Founder of Chicago’s ‘Goonie’ gang tells federal jury how it morphed into violent faction responsible for at least 10 slayings
When 18-year-old Albert Vaughn Jr. was beaten to death with a baseball bat during a 2008 fight at a teen dance party in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, it sparked a tragic but familiar chain of events in a city long numbed by gang violence.
At Vaughn’s funeral, relatives and neighbors begged for the senseless killing to end. On the day a suspect was charged with murder, shots were fired as mourners gathered at a makeshift memorial. And as the headlines faded, Vaughn’s father, Albert Sr., founded a nonprofit in his son’s name aimed at getting at-risk youth off the streets.
But Vaughn’s killing also unleashed a new force in Englewood, one that federal prosecutors say started with good intentions but ultimately brought even more bloodshed to the beleaguered neighborhood.
The Goonie Boss gang.
The history of the Goonies, a small faction of the notorious Gangster Disciples, was laid out for a federal jury last week by Vaughn’s younger brother, Alex, at the racketeering trial of reputed Goonie leader Romeo “O-Dog” Blackman and two of his alleged top henchmen.
The indictment in the case states that Blackman, together with Terrance “T” Smith and Jolicious “Jo Jo” Turman, are responsible for 10 slayings and six attempted murders in an 18-month span from 2014 to 2016. Each of the defendants is charged with committing murder in furtherance of a racketeering conspiracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence upon conviction.
Unlike more traditional street gangs that were highly organized and focused on protecting drug turf, the Goonies allegedly engaged in a shockingly petty cycle of violence with rivals, where shooting at “opps” was an almost daily routine and killings were bragged about on Facebook and other social media.
Testifying under an immunity deal that shields him from prosecution, Alex Vaughn, 29, told the jury he founded Goonie Boss in the wake of his brother’s slaying as a way for his friends to band together and do something different.
The idea, he said, was that everyone was “their own boss” and no one had to take directions from the neighborhood gangs any more. They’d meet up for organized basketball games and other sporting activities in Ogden Park, a sort of parallel effort to the Albert S. Vaughn Jr. Foundation that his father had set up in Albert’s memory and promoted three-on-three youth basketball tournaments, he said.
But that dynamic quickly fell victim to the realities of the street. Vaughn said despite his original intentions, the Goonies transitioned into a violent gang in its own right beginning around 2011, when Blackman rose to the top with a series of fatal shootings that brought respect from his peers and boosted his status.
“That’s when Goonie changed,” Vaughn, dressed in a Chicago Bulls hooded sweatshirt, testified in U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey’s courtroom Thursday.
Ironically, it was the murder of another one of Vaughn’s brothers, Robert “Winnie” Vaughn, 28, in July 2016 that he said led him to begin cooperating with investigators, ultimately helping to dismantle the Goonies for good.
“Once Winnie got killed, I said I was done with the lifestyle,” Vaughn testified. “I was tired of it. I had had enough.”
Alex Vaughn is one of several key cooperators expected to testify in the trial who have either been granted immunity by prosecutors or hope to get a break in cases of their own.
In Vaughn’s case, he not only escaped federal charges related to racketeering investigation, but also got a break in a 2016 Cook County gun case where he was given probation instead of certain prison time, according to testimony and court records.
The FBI also paid Vaughn thousands of dollars during his work as an undercover informant, which included recording conversations with fellow gang members both on the phone as well as wearing a hidden wire in Cook County Jail.
He also helped federal investigators unravel the Goonies’ pipeline of guns that were being straw-purchased at gun shops in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Vaughn testified the gang sold drugs but it wasn’t a big moneymaking enterprise, with the proceeds primarily being used for weapons. He discussed secretly recording calls with Goonie associate Nathaniel McElroy as they talked about how easy it was to buy firearms.
“Guns are misdemeanors out there,” McElroy said on one call played for the jury Wednesday. “You can get as many as you want. They a misdemeanor. You get bumped off, you straight. You be out the same night.”
McElroy pleaded guilty to racketeering on the day jury selection began last week.
On cross examination, defense attorneys painted Vaughn as a perfectly willing participant in the Goonie gang’s violence, and questioned Vaughn repeatedly about his motivations for testifying against his friends. They also ridiculed his claim that he ever intended the Goonie gang to be a peaceable group.
Attorney Patrick Blegen, who represents Blackman, pointed out that Vaughn’s family, which had moved to Englewood from the old Robert Taylor housing complex, had a long-standing connections to powerful street gangs, including an uncle of Vaughn’s who was a “general” in the Gangster Disciples.
“So Goonie Boss is a bunch of guys who like to play basketball and swim in Ogden Park?” Blegen said. “That is nonsense, isn’t it?”
Vaughn insisted it was the truth.
“You never once told the grand jury that Goonie Boss was a sports club and a charitable organization did you?” Blegen asked at another point in his cross examination.
Vaughn said he was never asked.
In his three days on the witness stand, Vaughn gave the jury an insider account to several of the murders at the center of the indictment, including the May 2016 slaying of Gerald Sias Jr., an innocent bystander shot while getting his hair cut in a popular neighborhood barbershop on a weekday afternoon.
Vaughn testified that he, Blackman, and two other Goonie members were out that day to avenge the killing of one of their own. When they heard their target was at the shop, they pulled up and one of the younger Goonies ran inside and opened fire. When the gunman jumped back in the car, “He was like, ‘I got him! I got him!’ ” Vaughn testified.
Later, though, Blackman got a call on his phone and his face grew angry, Vaughn told the jury. “He was like, ‘You didn’t get him. You got someone else,’ ” Vaughn said.
Sias, 38, a father of five with no gang ties, died later at a nearby hospital. Another customer was wounded in the leg.
The Goonies trial, which is expected to last up to eight weeks, is the latest in a string of major racketeering cases brought by the U.S. attorney’s office aimed at the leaders of Chicago’s splintered gang factions that prosecutors say are driving the city’s rampant gun violence.
In November, a federal jury found the reputed leader of Chicago’s Wicked Town gang faction and one of his top lieutenants guilty of racketeering conspiracy involving a string of murders, shootings, robberies and narcotics trafficking on the West Side stretching back two decades.
Later this year, five alleged members of the South Side’s “O Block” gang faction are set to go to trial on a racketeering conspiracy indictment accusing them of a pattern of violence that includes the downtown slaying of Chicago rapper FBG Duck in 2020.
In opening statements on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paige Nutini said that under Blackman’s tutelage, the Goonies began a campaign of violence that victimized enemies and innocent bystanders alike and terrorized the Englewood community for years.
Nutini said the evidence will show Blackman and his associates “shot first and asked questions later.” They targeted people they suspected might be snitching to police, committed many shootings during daylight hours so people would see the chaos, and constantly prowled the neighborhood looking for rival gang members, a routine they called “sliding,” she said.
And to boost the impact, Goonie members often turned to the internet, where they “broadcast their violence on social media using Facebook to brag and to taunt their rivals,” Nutini said.
Lawyers for the defendants, meanwhile, said prosecutors have thin evidence when it comes to many of the individual acts of violence alleged in the indictment, and that many of the government’s witnesses — including Alex Vaughn — cannot be trusted.
The defense also warned jurors not to let their feelings about gang violence get in the way of the facts.
“This case is not a referendum on street gangs,” Blegen said in his opening statement. “The government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Goonies were a racketeering enterprise and that they committed these acts.”
The unusual origin of the Goonies, meanwhile, was revealed for the first time during Alex Vaughn’s testimony.
His brother Albert was a senior at Julian High School when he got into a fight at a house party for young teens on the night of April 5, 2008, according to court records. Chaperones tried to disperse the crowd, but as police arrived there were still skirmishes outside the home on the 7000 block of South Throop Street.
An arriving officer saw Albert Vaughn with a board in his hands and ordered him to drop it, court records show. After he did so, 22-year-old Nathaniel Tucker, the cousin of one of the teens initially involved in the argument with Vaughn, ran up and struck Albert twice in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. Vaughn died later at a local hospital.
Tucker, who was arrested soon after the incident, eventually pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He’s due to be released in 2033, state prison records show.
On July 1, 2016, eight years after Albert Vaughn’s killing, another sibling, Winnie, was fatally shot and a woman he was with was wounded at 76th and State streets.
Alex Vaughn was in Cook County Jail on a weapons charge when he got the news. Vaughn testified he was grief stricken and soon made the decision to cooperate with authorities, who had already reached out to him in jail.
Later that year, Vaughn secretly recorded Turman talking about the alleged circumstances of Winnie’s killing, and the Goonies’ swift attempt at retaliation, when they were both being held on the same jail tier, according to his testimony.
On the muffled recording, which was played for the jury, Turman said rivals had “shot up” Winnie’s car because “somebody be making (expletive) up on Facebook,” according to a transcript in court records.
Turman said he and their fellow gang members went out early that morning to look for revenge.
“You know how we do,” Turman said on the recording. “You know how I roll ... a mother (expletive) need to leave this earth.”
Shortly after 6 a.m., they encountered Kenneth Whitaker, 34, a security guard with three children and no gang ties, walking at 74th and Morgan streets, according to prosecutors and previous Tribune accounts.
Turman allegedly jumped out of the car and shot Whitaker twice in the head, execution-style. Jurors were shown crime scene photos of Whitaker’s body lying near the sidewalk outside of Stagg Elementary School on South Morgan Street.
In the conversation with Vaughn in Cook County Jail, Turman said they had driven “everywhere” looking for someone to shoot and “caught a mother (expletive) right there in front of Stagg,” according to the transcript.
“Who was it, one of the Moes?” Vaughn asked, referring to a rival gang.
“I don’t know, some mother (expletive),” Turman replied. “Whoever came out there.”
Asked by prosecutors what he took that to mean, Vaughn replied that Turman was saying they’d shot “basically whoever they caught walking.”
On cross, Turman’s attorney, Molly Armour, noted that the recording was garbled and difficult to hear.
She also got Vaughn to acknowledge that he wasn’t out there with Turman on the night of Whitaker’s shooting, and that Turman may have just been boasting to him that people were doing their best to avenge his brother’s death.
“You don’t know if he was there?” Armour asked.
“Correct,” Vaughn said.
Whitaker’s mother, Vickie, meanwhile, told the Tribune she had long suspected her son had been the victim of mistaken identity.
“He was a good young man, not affiliated with any gangs,” she said when the Goonie indictment was filed in 2018. “He was just trying to make money and take care of his kids.”