Rochester, N.Y. -- More often than not, illegal guns lead to violence on Rochester streets. But how do they get there? And, why do so many guns land in the hands of criminals where they can destroy lives?
Sean Carroll investigates the inner workings of one gang to provide some answers.
The Joseph Place Gang
Joseph Place is a one-block, dead-end street off of Joseph Avenue in Rochester.
It’s a street that tells a story; it’s a story that begins a decade ago with the "Joseph Place Gang."
"They mostly dealt in crack, powder cocaine, heroin, and they had pretty good marijuana trade as well," Lt. Joseph Morabito, the Commanding Officer of the Greater Rochester Area Narcotics Enforcement Team said. "The violence escalated with the size of their business."
An intensive investigation revealed the Joseph Place Crew operated and grew from 1996 to 2002. Around that time, a series of violent events caught the attention of authorities.
Just prior to 2000, in Southwest Rochester an innocent grandmother is gunned down on her porch--the apparent victim of a stray bullet from a gun that was later traced back to the Joseph Place Crew.
In 2001, Rochester police raided a home at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Joseph Place. While executing a drug warrant, an encounter with the occupants led to a police officer shooting and killing a man.
In 2001, another homicide on Joseph Place involved gang members and friends of the gang.
In 2002, a Portland Avenue shooting kills a man investigators call an "associate" of the Joseph Place Gang.
Michael Lawandus, Resident Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said, "The firearms were used for protection of the drug houses, protection of the proceeds, protection of the workers and the drugs themselves."
Lawandus and Morabito began an intensive investigation with local and federal authorities that eventually resulted in indictments and prosecution for nearly 20 members and associates of the Joseph Place Gang.
The Gang Needed Guns
U.S. Attorney Terrance Flynn of the Western District of New York said, "This gang, led by a guy named John ‘J.J.’ Cruz, owned several homes in the area and were running the street like a drug market."
To manage that market, Cruz and his Joseph Place Gang needed guns.
"With the drugs, comes the guns," Flynn explained. "They follow each other, because you need the guns to do the drug business. They're intertwined."
In all, some 75 guns are directly or indirectly linked to this gang. Each arrived on the streets of Rochester in one of three ways.
The investigation and prosecution revealed that ten of those guns started out in Atlanta, Georgia. They made their way to Rochester in the hands of gang member Rodney Bellamy.
"One of his sources for supplies of cocaine was down in the Atlanta area," Lawandus said. "So, on one of his trips he brought up ten firearms with his drugs."
Fifty guns are linked to a Rochester man named Luis Robles, who was purchasing the guns legally and locally, and then turning them out on the street.
"In this case, he did not have a prior violent record," Flynn said. "He, therefore was allowed under the law to buy a gun so he became quote 'The Straw Purchaser' for the other people he gave the guns to."
Authorities said that before Robles was caught, his pistol permit listed 63 handguns; at least ten of those can be directly linked to the hands of J.J. Cruz and his Joseph Place Gang.
"When we put Mr. Robles in prison, that was his first time," Lawandus said.
Other Straw Purchases, burglaries, and robberies added to the gang's stash.
Once fully armed, the gang’s business on Joseph Place began to boom.
Homes Become Armories
"They have the guns readily available to them," Morabito said. "It may be hidden in a bush, it may be on a porch, it may be 10 or 15 feet away from them, but not necessarily held on their person."
"They used the houses as places to stash, not only the drugs, but worse, to stash the guns," Flynn said. "People think they're just drug houses. They become armories. That's exactly what they are."
Armories had replaced homes, a gang replaced neighbors, all on a one-block, dead-end street known as Joseph Place.
"The problem with the guns is once they get into the community they stay in the community," Flynn said.
In all, nearly 200 years in prison sentences and probation were handed out to roughly 20 men and women connected to this case.
In March, the leader of the Joseph Place Gang, J.J. Cruz, was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.
Cruz pled guilty to gun and drug charges, and, at one point, considered withdrawing his plea.
Cruz’s lawyer told 13WHAM News that Cruz has no prior criminal record, and intends to file an appeal.