Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth told members of the county’s Legislative Committee last week that his office did something a “little out of the norm” this year but that had a good result.
Forsyth said the criminal division of his office used investigative subpoenas that led to the arrest of 20 individuals on a wide range of felonies. As of last week, 17 of those arrested have been convicted and three are awaiting trial.
When the prosecutor’s office receives judicial approval to issue an investigative subpoena and then serves a potential witness with one, the individual is compelled to answer questions under oath from an assistant prosecutor, rather than from a police officer or detective. State lawmakers gave the state’s attorney general and county prosecutors that tool in 1995 when they amended Public Act 175 of 1927, also known as the Code of Criminal Procedure.
“Since 1995, the use of investigative subpoenas has been instrumental in solving more than 20 homicides and numerous other serious felonies,” said Forsyth. Those included armed robbery and arson.
This year’s use solved a series of shootings that began Dec. 26, 2011, when Kentwood Police arrived at Woodland Mall at 28th Street and East Beltline Avenue to answer a “disturbance.” What police found was a large number of shoppers exiting the mall to escape an altercation between members of rival gangs.
“It was two rival gangs: Bemis is from Grand Rapids; Bouldercrest is from Grand Rapids and Kentwood,” said Forsyth.
Over roughly the next two weeks, Forsyth said there were at least 10 shootings between the gang members. A number of those incidents resulted in shots entering occupied dwellings, including one at a Burger King on South Division Avenue.
Forsyth said all of the shootings had the potential to injure or kill innocent victims. Investigators found shell casings from the same guns at the shooting sites and concluded the gangs were responsible.
Also during that timeframe, gang members held what were labeled “gunfights,” as each gang took turns showing up uninvited at the rival gang’s party. One person was shot in the hip and a pastor took a bullet to the head but survived.
“They found 30 shell casings from four different guns,” said Forsyth.
Over the next six months, assistant prosecutors used investigative subpoenas to question 120 witnesses, resulting in 20 arrests and 17 convictions with three trials pending. Of those convictions, 18 charges were for discharging a weapon at or into an occupied building; seven were for weapons violations; six for the commission of a felony by a gang member; six were for lying under oath while responding to an investigative subpoena; four were for assault with an intent to do great bodily harm and three were for armed robbery.
“Everybody we charged pleaded guilty or was convicted. Ultimately, we were able to solve all the drive-by shootings and a homicide,” said Forsyth.
The homicide case involved the conviction of 20-year-old Charles Brown Jr. a few weeks ago for the shooting death of Michael Bockheim, 28, on Jan. 15. Brown also was convicted on armed robbery and weapons charges and will be sentenced next week.
Forsyth said his office worked with the Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming police departments and Kent County Sheriff’s Department in solving the cases, which grew from the issuing of investigative subpoenas.
“That’s the one thing we did this year that was a little out of the norm,” said Forsyth.
“I’m impressed with the work you’ve done,” said County Commissioner Candace Chivis, who added that gangs roam in at least six county commissioners’ districts, including hers, in southeast Grand Rapids.
Last year, the prosecutor’s office secured more than 3,100 guilty pleas in circuit and district courts and 106 guilty verdicts in district court. This year, the office expects 3,300 guilty pleas and 97 guilty verdicts. More than 4,000 felony warrants are expected to be issued this year.