A man whose gang has been targeted in Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal gun charge after police found a gun under his car seat earlier this year.
Ronald Harris, who according to police is a validated Gangster Disciple and a convicted felon, stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bill Carter in a yellow jump suit, his hands shackled. He then pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge that will likely send him to a federal prison for about three years -- his first time in a federal penitentiary.
The Violence Reduction Initiative offers a second chance for felons if they choose to turn their life around but brings down the full measure of the law if those in gangs or groups that are warned choose to ignore the message and keep shooting.
But the gang killings in Chattanooga are not decreasing. There are already more gang-related killings this year than all of last year.
TIMELINEApril 2013: Mayor-elect Andy Berke first pitches VRI to cityJuly 2013: Berke marks 100 days in office, promises the city will see fewer shootings by 2014December 2013: Berke pledges to bring VRI to ChattanoogaMarch 2014: Police and city leaders hold the first call-inJune 2014: Richard Bennett, the main contact for gang members in VRI, is arrestedJune 2014: City and police leaders cut ties with BennettJune 2014: The city asks for a new community partner to replace BennettJuly 2014: City choses Hope for the Inner City as Bennett's replacementAugust 2014: Police say 58 people have landed jobs through VRISeptember 2014: Two of three charges against Bennett are droppedOctober 2014: Police plan to expand the VRI effort to target non-gang membersSource: Times Free Press archives
The police are targeting the Gangster Disciples, the Bounty Hunter Bloods and the Athens Park Bloods, documents show. These are groups who have been warned but continued to act violently. Police Chief Fred Fletcher said the police are focusing efforts on the most violent gangs.
But Chattanooga police wouldn't confirm that Harris was part of that enforcement action against the Gangster Disciples or whether Harris is a part of VRI. But Fletcher said on Wednesday it was "a pretty good assumption."
Police have confirmed that seven felons involved in VRI are currently in the federal system. Still, they will not say who those felons are and what charges or penalties they face. They said they have communicated about the federal cases to gang members, but do not want them to be publicly humiliated.
"We don't want to advertise it to the broader community," Fletcher said. "Their groups are held accountable but we do not want to embarrass them."
Harris' attorney, Public Defender Anthony Martinez, said he didn't know why police had targeted Harris. He didn't know if his case was linked to the VRI, neither did Harris' family.
His mother, his great grandmother and his wife said that Harris turned his life around after he got out of jail in 2010 on supervised probation. Harris's record shows he was convicted of both theft and assault charges in 2009 and 2010.
"I don't understand why they picked him," said Harris' wife, Dianna. "He's not like one of the bad guys out there killing somebody."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at [email protected] or 423-757-6659.