Chicago police officer Robert Soto's casket is placed into a hearse. Soto and a social worker, Kathryn Romberg, were killed in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity.
Chicago police officer Robert Soto's casket is placed into a hearse. Soto and a social worker, Kathryn Romberg, were killed in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

When Terrance Scott stood before federal judge Joan Lefkow in June, he was hoping to receive some sympathy for the spot he’d been in—and a lighter prison sentence as a result.

Scott is a 26-year-old African-American, thin and well over six feet tall. His hair was cropped short and he wore dark-rimmed glasses that would have made him look like a graduate student except for his orange prison jumpsuit.

He had already pleaded guilty to being part of a heroin distribution operation in West Humboldt Park that sometimes made thousands of dollars a day, with profits jumping after word spread that someone had overdosed on the product. To buyers, the stronger the dope the better.

His attorney, Anthony Sassan, stressed that Scott was merely a low-level pack worker at the bottom of the pyramid, and that even before being busted, Scott had been trying to leave the drug trade behind.

“People are scared straight for a number of reasons,” Sassan said.

That might be true. But Scott’s primary reason, according to federal prosecutors, was the double murder he witnessed.

Scott grew up in the middle of the west-side drug trade. His father wasn’t around, and his mother struggled to earn enough to support her six children. Scott, the second youngest, told authorities and his lawyer that he had fond memories of playing with his neighborhood friends and excelling in math. He also recalled being hurried inside when shooting started, seeing bloodstains on the sidewalk the next morning, and periodically witnessing drug deals, some involving his two older brothers. He joined the Gangster Disciples when he was 11 years old.

A year later he found a job as a stock boy at a neighborhood store. Scott recalled his older brothers ridiculing him for working for such low wages. “Other than his mother, Terrance had no example of anyone . . . who experienced success through an education or legal career,” Sassan wrote in a court filing.

As a teenager, Scott began to fight with his mother, and when she threw him out, leaders of his gang gave him a place to stay and free drugs he could sell to support himself. He was expelled from high school before his sophomore year.

By the time he was in his early 20s, Scott had been arrested 20 times, mostly for drug-related offenses. On one occasion he was picked up after being caught calling out “Blows!” to cars around Kedzie and Ohio. The corner has been one of the leading drug marketplaces in Chicago for decades—police make hundreds of busts in that area each year, more than almost anywhere else in the city.

When he was still a teenager Scott started using as well as selling. After three convictions for possession of a controlled substance, he was sentenced to a year in state prison.

Scott was released in July 2007 and began attending NA meetings. But within the year he had accepted another job in the business, according to authorities—selling with his older brother Jeffrey back at Kedzie and Ohio.

Jeffrey Scott had access to a west-side heroin supplier, but he was a Conservative Vice Lord, and Kedzie and Ohio had long been controlled by another faction, the Traveling Vice Lords. Not long after Jeffrey set up shop, a senior member of the TVLs informed him that he had to get out. But then they worked out a deal: Jeffrey Scott could work there in return for a cut of the proceeds. He recruited his brother Terrance to help him.

Sassan later described their business as “sporadic” and “ragtag.” But the brothers did well enough that Jeffrey Scott was hired to help set up and run a larger operation headed by a veteran TVL named Jason Austin, according to federal officials.

Terrance Scott wasn’t involved in the coordination or management of the operation at Kedzie and Ohio—he was a pack worker who sold bags on the street. As is customary in the business, he worked on commission: he’d get to keep $20, or an equivalent value of heroin, for every dozen $10 bags he dealt. The street managers took another cut and then turned over the majority to Austin.

The operation was open for business from 6 AM to 11 PM daily. To distinguish their product from rivals’, they packaged it in blue baggies and called it Blue Magic. The marketing strategy worked. Revenues climbed from about $800 a day in April to as much as $4,000 a day by the end of June, workers later told authorities. After a customer died from an overdose in a nearby building, business soared.

At his peak, Scott made $700 a week.

Spring weather came early in 2008, and with it came bursts of violence. Jody Weis, the police superintendent at the time, said he would mobilize SWAT teams and make sure officers had higher-power M4 carbine rifles so they weren’t outgunned by gang members.

The violence quickly picked up in West Humboldt Park; by mid-June, seven people had been shot and killed within a short walk of Kedzie and Ohio, and three more people were murdered in the first 11 days of August.

Tensions were high around the drug spot, witnesses later told authorities. When a freelancer nicknamed “E” tried selling heroin nearby without getting approval, he was caught and given a “violation,” or beating, by Jeffrey Scott and three others.

Good soldiers take their violations and move on. But that wasn’t the case with another dealer everyone knew as Quick. Though he wasn’t a Traveling Vice Lord, Quick was supplying heroin to one of Austin’s workers without authorization. When Austin told him to stop, Quick said he couldn’t “honor that,” according to court records. Austin then punched Quick, who pulled a knife and retreated, saying he would be back.

Four days later, Terrance Scott and another man were riding with Austin in his Buick Regal when a car pulled up behind them and shot out the back window. The men escaped uninjured.

Authorities later alleged that Austin drove to the Kedzie-Ohio drug spot, picked up his 9mm “banger,” and, accompanied by a couple of associates, went looking for Quick. They didn’t find him that night, but according to the Scott brothers, they kept searching.

At a little after midnight on August 13, 2008, officers responded to reports of a disturbance near Franklin and Sacramento, just a couple of blocks from Kedzie and Ohio. The police didn’t find any trouble. Instead, they briefly chatted with Robert Soto, a 49-year-old off-duty cop who was sitting in his black SUV on Franklin. The police said Soto told them he didn’t know anything about the reported incident, and they went on their way.

A little more than an hour later, at 1:35 AM, someone called 911 to report gunshots on Franklin. It turned out to be Soto. Responding police found him in the SUV with a female companion, a social worker named Kathryn Romberg. She was dead, killed by a shot to the head.

Soto had also been shot—in the head, the side, and the buttocks—but he was still conscious. He reportedly told police that three males had attempted to rob him before opening fire and then fleeing in a four-door red or maroon vehicle. Soto’s wallet lay near his feet. There was no cash in it and its contents were strewn across the floorboard.

The officer died later that morning.

Authorities flooded the area, searching for evidence and interviewing potential witnesses. Several neighborhood residents told police that they had seen a maroon or dark four-door vehicle drive down Franklin.

The first news accounts of the killing stuck to the robbery story line. Then the investigation went in a different direction altogether.

No one has been charged with the double murder of Robert Soto and Kathryn Romberg.
No one has been charged with the double murder of Robert Soto and Kathryn Romberg.Credit: Chicago Sun-Times archive

Police picked up Terrance Scott near Kedzie and Ohio the following day. They wanted to talk with him about the double homicide. According to court records, Scott told investigators that he had heard the gunshots from a friend’s place a couple of blocks away.

Yet in a separate interview, Jeffrey Scott told authorities that Terrance had not been at a friend’s—that he’d been with him.

When the police sought them out again, both brothers changed their stories. This time Jeffrey said his brother hadn’t been with him after all—that Terrance had been with their boss, Jason Austin, the night of the murder.

According to Jeffrey’s account, Terrance Scott and Austin had taken Austin’s green van to get some high-grade marijuana from an acquaintance. As they drove down Franklin, Austin spotted Romberg sitting in the SUV. He mistakenly thought she was the girlfriend of his enemy Quick. Austin circled around the block, pulled up alongside the SUV, and jumped out with a gun—which Terrance Scott didn’t know Austin had on him. Austin shot Soto and Romberg and sped away. He dropped off Terrance Scott before going home.

Jeffrey Scott also told authorities that he’d talked with Austin about the shootings the morning after. “Man, I fucked up,” he said Austin told him. “I didn’t know it was a cop and a lady.” Austin then tried to deflect the heat by spreading word in the neighborhood that an associate of Quick’s had killed Soto and Romberg.

Austin was arrested on August 16, 2008, and charged with the killings.

Authorities said he started working the phones from Cook County Jail, and some of the witnesses who’d implicated him ended up recanting their testimony.

Terrance Scott was one of them. Two days after Austin’s arrest he confirmed to investigators the gist of his brother’s account—that he was in the vehicle when Austin rolled up next to Soto’s SUV, jumped out with a gun, and fired three to five shots—though Terrance Scott said they were in Austin’s maroon Buick and not a green van. Terrance also told the police that he was afraid of Austin.

He didn’t stick to this story either.

The following day, authorities would later claim, Austin’s brother, Charles, and another man—carrying a gun in his waistband—confronted the Scotts. Terrance admitted that he’d identified Jason Austin as the killer.

Charles allegedly said they needed to settle on a new story he could tell authorities. They agreed that the Scotts should say they were together at the time of the murders—not with Jason Austin. If they didn’t, Charles Austin advised, he would “fuck them up.”

In an interview with investigators the next day, Terrance Scott recanted his testimony, saying police had roughed him up to get him to name Austin.

A few days later, Charles Austin picked him up to discuss how things were going, authorities said. As he drove Terrance Scott around, a gun lay in his lap. He told Scott that he needed to “stay tall.”

On September 10, 2008, after several other witnesses recanted, prosecutors dropped the murder charges against Jason Austin.

Terrance Scott wanted out. He found a job with a church-based program that provided assistance to the elderly, but he didn’t give up completely on money from the drug trade. Unbeknownst to him, police and FBI agents had launched an investigation—including undercover buys and phone wiretaps—into the Kedzie-Ohio drug operation. Scott was observed selling heroin at Kedzie and Ohio six times in late 2008 and 2009, according to prosecutors. Terrance was arrested on a drug charge in July 2010.

“No one in this room is naive about why drugs are trafficked in poor neighborhoods—it’s a way for people of low education and no opportunities to get money.”—Federal Judge Joan Lefkow

Four months later, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted both Austin brothers and Jeffrey Scott, along with ten others, for conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine. In March 2011, Terrance Scott was indicted as part of the same case. He pleaded guilty to one count of the drug charges in January 2012.

The authorities weren’t done with him yet. When he was interviewed by federal prosecutors that August, Scott changed his story once more, admitting that his earlier account of witnessing Austin carry out the murders was the true one.

Austin was convicted of drug conspiracy and distribution charges in a 2012 trial and is finally scheduled to be sentenced in August. Prosecutors have used the statements of Terrance and Jeffrey Scott to argue that Austin carried out the killings and deserves a lengthy prison term—even though the evidence wasn’t strong enough to try him for the murders.

Noting that the Scotts were both hoping for reduced sentences themselves, Austin’s attorney slammed their accounts as “opportunistic lies.”

Terrance Scott “is not cooperating at this point with either side,” Sassan says.

In arguments filed before Terrance Scott’s sentencing last month, Sassan noted that since Scott was arrested he’s earned his GED. “He’s a very intelligent person. He helped prepare his own defense. Given the right opportunities, he will not be back here.”

Sassan maintained that a sentence of 45 months would be appropriate.

Federal prosecutor Maribel Fernandez-Harvath said that while Scott was not involved in violence firsthand, his role shouldn’t be overlooked. “It’s our position that he was with Mr. Austin when the off-duty officer was killed,” she said. “Every day you see headlines of shootings. The violence is real, and it affects people other than drug dealers.” She asked for a sentence of up to 105 months.

Scott himself was succinct when he was offered a chance to address the judge. “When I was younger I made bad choices,” he said in a deep voice. “I’d like to show I can do better.”

Lefkow paused a moment before responding. “No one in this room is naive about why drugs are trafficked in poor neighborhoods—it’s a way for people of low education and no opportunities to get money. That’s the situation you grew up in. But mothers and fathers can’t even let their children outside for fear there will be shootings.”

The judge sentenced Scott to 60 months in prison—on the low end of the spectrum.

“You deserve a second chance,” she said.