CHICAGO (CBS) -- Gang members have been using lightly-guarded South Side rail yards as shopping malls, making off with dozens of firearms over the past few years, and authorities said their exploits have been contributing to the rise in violence on Chicago streets.
Street gang thieves repeatedly have broken into box cars at Norfolk Southern Railway yards on the South Side, and made off with more than 150 guns in three heists since 2014.
"Unfortunately, it's very easy for thieves to break into these train cars," said retired U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Tom Ahern. "They break in, they steal whatever items are in there."
Part of the problem is Chicago is a national hub for railroads, with hundreds of trains passing through the city each day, and often forced to sit idle waiting for other trains to cross in front of them.
"There's no city like Chicago where every major railroad comes together," said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert and DePaul University professor. "You have dozens of interfaces. That means small yards spread around town, and that creates these vulnerabilities."
One of the rail yards is at 63rd and State, is close to New Beginnings Church, where Rev. Corey Brooks is pastor.
"These guns not having security, that is the issue," he said.
On Sept. 18, 2016, a half-dozen semi-automatic rifles and 27 handguns were stolen from a rail car near 77th and Avalon, the 2 Investigators confirmed last year. It was reported to Chicago Police 11 days later -- for unknown reasons. No weapons have been recovered. The suspects remain at large.
In May 2014, 13 Smith & Wesson military-style semi-automatic assault rifles with 30-round magazines were stolen from a freight car near 63rd and State.
In April 2015, 111 firearms were lifted from a rail car at 80th and South Chicago Avenue. Within weeks of that heist a number of the weapons were used in "unrelated incidents throughout the city of Chicago," according to court filings. Only 16 of those guns have been recovered, according to hundreds of recent court records reviewed by The Associated Press.
"The perpetrator has a real incentive to get rid of the merchandise as quickly as possible, since it's traceable, and that means these guns end up ... cash is paid there in the neighborhoods," Schwieterman said.
The guns in the 2015 theft had been on their way from New Hampshire-based firearm manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. to Spokane, Washington at the time. Instead, the .45-caliber revolvers and other firearms spread quickly into surrounding high-crime neighborhoods.
One was used in a Jan. 22, 2016, shooting. Police woke an attempted-murder suspect and found one by his bed. Another was in a dealer's home amid 429 bags of heroin. Police recovered another during a traffic stop; the driver said his friend had just been shot 10 times and he had to protect himself. "It's a war going on over here," he told police.
"We're already dealing with the consequences of individuals who are shooting individuals on a daily basis," Brooks said.
On the night of the 2015 theft, gang members found and kept a shipment of women's sandals, according to filings in the federal case of seven suspects arrested later in 2015. Finding guns later was luck, not an inside job, prosecutors said. New pretrial filings describe one thief using expletives to convey the excitement as he ripped open boxes of guns: "Oh man!" he says. "These ... are pretty!"
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) was so concerned about the gun heists, she wanted to hold a public hearing in 2015 to question railway representatives. She said the ATF and Norfolk Southern "strongly encouraged" her not to go public, for fear she would expose serious security deficiencies.
Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said in an email to the AP it was "mutually agreed" with aldermen to focus on investigations rather than disclosing "specific (security) techniques" that could aid thieves. Dowell's spokesman said she wouldn't answer questions on the yard: "We're focusing her time on other things now," Kevin Lampe said.
Terpay insisted Norfolk Southern is "doing everything within (its) power to prevent thefts," including more patrols and K-9 units. She didn't provide other details.
Chicago's biggest rail yards are on the gang- and homicide-plagued South and West sides where most of the city's 762 killings happened last year.
Chicago's leaders regularly blame lax gun laws in Illinois and nearby states that enable a flow of illegal weapons to the city's gangs and criminals. But community leaders and security experts say no one seems to be taking responsibility for train-yard gun thefts.
Residents near the Norfolk Southern rail yard – which runs parallel to the Chicago Skyway for several miles – are angry the multibillion-dollar railroad isn't doing more to stop the thefts.
"In a place where murders seem to be happening every single day, the last thing we need in Chicago is a rail yard with guns being stolen," Brooks said.
Ahern called the thefts "a serious (security) breakdown that needs to be addressed."
There's little incentive to spend millions fortifying yards, because railways are well insured and don't take a big financial hit when cargo is lost, said Frank Scafidi, an ex-FBI agent and spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. He said railways weigh costs such as new fencing against the odds thieves will "win the lottery" and pick the one boxcar with guns out of thousands without them.
"They are willing to take the risk," Scafidi said.
Outside his church, Pastor Brooks tugs on razor wire that was once strung atop a fence separating a church basketball court from the yard. It has long since rusted and largely fallen away. Children climb the fence effortlessly to fetch balls that go over.
After the latest gun heist in September, several posts on Brooks' Facebook page asked: Would there be more urgency if the yard was in an affluent area?
No arrests have been announced in the most recent theft, or the one in 2014.
Such boxcar burglaries have happened elsewhere, including of 100 assault rifles from an Atlanta train in 2012. But the frequency in Chicago stands out, and it has a lot to do with the city's role as the nation's freight-rail hub.
One shipping-industry adage goes: "Cargo at rest is cargo at risk." And in Chicago, because of track congestion, cargo is often at rest. Some 500 freight trains vie daily for limited track access, leaving some waiting for days — making them easy targets.
Some gangs treat rail yards as if they were shopping malls.
Suspects in the 2015 theft stole from trains "on a regular basis," say filings. They describe the thieves circling the Norfolk Southern yard late on April 11, 2015, hunting for trains to hit. Elgin "Rat" Lipscomb allegedly told his cohorts, including Alexander "A-Dog" Peebles, "We going to make some money today."
The train with guns stopped at 1:20 a.m. The thieves belonged to two gangs and teamed up only after running into each other in the yard because they couldn't whisk enough guns away alone.
A railway worker discovered the theft at 7 a.m. after spotting broken locks and bolt cutters. Within hours, the gangs were selling the stolen weapons, valued at around $50,000 in all.
Two informants helped catch the suspects, most of whom are awaiting trial, after their arrests for burglarizing another train.
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