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Feds, city team up to fight guns

IT WAS A BRIGHT Friday morning on bustling Lansdowne Avenue when Frank Lewis spotted his teenage target. He readied his Glock 9 mm.

IT WAS A BRIGHT Friday morning on bustling Lansdowne Avenue when Frank Lewis spotted his teenage target. He readied his Glock 9 mm.

Lewis pointed the gun out the window of his gold Buick LeSabre, aimed and fired at least seven shots at the teen, hitting him once in the back, according to court documents.

Two police officers, out cruising the West Philadelphia neighborhood that morning, April 29, 2005, heard gunfire and saw the fleeing LeSabre. Lewis was caught just seconds after allegedly pulling the trigger. He later was charged with the attempted murder of David Kennedy, then 17.

Despite his apparent connection to the shooting, Lewis, now 29, wasn't facing much time behind bars.

Kennedy, wanted by police for questioning in a year-old murder, refused to take the witness stand against Lewis.

Without Kennedy's cooperation, Lewis would face as little as probation or at the most less than two years in a city prison.

Then justice rang.

A prosecutor with the U.S. attorney's office asked the district attorney's office if he could adopt the case.

Two years later, Lewis was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, not for the suspected Kennedy shooting, but for merely carrying and firing the illegal Glock.

In the age of Stop Snitchin', Philadelphia's embattled law-enforcement community has found that federal court is the path to justice by circumventing tight-lipped thugs and wary witnesses who jam the wheels of the criminal-justice system.

For the last year, the U.S. Attorney's Eastern District of Pennsylvania has quietly teamed up with the six police divisions and created a good-guy superpower.

In a city battling a soaring murder rate, this partnership is a unique attempt to curb violence by sealing the "cracks" that allow criminals to walk.

"It was a natural case for them to take and for me to yield," said George Shotzbarger, the assistant district attorney who helped pass the Lewis case to the feds.

Shotzbarger theorized that without Kennedy's testimony, which was the best proof that the shooting had seriously injured him, the judge and/or jury might have sentenced Lewis only to less than two years in city jail.

"The episode was far too serious and far too ripe with possibility of death for that to be an acceptable result," Shotzbarger said.

The feds only need one of three things to build a case - a convicted felon caught with a gun or bullets; an individual apprehended with both a gun and a sizable amount of drugs; a person arrested for armed robbery in a store selling products made in another state and/or transported across state borders.

"When we have a felon caught with a gun, we prefer for him to go federal," said Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. "Nine out of 10 times, he will be going to jail. If he goes local, he might get probation, if that."

For gun offenses, the average federal sentence in the Philadelphia area is 9 1/2 years, according to the U.S. attorney's office, which boasts a 95-percent conviction rate in these cases.

On the other hand, a gun criminal in the city court system most likely will face a maximum sentence of less than two years in the county jail, city prosecutors said.

There's an added bonus. Suspects facing stiffer federal sentences are more likely to dime out their cohorts to the U.S. attorney's office than to the cops, police said.

Since 2001, the U.S. attorney's office has helped solve more than 130 Philadelphia homicides because suspects in their custody cooperate and pass on crucial information.

In that time, they have sent more than 1,600 area gun-related criminals to federal prisons.

The tight-knit alliance between the U.S. attorney's office and city police grew out of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, a Department of Justice initiative, established in 2001, aimed at reducing gun crimes across the country.

In the last year, Philadelphia has become the crown jewel of the network.

In 2006, the Department of Justice hailed the Eastern District of Pennsylvania office as having the most "outstanding" neighborhoods task force in the country.

One-fifth of the Eastern District's 90 criminal prosecutors are assigned to the six "working groups," connected to each police geographic area - Central, South, West/Southwest, Northeast, Northwest and East.

Each group meets monthly with representatives from the Police Department; D.A.'s office; city and state parole offices; agents from the FBI, ATF, DEA, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and the U.S. Marshals.

But the Hollywood stereotype of local cops and federal agents quibbling doesn't apply here.

"Everybody sort of checked their egos at the door because we all have the same problem," said U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan.

"Our objective is to bring everyone together and see if we can have a larger influence."

Local crime is a key focus in his office, Meehan said, because of his background as the former Delaware County D.A.

And some cops have worked closely with federal prosecutors, knowing they had the power to deliver longer prison terms.

Lt. Richard Brown, head of Central Detectives' Special Investigations Unit, is one of them.

In October 2004, four of Brown's detectives were in Strawberry Mansion because of an earlier shooting of a shopkeeper at 33rd and Huntington streets.

Out of nowhere, a band of gunmen started to shoot at well-known neighborhood drug dealer Charles Wesley, out walking with his fiancee and baby. The detectives were caught in the middle and returned fire, barely escaping death.

Top police brass learned of the gunbattle and were appalled that the thugs were brazen enough to shoot in front of detectives.

After Brown's men arrested six of the suspects, police officials not only invited the U.S. Attorney's office to pick up the cases, but asked that federal prosecutors begin to regularly team up with cops.

"We went to them for help," Brown said. "Our objective was to stem the violence as quickly as possible, and return the neighborhood to its peaceful coexistence that it once knew."

Now uniformed officers call their division's assigned assistant U.S. attorney with tips, while prosecutors tell cops how to spot a suspect worthy of federal indictment.

The Philadelphia program is so successful because of this consistent exchange of information.

The district attorney's office keeps a list of suspects worthy of federal prosecution and shares it with the other members of Project Safe Neighborhoods.

In late 2006, Frank Lewis was on the list. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Lloret saw Lewis' name and longed to take the case.

Lloret became aware of Lewis in 2002 when West Philadelphia drug kingpin Courtney Carter was indicted and Lewis was linked to the drug crew.

Although Lewis was suspected to be part of Carter's crew, which supplied cocaine to 18 street corners and grossed $24 million during its five-year run, Lewis never was prosecuted.

"We've been watching him for awhile, hoping that we could find a case to bring him up to federal court," Lloret said.

And now that Lewis will spend the next decade behind bars, Lloret said, his patience has finally paid off.

"It's a relief," Lloret said.

"There is one less guy out there shooting up the streets of Philadelphia in broad daylight."