Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The numbers in Jose Figueroa’s life paint a cautionary tale for any would-be crook dreaming of quick cash and maybe some Marlboro Red 100s.
Figueroa is 30 years old.
Nearly two years ago, he pulled a gun and robbed six convenience stores, striking four 7-Eleven locations and the Green Valley Grocery. At Green Valley Grocery, he fired a shot. The bullet struck a clerk in the abdomen.
Figueroa netted roughly $300 total and multiple packages of cigarettes from the robberies.
He’s now serving a 300-month federal prison sentence. When his 9,125 days are up, he will be 55 years old.
The Figueroa case, like others involving firearms, wound up before a group called Project Safe Neighborhood, which meets every other week in a boardroom on the fifth floor of the federal courthouse.
Project Safe Neighborhood is one of two law enforcement groups working behind the scenes to stem the amount of violent crime in the Las Vegas Valley. The other, an initiative led by Sheriff Douglas Gillespie called Priorities and Prosecutions, seeks to identify the valley’s most prolific criminals.
At Project Safe Neighborhood meetings, representatives from local police agencies, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gather to dissect gun- and gang-related cases.
They discuss the facts of the case and determine where the strongest prosecution lies — whether federal court, state court or a combination of the two. Possible prison time is a key consideration, said Eric Johnson, assistant U.S. attorney who supervises the office’s Organized Crime Strike Force Team.
In 2011, Project Safe Neighborhood members reviewed 245 cases, with federal prosecutors accepting 71 of those cases, Johnson said. Most of those cases began when a state authority, such as a police officer, arrested a suspect.
But a state arrest doesn’t necessarily translate to state criminal charges.
“I don’t think we shy away from federal prosecution if it warrants it,” Johnson said.
When cases come to the table, the Project Safe Neighborhood group looks at whether they involve a youthful offender who has committed prior violent crimes, an offender who’s a known gang member or a violent crime such as a commercial robbery, Johnson said.
One crime the group takes an especially tough stance on is felons illegally possessing a firearm.
“There is no excuse for that,” said Capt. David O’Leary of Metro Police’s gang crimes bureau, who attends Project Safe Neighborhood meetings. “Once you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re not supposed to have a firearm, so if you have a firearm, what are you going to use it for?”
In Las Vegas, police arrested 449 people in 2010 and 444 people in 2011 in connection with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, according to department data.
Nell Christensen, a chief deputy in the Clark County District Attorney’s Office who prosecutes gun crimes, said felons in possession of a firearm seem to be an increasingly common crime — perhaps because law enforcement has made it an arrest priority, sending a clear message to offenders.
“If you’re a prohibited person and you get caught with a gun, you’re going to be prosecuted by either the state or the federal government,” Johnson said. “We’re going to prosecute you in a way that we feel we can get the biggest hit in terms of driving that point home.”
If the group sends the case for federal prosecution and there’s a conviction, Johnson said the offenders would “end up going to jail, usually for multiple years.” The federal system does not have parole and typically carries longer prison sentences.
That’s one reason the group has started filtering many commercial robberies to federal prosecutors, Johnson said. If a suspect robs a business such as a 7-Eleven or Roberto’s Taco Shop, it can be prosecuted federally under the Hobbs Act, which prohibits robberies affecting interstate commerce. Such a conviction carries a 20-year maximum sentence, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
However, if the suspect possesses, brandishes or discharges a firearm during the robbery, the penalties increase. For instance, the penalty for brandishing a firearm “during and in relation to a crime of violence or drug-trafficking crime” carries a seven-year mandatory, minimum prison sentence, which would be served consecutive to any other sentence the court ordered the defendant to serve, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The penalty for second or subsequent counts under that firearm statute is a minimum of 25 years in prison, which also would run consecutively to any other sentence.
Figueroa, who was sentenced in August, avoided that scenario by opting for a plea deal.
The national program isn’t a new concept, nor it is new to Southern Nevada. It’s been operating for more than a decade, but law enforcement officials say it’s increasingly a key part of their strategy to curb violent crime, particularly firearm offenses.
“Everyone has gotten better at coordinating,” said Thomas Chittum, resident agent in charge of the ATF’s Las Vegas field office. “We’re as efficient as we’ve ever been right now.”
The group, whose members talk by phone about cases between meetings, reviewed 355 cases in 2009, 262 cases in 2010 and 245 cases in 2011, Johnson said.
“Hopefully, that shows a trend that the word is getting out because we’re seeing less cases come through the program,” Johnson said.
Starting this summer, Project Safe Neighborhood began loosely working with the like-minded Priorities and Prosecution group, which brings together department heads from local police agencies, the FBI, U.S. Marshals and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, among others. The group has met twice in the past four months to review a list of the top offenders, O’Leary said.
To come up with this list, working groups composed of detectives, crime analysts, prosecutors and civilian employees developed criteria to measure known criminals’ risk to the community, such as violent acts in offenders’ criminal history, their tendency to be near scenes of violent crimes and probation conditions, O’Leary said.
From there, the group formed a list of the top 10 offenders they believed posed the most risk to the public and forwarded those names to Priorities and Prosecutions for review, O’Leary said.
The exercise alerted top officials — and as a result, their chain of command — to known violent criminals who should be on their radar, O’Leary said. Identifying these top offenders ensures that, “when these people get picked up, we don’t miss an opportunity,” he said.
“We’ll take an active look at any one of these people to see if there’s any indication they’re involved in criminal activity,” O’Leary said. “I think we have an obligation to do that.”
If police wind up arresting a person deemed a top offender, it is likely Project Safe Neighborhood members already are familiar with the suspect.
“Each hand works with each other,” Johnson said. “We try to support their work in terms of people who they have rated as a priority, and they try to let us know who we should be concerned about.”
More than a handful of the people on that list have been arrested, O’Leary said. New working groups will identify other offenders for possible addition to the list, he said.
O’Leary said authorities have sought more collaborations, through groups like Project Safe Neighborhood and Priorities and Prosecution, given county budget problems.
“It’s become that much more critical as our resources shrink,” he said.
In the process, authorities hope to weed known criminals from the valley’s streets.
“Our goal with all of this is to try to prosecute the most violent people to the fullest extent we can,” Christensen said.