CHICAGO — Before gentrification changed the face of Wicker Park, swaths of the neighborhood were claimed by a handful of street gangs. Among them were the Latin Kings, still one of the largest criminal organizations in the city and suburbs.
Fifty years ago this week — June 27, 1971 — Gustavo Colon, a teen Latin King, shot and killed Glenn Burr, a teen Vice Lord, at the intersection of Potomac Avenue and Leavitt Street.
The following year, Colon was sentenced to at least 30 years in state prison for the murder. He ascended the gang ranks while in prison, eventually becoming leader of Latin Kings and calling the shots from behind bars.
The day before his scheduled release in 1997, Colon and a dozen others were charged by the feds with running a multi-million dollar narcotics operation from an apartment in Logan Square. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison 21 years ago.
Colon is now 66 and facing several health issues. While in federal custody, he’s earned his GED and completed college-level classes. He’s also taken other courses that focus on keeping away from the sort of criminal activities that got him locked up in the first place.
If granted release, he has his family, counseling services and a job waiting for him.
His attorney argues that “the child that committed that murder a half century ago is incomparable to the person who sits in jail today.”
Is it time to let “Lord Gino” Colon come home?
It was just before 10 p.m. on June 27, 1971 when Burr, who was 16 years old, and four others left his home in the 1300 block of North Leavitt Street.
Standing outside was the 16-year-old Colon, armed with a handgun. He and one of his friends soon approached the group, according to court records.
The friend pointed to Burr and told Colon to “shoot that Black mother——.”
Colon shot Burr as he tried to run away. Colon fired three more rounds into Burr’s body after Burr fell to the ground, according to court records.
Colon then walked over to a girl who was in Burr’s group. He put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t fire.
The Illinois Appellate Court would later say of Colon’s actions:
“Far from displaying any reluctance or visible effects of intimidation, the defendant fairly reveled in the execution of his victim. He fired repeatedly into the body of [the victim], and then casually held the gun to the head of [the young woman], who was spared only because the killer’s earlier zeal had emptied the weapon.”
Colon was arrested two months after the shooting. The following year, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
While locked up, Colon ascended to the rank of “Corona” — the top Latin Kings decision-maker.
“He had absolute power,” one former Latin King said of Colon’s grip on the gang.
Though prison phone calls are recorded, Colon frequently discussed gang business with his wife, Marisol. Federal prosecutors later said that she served as Colon’s “eyes and ears” outside prison, passing along his orders to other Latin Kings.
After 25 years in state prison, Colon was set to be released in 1997. His underlings arranged for a limousine to drive him back to Chicago from the Menard Correctional Center downstate.
Colon did come back to Chicago, but not in the way he hoped.
Twenty-four hours before his scheduled release, federal prosecutors indicted Colon and 12 others on charges of operating a $6 million drug operation out of an apartment at 2420 North Kedzie Avnue between 1995 and 1997. Colon’s wife was among his co-defendants.
During the two-month trial, prosecutors played dozens of recorded phone calls that illustrated Colon’s control of the Latin Kings. The calls often showed Colon’s wife acting as an operator, connecting him with gang lieutenants.
Colon was found guilty on all but one of the 21 counts leveled against him. His wife was found guilty on three counts. In 2000, a federal judge sentenced Colon to life. He is currently held at a federal prison in Kentucky.
Colon’s attorney, Gal Pissetzky, filed a motion last year asking for Colon’s release because he was at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The 66-year-old Colon, Pissetzky said, has high blood pressure, hypertension and prediabetes. With a body mass index of 33, Colon is also considered obese.
A judge denied the request.
Pissetzky filed a similar motion earlier this year, arguing for Colon’s release under the First Step Act, a reform bill signed into law in 2018 that aims decrease unnecessarily lengthy federal prison sentences. It’s not clear when the judge overseeing the case will issue a ruling.
“Mr. Colon absolutely deserves this opportunity to finally be out and be with his family and be free after all these years in custody,” Pissetzky said. “And let us not forget that the crime that he stands convicted of is a drug offense, nothing more or nothing less.”
Pissetzky noted that Colon’s brother Cristobal, himself a former member of the Latin Kings, has for more than 25 years served as the pastor of God’s Army Ministries, a church on the Northwest Side.
“Through his church, Cristobal will provide Mr. Colon with mental health counseling and other professional services Mr. Colon might need or benefit from for a smooth, safe, and successful transition back into society,” Pissetzky wrote in support of Colon’s release.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office argues that Colon “is serving a sentence that is within the advisory guidelines range and fully justified given his role as leader of the Latin Kings.” Prosecutors have also focused heavily on Colon’s murder conviction in state court, a tactic that Pissetzky called a “red herring.”
“It’s just unconscionable, I think, to keep somebody in prison for a drug offense for that long of a time,” Pissetzky said. “He was not a cartel leader from Mexico like ‘Chapo’ or anything like that.”