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The Gun King
A middle-class college student from the Chicago suburbs used Facebook to sell firearms to gangsters. But was he a kingpin or a scapegoat?

Filed 6:00 a.m. 11.01.2018

An aerial view of Chicago's South side.

The Gangster Disciple opens his phone and thumbs through some of the pictures on his message app: Glocks, Smith & Wessons, an AK-47, all arranged neatly on coffee tables and in dining rooms, five in one shot, seven in another, 15 in another. There’s even an old cowboy revolver with a wooden handle. “This is just from the last week,” he says. He’s been saving them up for me.

“What is that?” I ask him. “A Colt?”

“Something like that,” he answers.

I point at a black tactical weapon, the kind soldiers and SWAT teams carry. “What’s that?”

“An M4.”

“And these are all being offered to you?”

He nods. “Mmm-hmm.”

The Gangster Disciples are Chicago’s largest and most notorious gang. They live in the heart of Chicago’s murder zone, the five troubled neighborhoods in South and West Chicago that generate nearly 40 percent of the city’s murders and surrender their residents to prison at rates as much as 40 times those of the city’s most crime-ridden white community. The Disciple sitting next to me—I’m going to call him TJ—is a good-looking guy in his late 20s, dressed in jeans and a Billionaire Boys Club T-shirt, a black acrylic watch cap and a brown flight jacket with an American flag on the shoulder. His belt has a big gold M for a buckle and cost a lot of M too: $500 retail.

He was born and raised in a neighborhood called the Wild 100s, the hottest hot spot in the murder zone, and joined the Gangster Disciples when he was 10 or 11 years old. He lost a few feet of his intestines after getting shot on the street. And he lost a few years in prison.

David Lewisbey.

I met TJ because I was looking into the case of David Lewisbey, a middle-class college kid who was arrested in 2012 for trafficking guns from Indiana to Chicago and became a human symbol of gun violence, invoked by everyone from the Chicago Tribune to Fox News to President Obama. At his sentencing, the judge called him a perfect example of how guns “get onto the streets of the city of Chicago, into the hands of gangbangers who then shoot them and kill people with them.” He gave Lewisbey the highest punishment possible under the law—17 years, just three years short of the average sentence for first-degree murder. It was the longest gun-trafficking sentence anyone at the court could remember.

But looking at crime through the eyes of the authorities is like diagnosing an illness by asking the doctor how he feels. You might learn enough to treat the obvious symptoms, but you’ll never understand the underlying disease. How did a college boy like Lewisbey get mixed up with a street gang? Was it just mutual greed? A sense of shared danger? Did he come to embrace their vision of the world? Could that explain why guns became as synonymous to Chicago as deep-dish pizza?

So I tracked down TJ. Two minutes into our first phone call, he said he knew the case well. He’d followed it from arrest to trial and even knew some of the people involved. “They really railroaded him,” he said. “The sentence for selling guns is zero to 10. No way you’re going to get the max unless you have multiple felonies.”

But why should he talk about it? What was in it for him?

Because Lewisbey’s story points to the larger mystery, I said. Why does America have such astoundingly high tolerance for gun violence? Why does it have so much violence?

Gun-control advocates tend to blame high rates of gun violence on high numbers of guns, which is understandable because the two rates line up like identical twins. Second Amendment fans put the blame on modern culture. As Indiana state Sen. Jim Tomes put it during one of the many battles between Indiana and Illinois over Indiana’s permissive gun laws, “It doesn’t matter where the guns come from. It’s a societal problem in Chicago.”

This makes Chicago the perfect entry point to a deeper understanding of America’s endless plague of gun violence.

Although it isn’t actually the most violent American city, a distinction traded between smaller cities like St. Louis and Detroit, it’s much more violent than any other large American city—in the year Lewisbey was arrested, its murder rate was nearly three times that of New York. But easy access to guns hasn’t caused the same problems in New York and Los Angeles, as the NRA frequently points out: that same year, Chicago police confiscated nearly nine times as many guns as the police in New York City.

Supply is always dependent on demand.

From there, a long series of questions flowed. Chicago’s gun culture had become so normalized that even an ambitious young man from a middle-class Chicago family could see a little arms trafficking as a plausible side job. How did that happen? Why is the demand side so high? What was different about Chicago? Could looking at such an extreme case help us understand the patterns of that kind of change? Could it teach us how to intervene before the demand for guns starts feeding on itself?

“If you came to Chicago,” TJ said, “I could blow your mind.”

I already had a ticket, I told him. But he veered off into other topics, meandering from one to the other while probing my attitudes on race, politics and the criminal justice system. He challenged me with outrageous contrarian statements. “Once again, you’re buying the media narrative. There’s no spike in crime. They’re not cracking down on guns. This shit happens every day.”

When he was satisfied with my answers, he said he’d take me around. Not because it would do any good, but just to get it off his chest. “I want to show you certain things and certain places to prove a point,” he said.

“What’s the point?” I asked.

“I want to show you the trap we’re in.”

At Fort Dix Federal Prison, David Lewisbey is already waiting at one of the laminated tables in the visiting area. He’s wearing prison khaki, his hair is in dreadlocks and he’s down to 250 pounds—he got ahold of his nutrition, he says.

He’s calm and very serious. His friends told me he was a fun-loving people person, “always a happy dude,” but today there’s no small talk. He’s been in prison six years, with another 11 to go, and he’s ready to vent.

Item one: a magazine article. He takes the stapled pages out of a manila folder and pushes them across the table. The story’s about a raid on one of El Chapo’s hideouts, and the opening spread is a police-evidence photo of seven guns on a stack of $100 bills bigger than a king-size bed, $207 million in all. It’s identical to a photo the prosecutors used against him, he tells me. “They said this was the profit and weapons from my purchases. I said, ‘Judge, this isn’t mine.’” He even remembers the file number: Exhibit 41D. In dreams and idle moments, it comes rapping and tapping at his chamber door: Exhibit 41D, nevermore. It’s one of his symbols of the world’s injustice.

He’s not saying he didn’t buy and sell guns. He did, and lots of them. He went to those Indiana gun shows and scooped up everything that appealed to him. Some he kept; some he sold to friends. But thousands of other Americans did the same thing. He was just the unlucky guy who got picked to be the scapegoat for gun violence, someone they could punish in public before going back to doing the same thing they were doing before. “From the president to the governor to the mayor of Chicago,” he says, “I was used for political gain.”

The day it all started, he was just back from the University of Houston for the Christmas holidays and vigorously celebrating his 23rd birthday, sleeping late and leaving his clothes on the floor. He hit the garage-door opener and slipped out past his mother’s Mercedes. He was on his way to a party.

He got five miles. The fleet of police cars came out of nowhere, lights flashing. He stopped in the middle of the highway, and ATF agents came bursting out of their doors. Next thing he knew, he was in the back seat of a squad car, and an ATF agent was asking if he knew someone named Winston Geralds, also known as Worm.

“I don’t know the guy,” he said.

We have information that proves different, the ATF agent told him.

“OK,” Lewisbey said, “we know each other.”

The agent told him they had enough evidence to put him away for a long time, but they might be able to get him a break on his sentence if he agreed to make recorded calls to his customers. That’s when Lewisbey made the snap decision that turned the course of his life.

“You’ve got me,” he said, “but I ain’t doing nobody else.”

His timing couldn’t have been worse. Ever since the Columbine High School killers slaughtered their classmates with guns bought from unlicensed gun-show dealers, Democrats across the country have been at war against the “gun-show loophole,” a laxness in the law that lets people sell weapons from “personal collections” without doing background checks or keeping sales records. Because 21 states permit the loophole and 29 states don’t, the smuggling market has become so tempting that estimates of the number of criminally involved guns sold as “personal” weapons at gun shows range from 23 to 33 percent. Police officials in Chicago say that out-of-state guns account for nearly 60 percent of the guns found at crime scenes. Now the media was back to calling the city the Murder Capital of America, and the new Democrat in office was firing off one gun-control proposal after another—a stricter registration program, a ban on concealed handguns, another on assault weapons, another on high-capacity magazines. But the mayor’s biggest target was the unregulated sales at gun shows just across the state line in Indiana, the source of 20 percent of the guns Chicago police officers seize at crime scenes. On the steps of city hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters that “transfers of illegal guns” should concern everyone, “whether you are a Democrat, whether you are a Republican, whether you’re rural or urban or suburban, whether you’re from Illinois or Gary, Indiana.”

Chicago police say out-of-state firearms, including a large number from Indiana, are used in 60 percent of the city's gun crimes. Here, customers line up to enter the Indy 1500 Gun and Knife Show in Indianapolis in January, 2018.

Lewisbey had the curse of a colorful story too. A 23-year-old high school football star with a straight-A average and a football scholarship, he was accused of buying his wares with a big wad of cash, stuffing them in a duffel bag, driving them across the border in a rented blue van and selling them to the Gangster Disciples. One of the guns had been used in a double shooting just a few weeks later. Also, Lewisbey weighed 300 pounds, and his nickname was “Big Man.”

The media ate it up. While he was still trying to make bail, the Chicago Tribune called his case “a textbook example of how criminals can exploit existing gun laws.” During his trial, WGN-TV said Indiana’s gun-show loophole was “why this case against Lewisbey and his partners is so important.” CBS featured his “gun-smuggling scheme” in a segment called “Chicago Reels from Another Week of Violence.” Obama referenced him during another battle to close the loophole. “Folks will go to a gun show and purchase a whole bunch of firearms,” the president said, “put them in a van,” and deliver them to the streets of South Chicago. Lewisbey’s prosecutors responded to the public mood, charging him with one count of unlawful sale of firearms, two counts of unlawful transportation of firearms and two counts of crossing state lines with the intent to “engage in the business” of selling firearms without a federal license.

Lewisbey sighs in frustration. “They made me sound like the Chapo of Chicago,” he says.

He thinks he has a shot at a new trial because of U.S. v. Hubbard, a precedent he dug up in the prison law library, but he has to represent himself because he’s broke, and his mom already spent at least $60,000 on useless lawyers.

“I’m so tired of this,” he says.

We take TJ’s car because it has tinted windows. As he pulls out of the hotel parking lot, a black Ford Explorer slips in behind us. He stomps on the gas, blasting forward half a mile before the Explorer gets through the light. He zooms up an on-ramp for South Chicago and slaloms through gaps in the traffic for a mile or two to show off his skills, then slows to ordinary reckless speeding.

A few minutes later, 10 at most, one of his phones rings—he has one in his lap, one in a cup holder and a couple of others stashed away somewhere—and he tells me to turn off my audio recorder. A moment later a raspy male voice comes through the dashboard speaker. A guy he knows has 14 or 15 guns available, the man says. The guy even has “a 10,” a 10 mm handgun known for its big bullets and destructive power—and a kick that proved too strong for FBI agents, who stopped using it in 1988. “Who makes the 10?” he asks.

TJ usually sounds remote or grumpy, but he’s never in a hurry. “Glock makes one,” he says. “Smith & Wesson makes one.”

“I want that motherfucker,” the man says. “I told him, ‘I’m ready right now.’”

Problem is, they’re waiting on somebody they call “Dude.” It isn’t clear whether Dude is financing the purchase or part of the purchase or if he’s their gang leader, but nothing can proceed without him. They’ll just keep in touch and stay ready.

A few minutes later, TJ takes an exit ramp into the Far South Side. He drives a few miles and turns into a shabby residential neighborhood, stopping in front of a narrow two-story house. Standing vacant and alone in a weedy lot, it’s a row house without a row. He leads the way up the cracked cement sidewalk to a metal gate. “This is one of our buildings,” he says in a confidential voice.

Inside, it’s a construction site. TJ just tiled the kitchen and bathroom, and now he’s redoing the floors—the floorboards currently stacked in the corner will go along the walls, stained lighter to brighten the room. The building cost less than 50 grand, and they expect to get $1,500 in rent, so it’s a nice little investment.

He goes upstairs and comes back with a big bag of weed. Plopping it down on the kitchen counter, he digs out a scale and starts weighing it out 3 grams at a time. This is just a sideline, he says. He’s got all kinds of deals going. He’s vague about the details, but he drops a couple of references to “swipes,” which is slang for credit card fraud, and mentions an interest in computer scams. He doesn’t run bitches, he says, but he doesn’t judge the ones who do. Down here you have to hustle 24-7. Hustling is a way of life. Everybody’s on a cliff face, reaching for a rope. That’s what people from outside don’t get. They have opportunities. In South Chicago, all people have is obstacles. “We’re two different worlds,” he says, “and neither one understands the other, but the world with all the power doesn’t give a fuck about the world beneath it—it never has and it never will. I live in reality; I don’t live in a dream world,” he concludes. “One plus one equals two, no other way around it.”

A view of the closed Crispus Attucks School on Chicago’s South Side.

Weaving in and out of the side streets, TJ pulls up to a small dark house and leaves me in the car, engine running. A few minutes later, he comes out of the house and slips the car into gear. He stops at another house and then another. This leads us to the Wild 100s, where he slows down.

The neighborhood doesn’t seem so bad at first, just row after row of two-story saltbox homes with little yards, some with porches and porticos. As we pass a house with Christmas lights in the windows, he says, “That’s where I grew up.” But after a few minutes the dark shadows between the buildings get darker. Some of the houses have bars on the windows. Some of the streetlights are broken.

TJ knew the rules by middle school. This side of the block is Gangster Disciples—the other side is the Vice Lords. If you met a girl at the mall who lived three blocks in the wrong direction, there was only one good move: “Bitch, you gotta come meet me on the corner, but I’m not stopping. You gonna be right there, or I’m gonna be gone.” He joined the Disciples when he was 10 or 11. It was fun at first, mostly just hanging out with the guys and smoking weed. The downside risk was a big persuader too. “If you say no, motherfucker knows where you live.”

We drive on, and he points to a bare stretch of sidewalk. “That’s where I got shot,” he says. It was a gang thing, a business dispute.

I ask him how often conflicts like that come up. Once a year?

“Fuck, nah. I wish.”

More than once a year?

“Maybe about six,” he says. “And that’s just me personally.”

“Even after you got shot?”

“Of course,” he says. Getting shot isn’t a get-out-of-gang card. When the call comes, you gotta show up. The streets are like prison that way, ruled by a law outside the law. Which is another damn good reason to buy a gun. “With a gun you can get a dude in a choke hold and put the gun to his fucking head and say, ‘You ain’t gonna fuck with me no more. Right?’” TJ says. And not because you’re a thug with no father—because it’s the best move on the table. “You gotta apply pressure. You don’t apply pressure, motherfucker gon’ think you a punk, so now he gonna try you.”

TJ takes pride in his criminal skills. He always parks back end in for a fast getaway, never misses a turn on the back roads, never hurries a decision and rarely drops his guard. He builds an impression of power by dropping hints of big scores and a careful investment strategy. Walking out of a restaurant one day, he noticed another car parked back end in and veered off at a 90-degree angle—an evasive maneuver, almost a reflex. As I walked on, blithely unaware of any conceivable risk, he turned back to me and hissed: “You’re thinking of the wrong things!” Which meant that he was thinking of the right things, that he was closer to reality and the laws of survival. Like a medieval knight practicing his jousting or a missile crew caught in the drama of a countdown, he had learned to take pleasure in the proximity of death.

Now his phone’s vibrating again. He puts it on speaker, and another low male voice comes out of the static: Something something Ruger.

“It’s definitely going to blow your ass down,” TJ answers. “I’m going to come check it out.”

“I’ll show you on FaceTime,” the other man says, and a moment later the screen of TJ’s phone shows a table covered in guns. The camera zooms in on a big handgun.

“That motherfucker’s chunky,” TJ says. “What’s it hold?”

“Eighteen.”

“Let me get that,” TJ says.

When he breaks the connection, he tells me he’s not buying all these guns to sell. Sure, he takes a little cut for his trouble. But if you get a great deal on a hundred rolls of toilet paper and take a little cut when you pass them on, does that make you a grocery store? The point is, he gives most of the guns he buys to his friends. Because then his friends will be safe, and when his friends are safe, he’s safe.

Attendees at the Indy 1500 Gun & Knife show in Indianapolis in January.

Between 2007 and 2017, Chicago police didn’t make a single arrest for gun trafficking. That’s because there’s no federal law against gun trafficking, and all violations of the existing laws are so difficult to prove: It’s illegal to “engage in the business” of selling guns without a license, but the statute doesn’t say how many guns you have to sell to engage in business, and people in states like Indiana can still buy or sell as many guns as they want without a license for “improving or liquidating a personal firearms collection.” It’s illegal to sell a gun to someone from another state, but it’s hard to prove that someone did it unless you catch him in the act. It’s illegal to knowingly sell a gun to someone who plans to use it in the commission of a crime, but it’s hard to prove the “knowingly” part unless you capture the trafficker’s inner thoughts in writing or audio. It’s illegal to lie in the application to purchase a legal gun, which gives prosecutors a small but crucial opening against “straw purchasers” who are secretly buying a gun for someone else. Except you don’t have to fill out an application when you buy a gun from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show.

Because of this legal minefield and all the loopholes, prosecutors in Chicago usually charge traffickers with “unlawful sale of a firearm.” But the maximum sentence is only five years, which makes the expense and time investment of a court trial a huge lift for a small win.

These obstacles posed a daunting challenge for Chris Parente, the lead prosecutor in Lewisbey’s case. But a win on gun trafficking in the middle of the new mayor’s crackdown on guns would be a political success of significant proportions, and the evidence his team assembled against Lewisbey seemed overwhelming: They had video of Gangster Disciples selling the guns Lewisbey bought in Indiana to a confidential informant in five deals over the course of a single weekend in April 2012. They had testimony from the gun-show dealer who sold him the guns and the Gangster Disciples who sold them, even a witness who would testify that he saw Lewisbey lurking in an alley, gun in hand, while his gangster go-betweens made one of the deals with the confidential informant in the street. Prosecutors also had dozens of incriminating texts from Lewisbey’s phone and social media accounts—“Cuzzo, you don’t know nobody that need some bangas” was one of the milder ones. And if all that weren’t enough to prove he was “engaged in the business,” Parente had the startlingly blatant status updates on his Facebook page, BigDaveAgainstTheWorld:

You don’t want to live my life. It’s dangerous. I must keep a banger.

I would put some real shit on here but I ain’t trying to get indicted. Feel me?

The loudest one in the group be the first one the feds come get.

Lewisbey’s phones and Facebook accounts provided a rich trove of incriminating evidence, including 113 celebratory photos of guns and cash he took and often posted on a public page for the whole world to see—an Intratec firearm, a Glock, a silver revolver, a Ruger in a form-fitting gun box, two rifles, three handguns, a stack of cash, cash and a Glock, stacks of cash on a car seat, a Glock on a man’s lap, a stack of cash and a SIG Sauer handgun.

A
number of photos were recovered from David Lewisbey's cell phone, including photos of thousands of dollars in cash,
one
of him holding cash,
a
bundle of bills,
a
Glock handgun, a type Lewisbey sold,
an
FN pistol,
and
a SIG Sauer handgun, a type of gun Lewisbey was known to have bought.

On March 31, 2012, three weeks before the gun deals, he snapped a picture of cash in a McDonald’s bag.

On April 22, 26 minutes after the first deal, he took a shot of cash stuffed into a glove compartment.

Thirty-nine minutes after the deal, he shot another pile of cash, and this time the serial number of the $100 bill on top matched the serial number of one of the bills the ATF’s confidential informant used to buy Lewisbey’s guns.

An exhibit presented at David Lewisbey’s trial by the U.S. Attorney's office, tracking gun deals and communications between Lewisbey, Levaine Tanksley, Winston Geralds and a confidential informant.

To prove that Lewisbey also tried to obstruct justice, the prosecutors had a formidable piece of evidence in the phone calls Lewisbey made to his mother from jail: “If you talk to Worm, tell him to go ahead and get put up,” he told her. “As long as he stay where he at and stay away from me for a minute, I’m cool.” An ATF slang expert was prepared to testify that “get put up” means “go hide.” Why would Lewisbey tell a member of his crew to hide if he weren’t guilty?

To TJ, the prosecution had it wrong, wrong, wrong. On the street, Lewisbey had a reputation for being a warm guy with a large group of friends—from the underworld to sports to college. Anything you wanted to know about, from scholarships to business to fraud and drugs, he knew somebody that could help out. But guns and drugs weren’t his hustle. “Don’t get me wrong—he probably dipped and dabbed here and there,” TJ says. “But as far as the street perspective of it, I know for a fact that he wasn’t living that life.”

Up ahead, on another dark block of saltbox houses, a big man sits in a car under a driveway light. TJ slows the car down to say hello. “You stopped calling me,” the man says.

“I ain’t your bitch,” TJ answers. “I ain’t finna blow your line down.”

The teasing goes on for another five minutes. When they’re finally warmed up, the man hops in the back seat, and TJ parks by an empty lot at the end of the block. The subject is guns.

“In Chicago,” his friend says, “motherfuckers want a gun before a car. I don’t give a fuck how old you is, you got some money, you get you a gun.”

I asked him why.

“Your gun, that’s your police,” he says. “I have a problem, I’ma call my gun instead of call the police.”

Beefs move fast and cops move slow, TJ says, at least in their neighborhoods—in wealthier areas the response time is much faster. So here the do-it-yourself ethos reigns. “My guy call me, tell me they killed his cousin? Ain’t no talking, ain’t no calling around,” TJ says. “We gon’ go over here, grab the shit, load up, wipe them motherfuckers down, get the cars, do what we gotta do.”

As brutal as this may sound, crime researchers and legal analysts say that “legal cynicism” and do-it-yourself justice are natural responses to a state that fails to maintain civic peace. The inevitable outcome is revenge cycles, factional war, widespread traumatic stress and the perverse urge to repeat the traumatic event—black men, mostly young black men, commit 71 percent of Chicago’s murders, and more than half of the city’s murder victims are also young black men, a staggering number considering they’re only 4 percent of the population. Just running with the wrong crowd raises their chances of being killed by 900 percent. The death rate of young men growing up in those five embattled neighborhoods is twice as high as the death rate of soldiers in Afghanistan. And the cycle of trauma and revenge replicates itself, spreading through the murder zone like an infectious disease.

“Have any of your friends been killed?” I ask.

“Hell, yeah,” TJ’s friend says. “Every year somebody get killed, feel me? All the way to mistaken identity and shit.”

And how many of their friends have guns?

“Everybody,” TJ says.

“Everybody,” his friend repeats. “Everybody I know got a gun.”

And how many guns do they own?

“About 13,” TJ says. “I got three or four rifles and 10 handguns.”

“Shit, I can’t even tell you,” his friend says. “I lost three this year, motherfuckers stealing them. Guns is in high demand. And guns are money too—you can sell one or use it to rob a motherfucker. You got a gun, you poppin’.”

They know about America’s long fight to keep guns out of black hands, from the “black codes” passed after the Civil War to Ronald Reagan’s embrace of gun control right after the Black Panthers held an armed protest, and their conclusion is the same as all red-blooded American gun owners. “It’s how you use them, for dumb reasons or good reasons,” TJ’s friend says. TJ upgrades that with a militant defiance straight out of the NRA playbook: “That’s my constitutional right, the right to bear arms! You mean to tell me because I have a drug felony or a gun felony, you’re taking my constitutional right? Well, fuck that!”

But why isn’t one gun enough? Or three? Or five? Why do they need so many? Doesn’t that just multiply their chances of getting shot?

“Cops get incentives when they get a gun,” TJ says. “They get a $1,000 bonus and a week off.”

“They don’t even ask, ‘Where the drugs at?’” he says. “It’s ‘Where the guns at?’”

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

The “incentives” are an urban legend, Chicago police say, but the hunt for guns is certainly fierce: Chicago police seized guns at a rate of 277 for every 100,000 citizens, more than three times the total of Los Angeles and New York combined. From the perspective of the street, TJ and his friend say, this was because the cops had become so thirsty. You’d be driving along perfectly sober with your license and registration, and the cops would just say, “Fuck probable cause—get outta the car.” If they found weed, they’d hit you with “Give me a gun.” Rat somebody out to cover your bare ass, in other words. Which meant you couldn’t carry a gun when everyone on the street had so much rat-suspicion and rat-paranoia up their own asses, they were ready to lash out at any stranger that walked by—especially when the stranger looked like them. If the stranger embraced the same defiance, the same hunger for manhood in a hostile world, he was the perfect depository for their rage, a sensitive instrument calibrated to register every contour of their grievance. Which meant you could get your ass shot off at any moment.

The result was a classic example of unintended consequences. Because the police were so thirsty for guns, guys in the hood had to stop carrying. But hood rats couldn’t tolerate the risk of being left out in no-man’s-land without protection, so they were smuggling and selling and buying more guns than ever. If the cops took one gun, they replaced it with two. They were stashing Glocks in secret cubbyholes and abandoned lots all over the city.

“My banger’s not on me, but it’s not far,” TJ says.

“You need a gun everywhere,” his friend says.

With the best of intentions, the police created the market incentive for an arms race.

But now they’re distracted. “We gon’ see one in a minute,” TJ’s friend says.

They’re both squinting through the back window, looking for movement.

“I was just behind ’em,” TJ answers. “Two transformers.”

Transformers are unmarked police cars, they explain, usually Ford Explorers painted in solid colors with no police logo and no lights on top, with two cops in front and two in back.

“Soon as you think about running, they hop right out that motherfucker,” TJ says.

“They ready to shoot you, chase you.”

“Shoot you, chase you,” TJ solemnly repeats. “They’re not fucking around.”

“You must feel like you’re being hunted,” I say.

TJ corrects me: “We are hunted. It’s a fucking trap.”

If “hunted” is your lens for the world, Lewisbey’s trial looks like a safari. The prosecutors didn’t have a single picture or recording of Lewisbey at the scene of the five gun deals they filmed in the spring of 2012. They had no hard evidence that Lewisbey was engaged in the business of selling guns on any kind of a regular basis. They had no hard evidence that Lewisbey ever sold any of the guns he discussed on Facebook and even some evidence that he wasn’t very eager to sell them—when one of his Facebook friends asked if he knew anyone with a shotgun, Lewisbey didn’t respond for five months. And if Lewisbey was a legal resident of Indiana, as he claimed to be, he had the legal right to buy as many guns as he wanted. Even moving them to Chicago might be legal because the prevailing court decision held that a person with dual residency in two states could move “a gun” from one state to the other, although the judge and the prosecutor couldn’t believe the presiding court intended “a gun” to cover dozens or hundreds of guns. That meant the whole case pivoted on a single point: Was Lewisbey’s Indiana ID card valid?

To overcome those obstacles, Parente wove an ornate tapestry of genuine evidence, circumstantial evidence, cooperator testimony and character assassination. With Facebook posts like “Get rich or die trying” and “I got the game in a knot and you can’t untie it,” he painted the picture of a thuggish hood with no respect for human life. He didn’t mention that many of the lines are actually song lyrics from hip-hop artists like 50 Cent and Gucci Mane, and the investigating officers refused to confirm it on the stand. The prosecutors wanted to keep the focus on Lewisbey’s gangster persona. How did he pay for the guns? “Just a big wad of dirty money,” one witness said. Did he carry a duffel bag and fill it with guns? “On numerous occasions,” the witness said. Another witness said he carried a big bag for a big guy called “Big Guy.”

“What kind of bag?” Parente asked.

“Like a duffel bag.”

He also focused on the cultural distance between the 11 white jurors and the people involved in the gun deals, like the time a cooperating witness testified that he was “waiting on the dude to bring some money.”

“Bring the money for what?”

“For the sales of the bangers.”

“For the sale of the what?”

“The bangers.”

“And that means what again?”

“Guns.”

He did it again a few minutes later.

“Holding a banger out?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a gun?”

“Yes.”

To bolster his case, he leaned on a series of cooperators, a class of witness that is called the “leading cause of wrongful convictions” by the experts at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. After a massive investigation into the Chicago Police Department in 2016, the Justice Department warned about the C.P.D.’s practice of arresting people and refusing to release them until they provide information on a crime. And nobody in Chicago has forgotten Jon Burge, the C.P.D. detective who tortured false confessions out of black suspects for 20 years in a city where the false confession rate is three times the national average.

But cooperators are also the pivot of the majority of criminal trials, and Parente needed them for two of his most crucial arguments. To support the charge that Lewisbey ran his business for four years, he produced a cooperator who said he met Lewisbey at an Indiana gun show in 2008 and saw him buy a lot of guns at some point afterward, date unspecified. To support the charge that Lewisbey was the leader of a conspiracy, he convinced one of the Gangster Disciples who participated in the gun deals to say he saw Lewisbey take the profits and pay all the helpers.

Finally, Parente brought a man named Daron Jones to the stand. His name was on the application Lewisbey filed to get state residency in Indiana. Lewisbey was childhood friends with Nathanial Thomas, Jones’s stepson. At issue was whether Jones had actually signed Lewisbey’s application. If he did, Lewisbey’s gun purchases would be legal as long as he hadn’t knowingly sold them to a felon, a minor or someone who intended to use them in a crime. And since Indiana didn’t require any proof of sale in the case of personal weapons, Parente’s prosecution stood to crash right into the gun-show loophole. Lewisbey’s criminal liability could vanish if Daron Jones said the signature was his.

Jones said the signature wasn’t his but admitted that his memory was sometimes faulty—at which point Parente cut the interview short and called Jones’s wife to the stand. She gave him a few useful details—Lewisbey didn’t have a key, he only stayed a few months—but flared when he pressed her. “He was allowed to come and spend the night whenever.” And when Lewisbey’s defense attorney got his turn at Jones, Jones admitted that all the rest of the handwriting on the application was his. He’d filled it out. When Lewisbey’s attorney asked if he’d signed it too, Jones hesitated and stumbled over his words.

A handwriting analyst could have resolved the dispute. But the way the legal system is set up, the prosecution and defense aren’t really pursuing the truth; they’re telling the story most favorable to their client—except in this arena, the quality of their narratives can mean the difference between freedom and a death sentence. Or freedom and 17 years. And Lewisbey’s attorney was about to risk it all with a desperate, swing-for-the-fences plot twist.

For more than 40 years, America has been conducting a vast experiment in punishment. To the most troubled neighborhoods in the country, already traumatized by high rates of poverty, mental illness, drug addiction and violent crime, we have sent zero tolerance and SWAT teams. We banished twice as many people to prison, mostly from those same neighborhoods. Then we doubled that number and doubled it and doubled it again. In the 41 years from 1973 through 2014, our imprisoned population rose from a low of 200,000 to a peak of 2,224,400. We believed what the politicians told us, that long sentences would keep “superpredators” off the streets, and we tried to ignore the negative effects this policy had on the communities where the prisoners lived before and after—traumatized children, economic insecurity and the vast army emerging from prisons with a stigma that made finding a job like winning the lottery.

A building in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, which had a homicide rate of 77 per 100,000 residents in 2012.

Then the National Research Council analyzed decades of data and declared the whole thing a failure. “Most studies estimate the crime-reducing effect of incarceration to be small,” the academy said in The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, and there was “no credible evidence of a specific deterrent effect.”

The only thing it was really good at was pushing ex-prisoners back into the underground economy of drugs and guns.

For TJ, this was just another example of the distance between his world and the straight world. “Lemme put it in layman’s terms for you, John,” TJ says. “Politicians and judges and police officers are vegans, and we’re the people who eat meat. They say, ‘You’re wrong, you’re killing living creatures,’ and we say, ‘Okay, maybe it is wrong, but our bodies need the protein.’”

Interrupting one of his many filibusters about the hypocrisy and corruption of police officers, I ask him if he ever met a good cop. “Good police?” he says. “Fuck no!”

“If they catch a guy with weed,” his friend says, “they’ll tell him, ‘Give me a gun, or give me a crib to hit,’ then they’ll go hit that crib and tell ’em the dude gave up their crib.”

“That’ll start a gang war,” TJ says.

But now it’s time to get back to hustling. For TJ’s friend, that means “bitches, streets, finessing.” TJ has a few more walnuts of weed to sell before we head up to Chinatown, where the Gangster Disciples collected a duffel bag full of Lewisbey’s guns. He’s going to show me the underpass where the deal went down.

As he makes his drops, TJ starts to wonder if this tour is worth his time. He finds a spot to stop—backing in, as always—and pulls up stories on his phones. “150 Guns Stolen at Norfolk Southern Railway Yard . . . Another Rail-Car Theft of Semi-Automatic Rifles . . . Andrew Shelton stole more than 100 pistols . . .” He also could have mentioned the two licensed gun shops just outside the city line, Chuck’s Gun Shop and Midwest Sporting Goods. They pumped more crime guns into the city than any other single source, about 12 percent of the total.

This is what TJ means when he says, “Shit happens every day,” his shorthand for the experience of violence as a moment-to-moment possibility. He’s saying that politicians and police and suburbanites can glance at the statistics or watch the horror stories on TV, but none of that matters in the real world. Spikes in crime don’t matter. Crackdowns don’t matter. People in poor neighborhoods have turned to crime since civilization began, which means they’ve been subject to spikes and crackdowns for just as long. In Chicago, that means using force on black people almost 10 times as often as on whites and getting away with it—only 2 percent of the 30,000 complaints about police abuse filed in the previous five years were sustained, and only 2 percent of those triggered any kind of punishment. The system is so stacked against victims of police abuse, the review board is forbidden from considering any previous complaints against an officer, “even where those incidents may include serious misconduct.” The real purpose of Chicago’s complaint system, the Justice Department concluded in a Jan. 13 report, was “misleading the public into thinking that accountability has been achieved.

Cruising through Chinatown, TJ points out the underpass, which is right next to the Chinese Community Center. The projects across the street are like a small city behind a fence, everybody living on top of one another with all their sore spots rubbing. “Ain’t no rules,” TJ says. “Anything goes.”

For a while, police wouldn’t even go in the gate.

Aerial views of Chicago's South Side and the industrial areas near the Calumet River.

Strike one was his refusal to cooperate. Strike two was demanding a jury trial, an option that has almost disappeared—only 2 percent of Americans who face criminal charges insist on a trial. So Lewisbey was already a candidate for Most Annoying Defendant before he decided to testify in his own case, a dangerous option that most defense attorneys vigorously discourage. Then he told the jury that he wasn’t running guns because he was such a successful weed dealer that he didn’t need the money. The headline in the Chicago Sun-Times captured the public reaction: Defendant Denies Selling Guns to Gangs: Trust Me, I’m a Drug Dealer.

Applying TJ’s metaphor of the trap, this would be the last turn of the key. Lewisbey had just turned 23. He didn’t have any money. Most of all, he had no way of knowing that the lawyer his mother had hired was under investigation (and would soon be indicted) for coaching witnesses. So he took his lawyer’s advice and repeated the answers the guy dreamed up for him, or so he says—repeated phone calls failed to get a response from the lawyer, Beau Brindley. That was perjury, and he deserved to be punished for it, he admits, but he was driven by another beginner’s mistake—there were things he wanted to get off his chest. With the indignation of an innocent man, he told me that Daron Jones went to the DMV with him to file that application. The DMV lady was standing right there when he signed it. That’s mandatory. A legal resident with all his IDs has to go to the DMV office with you and sign the application in front of them. Why would he fill it out and not sign it? Why didn’t anyone ask?

Did he buy and sell guns? Hell yes, he said. He did it for Worm that fateful weekend because he could get better deals and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Private dealers sell nearly half the guns sold in the United States, he said. “I seen it done every day at gun shows.”

Parente glimpsed an opening. What about the guns at issue? Didn’t he care what a customer might do with a gun he sold?

Lewisbey hesitated and made the most fateful beginner’s mistake of all—an honest answer: “I mean, no.”

Parente lunged. “You didn’t care? If he wanted to go rob something, you’re just going to get him the gun? You don’t care what he does with the gun you’re going to get him?”

Sensing a trap, Lewisbey doubled down. “I mean, is it really—am I supposed to care?”

Could there be more vivid evidence of a criminal mind?

The jury took only a few hours to convict him. Celebrations of the triumph of justice followed. “This is one of the most significant gun-trafficking cases we have prosecuted and one that effectively ended a steady supply of potentially lethal weapons from Indiana to Chicago,” the U.S. attorney declared. Looking forward, the Tribune editorial board called for tough justice: “Part of restoring law to lawless streets is enforcing serious penalties on lawbreakers.”

When the time for judgment came, the U.S. attorney sent the judge a fiery sentencing memorandum calling for a series of “enhancements” to the 10-year maximum: four points for knowingly trafficking guns to an individual who intended to use them for unlawful purposes, another four for leading a conspiracy of five or more persons, four more for using or possessing a firearm in connection with a felony offense and a final four for trying to obstruct justice with the “get put up” warning to Worm and his lies about being a big weed dealer. But the memo’s supporting arguments revealed the weakness of the most damaging charges against Lewisbey. The U.S. attorney said Lewisbey started buying “duffel bags full of guns” in 2008, a claim based entirely on an ambiguous statement from a single cooperator. Parente based a charge that Lewisbey bought more than 200 firearms, the number that triggered a 10 percent increase in his base sentence, on nothing more than an assumption: “A person who can so easily obtain 43 guns in a weekend certainly has the knowledge, ability, and resources to buy a lot of guns.” He even turned Lewisbey’s stable life and clean record into an indictment.

“The defendant was in a remarkable position to actually make something of his life. He had no criminal background. He had a strong relationship with his parents. He had a background in athletics and was attending college. He had opportunity after opportunity in front of him. But instead of capitalizing on that, he exploited it. He used his status as a non-felon to be the guy who could get the guns for the felons.”

In conclusion, Parente asked for the longest sentence the law would allow. “Given the current climate of violence and destruction in Chicago,” he said, “the message must be sent that supplying this city with undocumented, unregistered, untraceable, illegal guns will not be tolerated.”

The judge agreed, accepting all but two of the enhancement points. In his sentencing statement, he dismissed the idea that a first offense for a nonviolent crime called for mercy. Lewisbey “had a part” in the city’s plague of bloodshed, he said. “When you provide the tools, you are setting in motion a series of events, and you can’t just play ostrich and stick your head in the sand and say, ‘That’s not my doing.’”

So the message was sent. But how was it received?

Because human justice is a battle between competing narratives and the media usually loves competing narratives, it’s odd that Lewisbey’s back story failed to attract a single reporter. Nobody talked to Lewisbey’s football coaches or teachers. Nobody talked to his friends or his minister, Dr. Odell Sterling. Although his mother attended every day of the trial, nobody interviewed her or took any interest in finding out how Lewisbey grew up. His role in the drama was fixed—he was the thug with the big wad of money and the duffel bag full of guns.

But he wasn’t a thug. The Lewisbey family lives in a planned community well outside the troubles of Chicago. Their house has a two-story living room faced in glass, a two-story cathedral arch above the front door, a two-story garage and adventurous Miami-Beach-meets-Afro-Modernism decor. Lewisbey’s stepfather is a steady earner who manages a local graveyard. His mother is a patient-claims administrator at a hospital and avid church member. “No Ebonics in the house” is just one of her rules.

Her name is Felesa Melvin. When she greets me in the driveway, she’s dressed like a New Yorker in stretchy black leggings and a matching black top. She leads the way to the dining table and tells another story the jury never heard. Four of her friends had their sons killed by guns. Tracy’s was a random drive-by, Amy’s son was trying to break up a fight, the other two she isn’t sure what happened. But the point is, David knew those kids. He grieved for them. “The monster they painted my baby as, he was not that monster.”

At the trial the prosecutor made sure the jury knew Melvin owned a gun and her husband had a felony, casting two more shadows on the family. But her husband’s felony was for sleeping with a 17-year-old girl when he was 18, and the gun was a .22 David gave her because he wanted her to be safe—she hated guns. And that was just like the stories they told about David. The big wad of cash? All singles. He’d wrap a 20 around it so he looked like he had something.

The Facebook stuff was horrible to see, all that gangster rap and “bitches” this and that. David wasn’t raised to be disrespectful to women. But he posted other things too. She opens her laptop to show me some: “There is nothing God cannot do, so pray big, dream big, believe big and expect big . . . count your blessings . . . everything is a blessing.” But none of that came up in court either.

For her, the worst moment was when Daron Jones and Shari Lewis said David didn’t really stay with Nathanial, she says. The boys had been friends since ninth grade. “For the family to lie like that—he had the garage-door code and a key.” But the system does that to people. It has so much power, it can turn them against each other.

Up in her son’s bedroom, his pocket litter is still on the bureau. That’s his sneaker collection in the box. His football helmet’s still in the closet. His prom suit’s in there too, along with a paper pyramid he made in middle school. She lingers for a few moments, feeling his presence and his absence.

The way she sees it now, David got caught up in something his friends were doing. “Dave was hanging around some bad people,” she says, letting out a resigned sigh. Worm, for example. Worm was the first thing the police asked about when they made the arrest, and Worm was in the Gangster Disciples too. He and David had been friends since they were 13 or 14. She wonders sometimes how much of that Facebook stuff David really believed. Did he get caught up in all that hoodlum glamour? Did the world’s injustice make him bitter?

But then she stops to reconsider. No, bad was too strong a word. Worm had a sweet side. He was respectful. He always pulled up his saggy-ass pants before coming into the house. “Kids like that come from so many problems,” she says. “They go to the streets for love.”

Was Lewisbey guilty? At the very least, he knew where those guns were going and what they might do. And even though the law against making commercial sales without a license is rarely enforced, Lewisbey was probably guilty of that too. And maybe Parente was right; maybe he just saw an opportunity and took it. But the way Lewisbey sees it, he shouldn’t even have been charged with commercial sales. Gary Barrett did the exact same thing. He was the 53-year-old Sears manager who was listed in Lewisbey’s phone book under “Gary Glocks,” the one who sold Lewisbey 43 guns on that fateful April weekend in 2012. He was also the only “person of interest” in the case who wasn’t a black guy from Chicago, and the only one who didn’t get arrested—funny how that happens, right?

Everything else he did was legal, Lewisbey insists. He could buy and sell as many guns as he wanted under Indiana law as long as his state ID was legal. He could drive them from state to state too. It was even legal to sell them to Worm, who didn’t have a felony at the time. The whole thing was cut-and-dry and no big deal. “Worm wanted firearms. I knew Gary Barrett. Worm gave me his money for the firearms.”

Visiting time is over now. The prisoners and guests walk down a painted exit line until it splits in two directions. As we approach the splitting point, Lewisbey says he’s not letting things bother him too much. He’s been meeting interesting people. He quit smoking weed. “I’m studying real estate, Wall Street, getting into currency trading—I like the pound, yen, the Swiss franc. I keep myself busy.”

But in some of the photos he sent from prison, he’s standing with a man TJ identified as a notorious gang lord. There’s also a strain of militant thinking in his letters, bits of Muslim wisdom and bitter comments about unequal justice. And the question that sealed his fate festers in his mind. Did Gary Glocks care what happened to the guns he sold? Do gun-shop owners care? Do gun manufacturers care? Does the NRA care? Do politicians care? If you have a part in killings because you provide the tools, why aren’t all of them in prison for 17 years?

David “Big Man” Lewisbey will be out when he’s 37.

As TJ steers the car around the potholes of a scrappy back road near the Indiana border, he explains the difference between trust and loyalty. “You can trust someone to do a deal with them. Loyalty is you’ll stand with a person no matter what. So trust and loyalty are related, but they’re two different things.”

The point is, he’ll show me some things based on trust, but he won’t show me others—unless we get our relationship closer to loyalty.

He pulls into my hotel parking lot and reverses into a parking space. “The question I’m asking is, how much is it worth to you?” he says. “Are you willing to take a risk?”

I’d like to know more about the nature of the risk, I say.

He’ll explain upstairs, he says.

He’s in the easy chair now, kicked back with his feet up on the ottoman, looking relaxed and in control.

“You’d have to do something,” he says.

“What would I have to do?”

“What I can show you isn’t in Chicago,” he says. “It’s in Indiana.”

Figuring it out isn’t hard. I’m just like David, a mainstream guy with a clean record and a rented car. “You want me to drive?”

He nods.

“Across the border?”

He nods again. “It’s safe,” he says. “We know how to hide things.”

“Unless there’s an informant,” I say.

“There’s no informants,” he snaps. “I guarantee that.”

So the moment arrives. It’s not about laws, it’s just yes or no, in or out and yes is a down payment on loyalty. Yes is boldness in the face of danger and standing up like a man. No is being a pussy and missing out. So what is it? Are you willing to take a risk? Do you want to learn how to hustle? Even I can’t help being tempted by the mixture of adventure and opportunity. For a good story and general enhancement of my legend, it might be worth it. So what would I say if I had brown skin, listened to defiant hip-hop, and had childhood friends who grew up to be the Gangster Disciples?

And just like that, the moment passes.

“It’s too late,” TJ says.

That’s his final lesson. The tests of brotherhood and courage aren’t open book, and they’re not graded on a curve. They’re snap tests, and they’re always pass-fail. Until I can feel that feeling from the inside, I have no right to judge.

As we turn onto a more rural road, he relaxes and starts asking questions about how people get ahead in the straight world. The whole enterprise seems to puzzle him. It’s like something buzzing around his head that he can’t see. “I am trying to better myself,” he says. Right now, he’s trying to get into a building-trades union. Long term, he’s thinking real estate or maybe a franchise. “I don’t share that with many people because a lot of them shit on your dreams.”

But even when he becomes an upright citizen, he says, some things will never change. “I’m still going to keep my fucking guns. You never know when you might need them.”

About the Author

John H. Richardson is a writer-at-large for Esquire and has contributed to many other publications including GQ, the New York Times, The Washington Post and more. His essays have appeared in many anthologies such as Best American Magazine Writing, Best American Crime Writing, Best American Political Writing, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the author of “My Father The Spy,” “In The Little World” and “The Viper’s Club” and was awarded the 2015 Sidney Hillman Award for Journalism in the Public Interest.


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