John Gassew, a 23-year-old who has come to epitomize the failings of the Philadelphia court system after beating 44 arrests for armed robbery and other crimes, may have met his match.
The U.S government has decided to make a federal case of him.
Federal prosecutors charged Gassew yesterday with robbery and gun violations, targeting the Frankford man on his latest alleged robbery: the Oct. 28 holdup of a 7-Eleven store in which Philadelphia police said he brutally beat the store clerk with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Police shot Gassew in the arm within minutes of the robbery, when he smashed a stolen truck into a tree and ran off, police said. They recovered the gun from the truck.
Federal agents arrested Gassew yesterday morning in the infirmary of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, where he was in custody on state charges that he robbed four Philadelphia convenience stores in August and October. Federal prosecutors have only charged him with one of those robberies.
During a brief initial hearing in federal court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Zittau declined to comment on why this case was selected. Zittau said he would ask that Gassew be detained without bail in a federal facility until his case was resolved.
A federal judge will hear motions on that request next week.
Gassew slumped in a wheelchair as U.S. marshals escorted him into the federal courtroom.
He was a shadow of the brash and defiant suspect who once mocked police detectives when they confronted him with four bags of stolen items from a crime spree, in which he allegedly robbed 21 people in one weekend in December 2007.
He looked frail and emaciated, his bandaged right hand sitting useless on a pillow in his lap. His head was scarred, and his right eye seemed blinded - injuries apparently suffered in an altercation with police after his shooting.
He replied twice with a soft and raspy "yes" when U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Rueter asked him whether he wanted a court-appointed attorney and whether he understood the charges against him.
Gassew's life was chronicled in an Inquirer series in December about the troubled Philadelphia court system.
Of the more than 20 robberies he has allegedly committed, he has never been convicted. In the case involving his alleged weekend robbery spree, all but one of the 21 cases was dropped after witnesses failed to appear in court. Gassew has only been convicted one time, for a drug charge.
Gassew's federal defender, Ross Thompson, who was assigned to the case yesterday, declined to comment.
The Inquirer series found that Gassew was a typical defendant in a system where nearly two-thirds of those charged with violent crimes escaped conviction on all counts.
Despite having the highest violent crime rate among major American cities, The Inquirer found, Philadelphia had the lowest conviction rate for violent crime.
Selective in the cases they bring, federal prosecutors choose those they were likely to win and notched a 95 percent conviction rate. Tough federal sentencing laws routinely lead to prison terms of 20 years or longer.
Federal prosecutors have used the Hobbs Act to go after robbers who hit gas stations, convenience stores, and other businesses that they can show are involved in interstate commerce.
In the case of Gassew, prosecutors charged him with violating the Hobbs Act and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. Federal law mandates a minimum of seven years behind bars for first-time offenders and 25 years for repeat offenders - on top of whatever sentence they receive for the underlying crime.
The maximum penalty for both crimes Gassew has been charged with is life imprisonment.
Gassew is one of about 2,000 defendants in the city court system whom federal prosecutors have filed firearms and robbery charges against since 2001.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert K. Reed, who oversees the unit that handles firearms and robbery cases, has said that he hopes to get this message out that if defendants come into federal court, they will face up to life in prison.
About 200 Philadelphia cases a year end up in federal court under a Justice Department initiative, known as Project Safe Neighborhoods – a small proportion of the thousands of defendants charged in Philadelphia courts each year with violent crimes. Many of those federally "adopted" defendants had never been convicted in city courts.
Almost all of the federal cases end in guilty pleas.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has called Gassew a "menace" and said he should be taken off the streets. He was unavailable for comment yesterday, but police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said the department worked hard to refer cases involving robberies of businesses to federal prosecutors.
"This might succeed in keeping him in jail a little longer," said Vanore.
Contact staff writer John Sullivan at 215-854-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.