- Officer Robert Soto was killed with a friend in 2008. Authorities say a hit was put on Jeffrey Scott for cooperating with authorities investigating the killings.
When authorities arrested Jeffrey Scott in 2010, he decided it was time to cooperate and start talking. About everything—including the murders.
For two years, he says, he had been holding back information about the senseless killings of a police officer and a social worker near the west-side heroin market where he worked. Scott said he knew who was responsible: his former friend and boss Jason Austin.
But Scott was in a perilous spot.
He had already been threatened by Austin’s brother. If he talked to police, Scott, his family, and other witnesses could be hurt.
Yet without cooperating, he could face more than 25 years in prison, away from his two young children. And he would have to keep carrying around what he knew about the killing.
Word got out, as Scott knew it would, and associates of Austin ordered a hit on him, according to court testimony. But Scott continued to cooperate over the next four years. His statements—and later his court testimony—helped the government send Austin away for 35 years. Austin’s drug and gun source was also convicted, along with other members of their drug organization.
In return for his help, Scott himself received a relatively light sentence from federal Judge Joan Lefkow on Wednesday: five and a half years in prison. He’s already served more than three years.
“I think you were courageous,” Lefkow told Scott. “I know you did this at risk to yourself and your family, and I think you should be rewarded.”
Scott, 28, is built like a power forward, and he was raised amid tough gang-controlled drug markets on Chicago’s west side. But the proceedings were briefly halted so he could leave the courtroom to collect himself. Offered the chance to speak, he said he’d grown up without a father or any guidance from mentors. He apologized for not helping the murder investigation sooner.
“I would like to tell the families of Kathryn Romberg and Robert Soto that I’m sorry I didn’t come forward immediately,” he said. “They didn’t deserve what they got. But it wasn’t really my choice. There were a lot of things that were going to happen to other people if I did. I didn’t want that to happen either.”
Scott’s sentencing ends a winding case that started in the early hours of August 13, 2008, when Romberg and Soto were shot and killed while sitting in a parked car near Franklin and Sacramento. The saga offers a glimpse of how powerful and dangerous the drug trade has become in some depressed areas of the city, and the limits of the criminal justice system to confront it.
Minutes after the shooting, police swarmed the scene and began interviewing people who may have heard or seen anything. Among them was Terrance Scott, Jeffrey’s younger brother. Over the next several days in police custody, Terrance Scott’s account of that night shifted, until he said he’d been with Austin when Austin saw the couple in the car. Mistaking Soto for a rival of his, Austin had shot them both, Terrance Scott said.
But later Terrance changed that story too, saying the cops had coerced him into implicating Austin. He eventually went back and forth again.
Jeffrey Scott also gave police contradictory statements in the days after the murder. Initially he said his brother had been with him the night of the slayings. Then he said his brother had indeed seen the shootings, and that Austin himself talked about them the morning after.
“He handed me some marijuana and a cigar to roll,” Jeffrey Scott testified at Austin’s sentencing. “He said, ‘Man, I effed up. I didn’t know it was a cop and a lady.'”
Scott said he and his brother changed their statements because Austin’s brother threatened to kill them if they didn’t. But Austin’s defense attorneys slammed the Scotts as self-serving liars.
After a number of witnesses proved unreliable, authorities were forced to drop their murder case against Austin. Instead, the FBI joined police in an undercover investigation that led to the 2010 arrests of Austin, the Scotts, and more than two dozen others for distributing heroin and crack near Kedzie and Ohio in West Humboldt Park.
Jeffrey Scott pleaded guilty in 2012. Austin was convicted that same year and sentenced last summer.
“I wish I could take it all back and do something positive, but I can’t,” Jeffrey Scott told Lefkow on Wednesday.
The judge told him he had started to do just that with his cooperation. She noted that it would be dangerous for him to return to the drug trade even if he were tempted to, and urged him to use his time in prison to prepare for work in the legal economy. “You can go on living a long law-abiding life.”