Just 23 years old, John Gassew has been arrested 44 times, mostly on charges of sticking a gun in people's faces and robbing them.
But in the eyes of the law, Gassew isn't an armed robber.
He's never been convicted.
Despite being called one of the city's more prolific, and sometimes violent, stickup men by police - they say he bashed a delivery man over the head with a bat, shot at a 13-year-old neighbor, and smashed in the face of a robbery victim - Gassew has been sentenced to jail only once, for a drug charge.
The Northeast Philadelphia man has become so confident in his ability to beat charges, police say, that he openly scoffs at the system. In December 2007, officers arrested him as he ran down a street, leaving behind a car that police said was filled with the loot from 21 robberies he committed in just one weekend.
"It looked like a store in there," said Detective Bob Kane.
As Kane and Detective Robert Conn of the Northeast Detective Division tell it, when they confronted Gassew with four trash bags of evidence, he leaned back in his chair and told them he'd take his chances in court.
"The bad guys know that if they come in the front door, the back door is usually open," Conn said.
It's an all-too-common story in Philadelphia: A small-time criminal emboldened by a system that fails time and again to put him away graduates to more violent acts and, eventually, a standoff with police.
Gassew has beaten cases in almost every way - including three trials in which he was found not guilty after witnesses changed their story on the stand or were found not credible.
"Twenty-three years old and 44 priors. There's no excuse for that," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
"A second chance? OK. A third chance? OK. But how about a 30th? At some point, you have to realize this guy's a menace to society. You can't keep cranking him out," said Ramsey.
After a decade of attempts to crack down on gun crime, the streets of Philadelphia are still awash with armed robbers, and the courts are unable to put them away even when they are caught red-handed.
The numbers are stark.
Thousands of armed robberies in the city never result in an arrest. Of the 9,850 gunpoint robberies reported in the city in 2006 and 2007, only a quarter were brought to court, according to an Inquirer analysis. In the end, only two in 10 accused armed robbers were found guilty of armed robbery.
"There's a law on the books that enhances the penalty when you commit a crime with a gun. It's not enforced," noted Ramsey, referring to the state's mandatory minimum five-year sentence for brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony.
"There's no disincentive to carry a gun," Ramsey said. "Why wouldn't you carry a gun?"
One result: Among the 10 largest cities in the nation, Philadelphians are the most likely to be robbed at gunpoint.
As The Inquirer reported Sunday, Philadelphia has the nation's lowest conviction rate for felony crime. And among the four violent crimes - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - robbery was the most out of line with the national average.
In the 75 largest counties in the country, the conviction rate for robbery is 69 percent. In Philadelphia, it's 35 percent.
"People know you can do whatever you want and, more likely than not, nothing's going to happen to you," said District Attorney-elect Seth Williams, who worked for 11 years as a city prosecutor.
So far, Gassew's bet has paid off.
His cases have been tangled for nearly two years in the failings of Philadelphia's criminal court system. Prosecutors have withdrawn all but one of the 21 cases stemming from his alleged December crime spree, mostly because the witnesses did not appear.
In some cases, witnesses slogged down to the Criminal Justice Center in Center City and burned hours waiting in court for the case to be heard, but grew weary of the lost pay and grinding pace. Almost all eventually lost interest, allowing Gassew to walk.
"Our biggest obstacle isn't solving crimes," Conn said. "It's getting people to come to court."
Gassew, reached at home in October, declined to comment, referring questions to his attorneys. His attorneys also declined to comment on his cases.
'How do you like me now?'
When Gassew was growing up, people in his neighborhood called him "Chucky," a reference to the freckle-faced doll in the 1988 horror film Child's Play.
Like many youths in the justice system, Gassew had a rough home life.
His grandmother, Eleanor Riley, 78, felt bad for Gassew because, according to her, he was physically abused as a boy. His parents fought, she said, and Gassew and his father would often sleep on the porch when his mother was mad at them.
Reached at her home, Gassew's mother declined to comment.
Riley, who has attended each of her grandson's three trials, said Gassew showed problems early. He would bang his head repeatedly against a metal door, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was smart and had decent grades, his grandmother said, but took to a different kind of education, one his father gave him.
"He was always going along with his dad to steal cars and such," Riley said. Gassew's father has a lengthy criminal record. He could not be reached for comment.
Riley lives in an aging duplex on Haworth Street in the Frankford section. On a recent afternoon, she was walking to the store to get a part for her hot plate. Her stove had not worked for weeks.
She had hoped to buy this rickety house long ago, and she saved her money. But in 2002, she put her dream aside to help Gassew pay for a private attorney.
Gassew was arrested 11 times as a youth, and was adjudicated delinquent for car theft and sent to a detention center. By the time he was 15, in 2002, Gassew faced his first trial as an adult.
A 13-year-old girl who lived next door said Gassew pointed a sawed-off shotgun at her and asked, "Do you all want to die?", before firing at her. A judge found the story credible enough to allow Gassew to be tried as an adult. But a different judge found him not guilty.
In May 2004, Gassew was charged with clubbing a pizza-delivery man over the head with a baseball bat and stealing about $100. The victim, who spoke only Spanish, identified Gassew at the scene and later in court. But Gassew was found not guilty after a witness changed her story on the stand.
Prosecutors said she was scared. Another neighbor, who also identified Gassew, failed to appear. Even a codefendant in one of Gassew's robbery cases said he was scared of him.
Police say they had reason to be frightened. His own aunt, Neilene Calloway, took out an emergency restraining order on him in April 2005 after several armed men came looking for him at the house.
According to court documents, she had kicked Gassew out. To get back at her, police said, he smashed out the windows of her 1985 Ford Crown Victoria. The next day, as she stood looking at a tangle of wires and hoses dangling from the motor, Gassew spotted her from the corner and ran up to her.
"You better stay in the house, bitch!" he yelled, according to court records. "I'm gonna f- you up."
She ran inside and looked out her window to see her nephew jumping up on the hood of the car, laughing and taunting her.
"How do you like me now?"
Gassew's cousin Kathryn Moody, 28, said Gassew is like a brother to her. She acknowledges he never hung with a good crowd.
"But just because he's accused of something doesn't mean he did the crime. He was never convicted."
Gassew has a caring side, she said. He went to New Orleans to help after Hurricane Katrina.
Moody said her cousin has two personalities - one charming, one devious.
Jennifer Mulholland, who was a bartender at Brian's Sports Bar in Frankford, got a taste of that.
Gassew drank there often, she said in an interview, and befriended her.
One night in May 2006, Gassew said good night and left. A short time later, a man wearing a mask burst into the bar with a gun in his hand and demanded that she empty the register.
Mulholland thought it was Gassew. "Quit playing," she told him.
"It's not a joke," the robber replied, pointing the silver gun at her head.
"I knew it was him," she recalled.
He grabbed her by the neck and told her to open the register.
She gave him the money.
Mulholland, whose father is a police sergeant, said she was prepared to testify.
"I never got a court notice," she said.
On a recent morning at the Eighth Police District in the Northeast, the small courtroom is a swirl of confusion. There are armed robbers, victims, witnesses, and drunk drivers - and relatives of them all.
A slow exchange of stares spreads down the row of metal folding chairs as people size one another up.
To those attending court for the first time, it looks like a makeshift courtroom. But veteran defense attorneys, judges, cops, witnesses, and seasoned defendants like Gassew know it as something else: a graveyard.
This is where Philadelphia cases come to die.
Of robbery and aggravated-assault cases filed in 2006 and 2007 in Municipal Court, about half were immediately tossed or withdrawn - and never went to Common Pleas Court, where felonies are decided.
Crowded and chaotic courtrooms tend to discourage witnesses from spending too much time in court.
"It's like cattle being herded through the building," said Williams, the incoming D.A. "After the second time, I might be like: 'I'm just not going anymore,' " he said.
The way it works now, assistant district attorneys often get their cases the night before, call witnesses, and hope they show, he said.
As proceedings drag on and continuances are issued, people just get worn out and cases collapse.
Williams says defense attorneys tell their clients: If the people testifying are "civilians" - victims who are not involved in criminal activity – we're going to win.
That problem is magnified in armed-robbery cases, where witnesses may be the only evidence prosecutors have. The crimes are often committed in an instant by a stranger and mostly at night. A gun is seldom recovered. Neither is the cash, wallet, or purse.
Unlike in some states, where police may testify about a witness' statement in a preliminary hearing, Philadelphia judges generally bar those statements. Court rules give prosecutors three attempts to get their witness to court and show a judge that they can make a case. After "three strikes," the case can be tossed.
"It's like a symphony orchestra, and everything has to be in tune," said Assistant District Attorney Peter Erdely.
Some defense attorneys are so adept at exploiting legal rules that a delayed trial has earned its own moniker. It's called a Philadelphia special.
Witnesses and victims say the court system adds insult to injury.
"They call us and tell us they feel like they've been victimized twice," said Conn, "once on the street, and again when the court process begins."
String of holdups
Police say Gassew's epic string of robberies began with Antoine Bell on Dec. 7, 2007. Bell had just received his first paycheck when he was robbed outside Danny Boy's Irish Bar II on Torresdale Avenue in Holmesburg.
Emily Poe, 27, and her friend Christy Zepp were next.
Poe had just left the Polish American Citizens Harmonia Club in Bridesburg after helping Zepp tend bar and clean up. The two left around 4 a.m., started their cars, and shivered together between them as they talked.
After the women said good night, Poe turned to walk to her car when she saw two men wearing hoodies coming toward her. One of the men carried a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.
"I basically walked into them," she said. "I'm like, 'This is not good.' "
Poe ran to Zepp's car, but the gunman caught her. He held the shotgun to her head so hard it bruised her face. He told her to shut up, and when she wouldn't stop screaming, he put his hand over her mouth. Meanwhile, his accomplice rifled through the car.
She seized on the thought of her young daughter.
"It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me," she said.
The men robbed both women and left.
With no cell phones, the women raced to find a working phone. They eventually drove to an off-ramp of I-95 and flagged down a truck driver.
They called 911.
It was 5 a.m.
Timothy Hriczo was just returning to his mother's house in Mayfair from an early-morning run to an ATM.
As he approached his door two men, one armed with a black-and-silver gun, robbed him.
"I didn't even hear them. They just popped up out of nowhere," said Hriczo, now 43, who said he had crossed paths with them moments earlier about a block from his house.
"They got me for $100. I didn't never get that back," Hriczo said.
But the three robberies were just a warm-up for the holdup gang.
Saturday would be the big night.
A Saturday night onslaught
Gassew and his crew picked off their first two targets around 11 p.m., police say.
On Dec. 8, 2007, Gassew and his crew allegedly robbed Tyrique Gordon and his friend on the 5500 block of Torresdale Avenue, taking money and a black-and-yellow Chicago Hornets throwback jersey. Police say they later found the jersey in Gassew's car.
A half-hour later, the men allegedly robbed Abdudzhabor Mansurov as he delivered a pizza on the 4000 block of Howland Street. Mansurov called police and gave them a description of the robber's car, a white Chevrolet.
After allegedly robbing one more victim on the street, they hit Danny Boy's, the neighborhood bar on the ground floor of one of a long string of pleasant rowhouses fronting Torresdale Avenue. From inside, patrons can hear the rumble of the Route 56 bus, which replaced the trolley car in the 1980s.
Jennifer DeThomas was working the bar that night. Her friend Marie Morano was keeping her company.
It was after 1 a.m. when a regular ran inside to warn them that armed men were out on the street, robbing people. Those inside rushed to lock the doors, but it was too late.
Four men, two waving guns, burst through the doors. One man wearing a mask over half of his face did all the talking. Witnesses later identified him as Gassew.
"He was the nasty one," said Morano, a nursing student.
"That was the most scariest time ever."
One man, she recalled, resisted Gassew's order to turn over any money, taunting the gunman that the silver gun didn't even look real.
Gassew didn't appreciate the jibe, said Morano, who said she was terrified that the gunman was going to start shooting.
"He said, 'You think it ain't real?,' and he slammed it on the side of the bar," recalled Morano, who said that she turned over three rings and a bracelet.
DeThomas, 32, the barmaid that night, said that when she saw the four robbers enter, she quickly ducked under the bar and called the police and texted her boyfriend.
She remained hidden until the gunman ordered 60-year-old Veronica Thomas, who was cleaning up, to open the register. Thomas didn't know how.
"He had the gun in her face," said DeThomas, so she came out from under the bar and opened the register. "I was definitely scared out of my mind."
Even so, DeThomas said, she thought the gunman was pretty nice, for a robber. "I'm not going to hurt you," he whispered kindly. "Just give me your money."
Thomas said she never got a look at the gunman - and didn't want to. All she was focused on, she said, was the gun. "It was a big old silver gun," said Thomas.
The robbery lasted from 15 to 20 minutes.
The men continued the felonious rampage outside.
Edward Winton was walking along the 6400 block of Marsden Street when a group of men pulled up in a silver and white car. A man pointed a gun at Winton and ordered him to turn over his stuff. They took a Motorola cell phone, Winton's Rocawear jacket, and $15.
Before the robbers were done, they would also run into David Carrasquillo, smashing a gun into his face so hard he required stitches.
By now, police were searching the neighborhood for the busy robbers. When officers happened upon a white 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier, police said, they caught Gassew and Jarrick Dennison as they were running away.
Inside the car was a jumble of cell phones, jewelry, and clothing. Police realized that more people had been robbed than they thought - certainly more than the calls they received.
Almost all the victims identified and recovered their personal belongings, including the Hornets jersey, necklaces, earrings, and MP3 players.
They even found personal identification of some of the victims.
Conn and Kane sorted through the loot to reconstruct what happened that night. Over the next few months, they would track down victims and see if they were willing to file charges against Gassew.
Gassew was arrested on charges of robbing 21 people that weekend. Police also charged Dennison and Robert Mitchell, 21, with robbing some of those 21 and many others. In all, police said, 45 people were robbed by the crew that weekend.
Two years to the day from the start of the robbery spree, Kane and Conn sat in their office going over the photos of his car.
The pictures show a pile of cellular phones on the front seat, a cigarette box with several wedding bands in it, at least four or five coats - enough swag to fill four trash bags.
"I'm not sure what more you'd need to get this guy," Kane said.
In Philadelphia, of course, you need something that is often scarce: a witness.
"Solving the crime is the easy part," Conn said. "Getting witnesses to show up for court, that's the hard part."
Serial-robbery cases are difficult to win. Traumatized witnesses cannot always identify the gunman. Often, all they see is the gun.
Prosecutors declined to discuss Gassew's cases. But in general, they said, they must prove to a judge that a defendant carried out the crimes in such a similar and signature fashion that it is almost certainly true that he committed all the robberies.
That requires getting all the witnesses to a preliminary hearing at the same time - a challenge in the most efficient court system, and a virtual impossibility in Philadelphia's.
In Gassew's case, prosecutors subpoenaed at least 10 witnesses.
One was Morano, the nursing student robbed at Danny Boy's.
After Gassew was arrested, she said, the police seemed confident in their case. They talked about 50 cases against him. They predicted that Gassew would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Morano said she was willing to testify against Gassew. She even went to hearings downtown.
Once, she sat in the courtroom near Gassew's relatives. Even so, she said, she remained willing - and so were a number of other victims from that night.
"We went to a couple of hearings. There was a lot of us," said Morano, who said she had still been waiting for another call to head back to court.
Every time she showed up for a hearing, she said, it was postponed. Eventually, she missed a date, and the case was withdrawn.
Winton decided not to testify.
"I just let it go," he said.
DeThomas, the bartender, said she never got a look at the gunman and didn't want to testify. "I didn't want to get involved."
Hriczo said he, too, decided not to appear as a witness.
"I just didn't want to be bothered with it," said Hriczo, who figured police had enough witnesses.
Thomas, the woman who was cleaning the bar, still has the four subpoenas for various court dates in 2008, and said she thought she was on standby to testify. She said that Morano had gone on several occasions, but that the case kept getting postponed. "I would have went," said Thomas.
But no one called her, she said.
Thomas was dismayed when an Inquirer reporter told her that the charges against Gassew had been dropped. "Those boys robbed a lot of people that night," she said. "A lot of people."
Thomas stopped cleaning bars after that night.
She said it's no wonder people have no faith in the Philadelphia court system. "I lost my confidence in the courts a long time ago," she said. "This just put the icing on the cake."
'The right choice'
As for the detectives, they understand what the law demands to take someone's freedom. They also understand the realities of the streets.
"I don't blame the D.A.'s Office for trying to show that this guy was committing a lot of robberies," Conn said. "They made the right choice."
"But to get all those witnesses in court at the same time is not likely to happen."
What prosecutors needed was some luck. They got it in the form of Emily Poe and her friend Christy Zepp, the women who were robbed at the beginning of Gassew's alleged string of robberies.
With those two women poised to testify, Gassew's codefendant Dennison decided to plead guilty.
At Dennison's sentencing hearing in November, his attorney likened Gassew to a pied piper, taking advantage of his client's limited mental capacity to hook him into a robbery spree.
Dennison admitted his role in the robberies that night. He took jewelry and cash, while his partner leveled the gun at the terrified women, said prosecutor Caroline Keating.
"What I did was wrong," Dennison told the judge. He was sent to state prison for four to 10 years.
In laying out the state's case, Keating, who specializes in tackling complicated cases involving repeat offenders, took a moment to emphasize how difficult it had been to win a conviction. "Your Honor, this case took a year, it had three defendants, and took a year to get to the preliminary-hearing stage," Keating said. "Unfortunately, we could not get the witnesses to appear."
Dennison refused to testify against Gassew. And Gassew, a veteran of the system, told detectives he was taking his chances.
One left out of 21
Emily Poe has every reason to give up. But she doesn't want to let her friends down; they're cops.
"They told me I had to do it."
When she picked Gassew out in a photo array, she said, "I just knew it was him. I could feel my heart racing just looking at the photo."
Then began the real ordeal. She said she went to court many times.
She waited hours, only to sit in the hallway. The prosecutor warned her it would be difficult to coordinate the cases, given all the witnesses, so she tried to be patient.
But she felt uncomfortable in the courtroom, worried that Gassew's friends or family could see her.
Poe acknowledges she missed some court dates. She had to work, too, she said. Her friend's testimony in July 2008 was enough to keep the case alive.
Poe has not heard from prosecutors for months, but a few weeks ago, she got some news from a police officer friend that shocked her: Gassew had been shot by police after allegedly robbing several convenience stores. "I thought, 'That's impossible. He's in jail. How could you rob 45 people with a deadly weapon and still get out?' "
Gassew got out in October after his mother posted his bail, said his grandmother. Within a few days, police say, he picked up where he left off.
On Oct. 26, they say, Gassew walked into a store at 2634 Bridge St., beat two employees with a handgun, loaded a black bag with cigarettes, and took $630 from the cash register.
Two days later, he allegedly walked into a 7-Eleven store at 8101 Oxford Ave. in the Fox Chase section and smashed Joseph Massey in the face with a gun.
On his way out, police say, Gassew ran into two people and, wielding a black semiautomatic handgun, asked: "You don't see anything, right?" before speeding off in a stolen 1993 Dodge truck.
In the meantime, Officer Christian Buckman, a 13-year veteran, heard a flash over the police radio and immediately spotted the truck from his cruiser.
Police said Gassew led Buckman on a high-speed chase that ended with his truck smashed into a tree on the 6000 block of Oxford Avenue.
Gassew ran west, down Benner Street and into a parking lot.
Buckman went after him and ordered Gassew to stop several times, according to a police report.
Gassew "turned to the officer with his hand in his hood and the officer fired several times," the arrest report states.
Wounded, Gassew struggled against the officer as Buckman sought to subdue him.
A witness said she heard the officer screaming at the man to get down on the ground. Gassew was bent over by her car. She saw him get up and the officer fire again as he ran away. She called 911.
In the truck, police said they found a loaded .45-caliber Hi-Point, a cheap and popular gun.
Gassew was charged with robbing the two convenience stores, fleeing police, and stealing the truck.
Police say he was shot four times. He almost died, but doctors at Albert Einstein Medical Center brought him back. He lost his sight in one eye and almost lost his arm, his grandmother said. He is being held in the infirmary at the city Detention Center after failing to post $210,000 bail.
Gassew is expected to recover in time for his trial in May for the one remaining case left over from his 2007 robbery string.
Poe plans to be there.
"The entire system in Philadelphia is screwed up," she said. "I'm not scared. I'm tired of going to court."
Contact staff writer John Sullivan
at 215-854-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Inquirer staff writers Nancy Phillips
and Craig R. McCoy
contributed to this article.