Cuyahoga County

Statement by Cuyahoga County First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Duane Deskins on Juvenile Gang Complaint


Good Morning.

We are here today to announce the latest and most significant initiative by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty to reduce violence at the Juvenile Justice Detention Center – and to tackle head-on the Heartless Felons — the gang responsible for many of the most serious problems within this public building and in our neighborhoods beyond.

On Tuesday, an unprecedented team of prosecutors from our Juvenile and Criminal Divisions prepared and submitted for filing a 437-count complaint – the Juvenile Court equivalent of an indictment – against 43 members of the Heartless Felons.

Early Wednesday morning, our law enforcement partners from the Cleveland Police Department, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Police, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Marshals Service began executing warrants to arrest the 13 alleged delinquents who were not already in custody.

I am pleased to tell you that we now have all 43 Heartless Felons in custody, and the arrests were made without incident or injury to any officers.

For more than a decade now, this gang has been a violent predator within Ohio’s youth and adult correctional facilities, county detention centers and on the streets of Cleveland and other communities.

Two weeks ago, a Cuyahoga County Grand Jury indicted some of the top adult leaders of the Heartless Felons charging them with murders, kidnappings, robberies – and with Participating in a Criminal Gang, a count that encompasses both their violent actions and the fact that they belong to an organized criminal enterprise with a defined command structure, internal code of conduct and identifying symbols.

That indictment was aimed at the adult wing of the Heartless Felons. The defendants include one of the gang’s founders, Julius Webster

This week’s 437-count complaint takes aim at the indistinguishable juvenile wing of the Heartless Felons – a criminal enterprise that in many ways has taken control of the Juvenile Justice Detention Center, terrorizing other residents, threatening and attacking staff, vandalizing the facility and undermining the authority of the Juvenile Court and the Detention Center it operates.

The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court was created in 1902 and the first detention center opened a dozen years later. The juvenile justice system is supposed to stand as parens patriae providing a safe environment where young offenders can learn respect for the law and public safety, and rehabilitate their lives – but the Heartless Felons charged in this complaint have deliberately made those goals impossible to achieve.

As newly chosen Administrative Judge Kristin Sweeney said during an interview with WCPN in February:

―The violence is increasing. I have some concerns about the kids and the staff. I don’t think we are able to provide them with the safe environment that they deserve.‖

We began this investigation six months ago because after a decade of increasing and unchecked violence in the Detention Center — enough was enough.

We organized a Detention Center Gang Task Force within the Prosecutor’s Office, and after lengthy investigation, we now have a clear picture of how the Heartless Felons operate within the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center.

All of the crimes that are discussed in this complaint took place within the Detention Center, where juvenile offenders are housed while they await their day in court. Our investigation focused on House Two, the most violent of the Detention Center’s five housing units.

We uncovered the Heartless Felons’ corporate hierarchy and system of advancement, its norms, codes and symbols.

More importantly, we uncovered how the gang’s leaders used violence to recruit new members and to intimidate other juveniles being held in the Detention Center.

We uncovered a system in which new members rose through the ranks by carrying out violent attacks on residents and adult staff ordered by those at the top of the pyramid.

We uncovered the way members of the gang ―tax‖ other juveniles in the Detention Center – extorting non-members to turn over their food or prescription medications to the gang if they want to avoid a beating.

We uncovered how the gang deliberately assaults and intimidates adult detention officers, vandalizes and disrupts the operations of the Detention Center, how it exploits the Detention Center’s well documented understaffing and undertraining, as well as safety protocols and procedures that, among other things, limit how the staff can respond to violent provocations and mandates that residents be grouped by age rather than by the risks they present.

We know that until six months ago, members of the gang believed they could intimidate and assault other residents or detention officers because those offenses would be charged, by law, as inconsequential misdemeanors resulting in no more court-imposed punishment or meaningful accountability.

Although most of the violent offenses were captured on videotape, the vast majority of the crimes charged in this week’s complaint had not been reported by victims or guards to the Prosecutor’s office.

Rather, these offenses were uncovered by our office as we began to develop a concerted response to violence at the Detention Center.

According to recent, published reports, violent incidents at the Detention Center increased nearly 160 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Some say that the violence in the Detention Center is caused by overcrowding, but, according to the Juvenile Court’s Annual Reports, the Detention Center had approximately 150 percent more bed space for juveniles in 2012 than it did in 2008.

Some say, the violence is because of increased juvenile population, but, according to the Juvenile Court’s Annual Reports, the Detention Center has reduced its resident population substantially since 2007. Indeed, according to the most recent 2012 Annual Report, on an average daily basis, the Detention Center was 45 percent below resident capacity.

Rather, we believe that a culture has developed here that assumed there was little reason to report criminal behavior or revise staffing, training, or operating procedures because nothing would — or could — be done.

That speaks volumes to the conditions we confront and must change here in the Detention Center and in our neighborhoods.

We applaud Administrative Judge Sweeney’s initial steps to improve the overall safety in the Detention Center. Her willingness to understand the problems and seek collaborative solutions is greatly appreciated.

Yet, the danger uncovered during the investigation compels a sense of urgency to this large and unfinished task.

We are here today to announce to the Heartless Felons, to other residents of the Detention Center, to the staff of the Juvenile Justice Center and to the community at large that there will be no more free passes.

Acts of violence conducted as part of an organized campaign of terror and extortion will have great consequences.

Let me describe this week’s Complaint.

It contains 437 charges for acts committed between February of 2012 and May 31st of this year.

This is the largest state gang case ever brought in Ohio.

And it is the first time a gang statute has been used against a juvenile gang for actions committed entirely within a correctional facility.

Those charges — which are at the center of this case — are:

Participating in a Criminal Gang, a second-degree felony;

And Engaging in a Pattern of Corrupt Activity, commonly known as RICO or simply racketeering, a felony of the first-degree.

Those two charges have been filed against every one of these individuals, who range in age from 15 to 17.

So our actions are aggressive. But the untenable conditions at the Juvenile Justice Center that worry Judge Sweeney and all of us here demand nothing less.

Consider the additional charges in this complaint:

  • 86 counts of Conspiracy
  • 56 counts of Robbery
  • 55 counts of Extortion
  • 49 counts of Simple Assault
  • 33 counts of Theft
  • 19 counts of Kidnapping
  • 15 counts of Attempted Felonious Assault
  • 8 counts of Disrupting Public Services
  • 6 counts of Menacing
  • 6 counts of Aggravated Riot
  • 5 counts of Aggravated Menacing
  • 4 counts of Intimidation
  • 4 counts of Vandalism
  • 3 counts of Assault on a Detention Officer
  • 1 count of Attempted Extortion
  • And 1 count of Inciting Violence

Let me repeat that ALL of these offenses were committed within the walls of the new Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center where we are right now.

Inside a place that by the court’s own mission statement is supposed to ―administer justice, rehabilitate juveniles, support and strengthen families, and promote public safety.‖

This Complaint is not an indictment against all juvenile offenders. Everyone knows that it is an only a small fraction of repeat offenders who cause most of the violence in our neighborhoods — the Detention Center is the same.

I want to point out that the 43 individuals we are charging represent fewer than two percent of 2,450 juveniles who spent time in the Detention Center this past year.

But this tiny minority cannot be allowed to rob, beat, vandalize, threaten, and intimidate everyone else here.

Let’s be clear: These 43 members of the Heartless Felons are not newcomers to neighborhood violence – or to the juvenile justice system.

Not counting the charges in the new complaint, they have a cumulative 493 prior delinquencies or pending charges on their records.

They currently await adjudication on charges that range from aggravated robbery and theft to felonious assault and aggravated murder. Three of these Heartless Felons have had homicide charges filed against them.

For our part, we are committed to using the tools we have to change the environment here.

We successfully sought court orders, moving the dangerous, older residents out of the Detention Center to the County Jail where they belong.

We have gone to court to trigger Serious Youth Offender specifications against Heartless Felons gang leaders and other predators who repeatedly and violently attacked other residents in ODYS facilities in order to have them moved to adult prisons and to have parole supervision extend past their 21st birthday.

We will seek legislation raising the penalties for assault against our detention center officers, juvenile judges and prosecutors from misdemeanors to felony status – just as they are for attacks on other law enforcement officers.

We intend to ask the Juvenile Court to let us try all 43 of these Heartless Felons (who are not already bound over) downtown -- as adults.

That means that when convicted they will serve their sentences in adult prisons.

In deciding whether to grant these bindover requests, Juvenile Court judges are supposed to decide if the young people are ―amenable‖ to rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

We think the fact that these 43 individuals have treated the Detention Center as a prep school for added violent crime demonstrates that they are not being rehabilitated here.

It is time to get the Heartless Felons out of the Detention Center so that young people who might benefit from a structured, safe environment have a chance to set their lives on a better path.

That simply will not happen when their options are to sign on for a life of crime or to face beatings and starvation.

And as long as the Heartless Felons are allowed set the tone here, that’s the choice.

This complaint is not the end of our investigation into juvenile gang violence either in the Detention Center or wherever else it takes root in Cuyahoga County. We will work with our law enforcement and community partners on prevention, intervention and enforcement efforts as part of a comprehensive anti-violence, public safety strategy.

The Heartless Felons have been operating here and in other state run facilities and on the streets for 14 years. We know it will take more than a few court cases to break this criminal organization and the others like it.

We are working with our criminal justice partners to hold juveniles accountable while on probation from Juvenile Court or parole from ODYS. We will develop other tools and partnerships to keep our communities safe.

The word partnership is key. All of us live here, work and invest here, worship here, raise our families and educate our kids here in Cuyahoga County. If we stand together, the gangs will soon know that we are too big and too great to fail.

Approximately six months ago, when Prosecutor McGinty asked me lead the Juvenile Division and more recently to serve as First Assistant Prosecutor in our office, we spoke of preventing more than we prosecuted – and we continue to work hard on

efforts to help young people make better choices and offer second chances to those willing to change.

But when a small criminal element disrupts those efforts, it is our duty to use the power of the law to stop it from shattering the hopes and dreams of so many young people and their families.

Once we break the power of the Heatless Felons and their violent counterparts, the troubled juveniles who want help will have a much better chance to get it. And when that happens, every corner of our community will benefit.


Contact: Joseph Frolik, Director of Communications and Public Policy. Email: Phone: (216) 443-7488; or Cell: 216-640-6186