover robbery of Harrah’s Casino ended, after a brief chase, with the arrest of the perpetrators, five young gang members from Los Angeles. It was apparent from the age of the defendants, the fact that the robbery proceeds were not recovered and other intel that these crimes were being planned and organized by others, who simply used young gang members to execute the robberies. And as it turned out it was older gang members, associated with both the Bloods and Crips, in an unholy alliance of sorts, who were the organizers/planners. But identifying them and proving their involvement, when the targets and witnesses were located 300 miles away in Los Angeles, specifically in a part of LA not especially known for its cooperation with law enforcement, would be quite a challenge. And truth be told, many prosecutors (and agents) would gladly settle for just the clean and easy prosecution of the five young gang members arrested in Las Vegas. But that’s not the way the POP rolls. Ever.
So the POP organized and spearheaded an investigation which, in its early days, appeared to be hopeless. But the POP persisted, encouraged, cajoled and directed an investigation that eventually took hold. It was in fact quite the challenge. Numerous trips/interviews ranging from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles to a rural county in Louisiana (where the POP gained valuable insight into the art of jury selection in Louisiana) were undertaken, along with extensive financial investigation, toll analysis etc.- the usual work product required in a major investigation. It was a unique investigation in that witnesses, targets and even attorneys kept getting murdered and/or disappearing off the face of the earth. And in that world, it was never completely clear whether these events had anything to do with our investigation. But as the investigation unfolded it did have at least one positive byproduct; the casino takeover robberies came to a complete halt. The POP consistently kept urging the case forward, and slowly but surely the pieces of the puzzle came together as the investigation progressed to the point where enough evidence was gathered to indict the three (surviving) organizers/conspirators: Chet (Short Dog) Govan, Melvin (Poppa) Foster and Dionne Chappelle.
Of course indicting them was one thing, finding and arresting them was another. I tracked Govan down to a state court hearing in LA which was based on a minor parole violation. I interviewed him in his jail cell there, and things went well until I told him I was from Las Vegas and informed him as to what I wanted to talk about. At that point his reaction was as if I touched him with an electric cattle prod; he started jumping around his cell and screaming at the top of his lungs that he didn’t know anything about Las Vegas and didn’t want to know anything about Las Vegas. The most memorable thing that came from that (unproductive) interview was that Govan’s attorney called the POP to complain that I violated his client’s rights. I will leave it to your imagination as to the response that he received. Suffice to say it wasn’t what he expected.
Melvin “Poppa” Foster was next. I received a call at my home at 2:30am (stuff like this always happens at the most convenient times) to the effect that a California Highway patrolman had Foster pulled over for a traffic stop on a rural highway and they wanted to insure that the arrest warrant was valid and that they needed some additional documentation. As luck would have it my wife was out of town, so I had to load two very young and very sleepy daughters into the back of the family van and drive to the office to fax the needed paperwork. But I was happy to do it; I could envision the solo CHP officer on a rural California road at 2:30 in the am, dealing with the six foot five inch, 310 pound Melvin Foster. (Editor’s Note: reportedly, when the officer asked the massive Foster why he walked with a slight limp, Foster related that it was the result of a college football injury he suffered playing at Grambling. It was in fact a consequence of a routine drive-by shooting. At least Poppa had a sense of humor.)
The third defendant (Chappelle) was still a fugitive but she was more of a minor player, so the case of US v Govan and Foster proceeded to trial in October of 1996. One thing about the POP, he always knew how to tap into the valuable resources on hand, so he enlisted the very formidable prosecutorial talents of AUSA Howard Zlotnick, to assist in the prosecution of the case.
The trial started well, with Melvin Foster folding his cards and pleading guilty on day two of the trial.
But Chet “Short Dog” Govan, whose life to that point was marked by a series of bad decisions, made one more, in deciding to go all the way. Despite the fact that much of the evidence was complicated, and many witnesses uncooperative, the prosecution team of O’Connell and Zlotnick made it look easy. It was in fact a bloodbath. The jury, in less than two hours, convicted Govan on all counts.
The sentencing phase was interesting. Judge Philip Pro made remarks to the effect that it was a shame that the California state justice system had been so lenient in its treatment of Govan over the years, that perhaps harsher punishment may have provided a wakeup call. But this was federal court and these were federal offenses, and the slap on the wrist days were over. When Judge Pro announced the sentence, Govan turned to his attorney and said “did he just say 260 months; I ain’t no Al Capone”!! And the Short Dog was right, Capone only got 120 months.
So after the convictions were secured and the smoke cleared, there was just one piece of unfinished business, our fugitive, Dionne Chappelle. Acting on the wildest of hunches, I contacted LA County welfare office to see if she was collecting benefits, and surprise, surprise she was. So arrangements were made for her to be sent an appointment letter, requiring her to appear at the welfare office for an interview, to “reapply” for benefits. When Chappelle arrived for her scheduled appointment, I was sitting there waiting for her, and was later able to deliver her into the very eager arms of the Pissed Off Prosecutor. She too pled in short order.