CHICAGO (AP) — The purported leader of Chicago's powerful Hobos street gang surprised courtroom observers by choosing to testify Wednesday at his own racketeering conspiracy trial, telling jurors that no such gang existed despite his full-arm tattoo emblazoned with the words — "Hobo: The Earth Is Our Turf."
Gregory "Bowlegs" Chester, 39, described his life to jurors as one marked by poverty growing up in the Robert Taylor housing project on Chicago's South Side, where he said "only the strong survived." He also spoke of the ridicule he faced because of his severely deformed legs caused by rickets, a rare bone disease.
In what is regarded as one of the biggest gang cases in the city's recent history, Chester and five other alleged Hobos gang members on trial at U.S. District Court in Chicago are charged with conspiring to extend their criminal empire. That conspiracy, say prosecutors, involved torture, armed robberies and nine killings, including of two police informants.
Asked about prosecutors' portrayal of the Hobos as an organized enterprise that struck fear across the South Side, Chester said, "There's no such thing." He insisted that the word 'hobo" tattooed on his arm merely referred to a beloved dead friend's nickname, not to any gang.
In an apparent bid to emphasize his disability when first called to the stand, Chester took a circuitous route from the defense table to the witness box that passed close to the jury box, moving slowly and limping heavily.
Under questions from his attorney, Beau Brindley, Chester explained how doctors had performed a painful procedure at least three times in his childhood of breaking and resetting his leg bones in a failed attempt to improve his condition. Asked if it was possible for someone who had such difficulty walking could possibly be a gang leader, Chester responded: "A crippled gang leader? ... No, sir."
Among Chester's co-defendants is purported Hobos hit man Paris Poe, accused of killing government witness Keith Daniels in 2013, shooting him around 25 times at close range while his horrified stepchildren screamed inside a car. During opening statements in September, prosecutor Patrick Otlewski described the six defendants as "an all-star team of the worst of the worst" who "terrorized the city."
Asked Wednesday if he ever ordered others to carry out hits on his behalf, Chester leaned into a microphone and answered firmly, "Never."
In the racketeering case, it's not enough for prosecutors to show the six defendants committed crimes: They must prove the six coordinated their illegal activity. And much of Chester's testimony went to that issue.
Chester promptly admitted he had been a heroin dealer. But he said his co-defendants, while close friends, had no hand in his crimes and he had no hand in theirs.
"They feed their family the way they do. ... I feed my family the way I do," he said.
Chester was expected to retake the stand Thursday.
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