When several investigators approached Sanford police Chief Cecil Smith earlier this year about violent activity they were seeing in the city, the veteran law enforcement officer had an idea about who might be able to help stop it: The feds.
He couldn't have predicted, though, that his idea would eventually prompt the U.S. Attorney's Office in Orlando to create a special prosecution unit aimed at ridding Central Florida of violent criminals.
Or that it would lead to partnerships for other local law enforcement agencies throughout the area.
Smith said his investigators had noticed there were a few small groups of people involved in the majority of violent crimes in Sanford. Some had been arrested before, but they rarely stayed off the streets for long.
"One of the big problems we were having was getting the prosecutions done and getting the longer jail sentences," Smith said.
Smith needed help getting the most dangerous suspects out of the community.
So, he reached out to Roger Handberg, chief assistant U.S. Attorney in Orlando, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about working together on some of the cases that might involve a federal crime. He then contacted Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer's office and everyone decided it would be in their best interests to start working together.
Several months and 65 arrests later, Sanford officers had recovered 56 guns and the U.S. Attorney's Office had charged four people with federal gun crimes. The other 61 suspects faced various state charges and as of earlier this month, more than 20 have already been sentenced.
Handberg said the partnership was working so well it only seemed logical to keep it going, and to open it up to other agencies in Central Florida. He assigned four prosecutors — unofficially dubbed the "gun unit" — to focus on crimes involving firearms and especially dangerous criminals.
In May, the unit reached out the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Orlando Police Department about partnering, and during the past few months have been working on cases with Volusia County officials. Handberg said the number of gun-crime prosecutions his office has handled this year is already up more than 50 percent over last year.
'Long-term problem' arrested
Jesse Ingram has been arrested more than 40 times in Florida on charges ranging from aggravated assault with a weapon to shooting into a vehicle, but has spent no more than three years in state prison after a burglary arrest in the early 2000s, records show.
The 34-year-old Apopka resident is a registered felon and accused street gang leader who has several times been accused of illegally carrying a weapon, Orange County court records show. More than once, though, including after an arrest in January 2015 when he was accused of threatening and trying to bribe a witness into not testifying against him, prosecutors ended up dropping the charges.
"Over 40 times, he had been in and out of the state system and every time he would be back," FBI Supervisory Special Agent Justin Crenshaw said. "...He was a real long-term problem for Apopka PD."
And, he's the exact type of person Crenshaw said officials are hoping the gun unit will remove from the community.
Orange County sheriff's deputies arrested Ingram in August after a traffic stop and said he had methamphetamine, ammunition and a pistol on him, court records show.
The FBI and ATF agents then stepped in to help, and showed the case to the gun unit prosecutors, who filed charges against Ingram in late September.
Ingram's case is still pending, with a hearing scheduled for early next year. Crenshaw said Ingram is finally facing serious time in the federal system and if convicted, it could be more than a decade before he's back in Florida.
Part of the community
Handberg said the impact to the community might not be immediate, and residents might be weary of the federal government stepping in, but he's positive the gun unit will help reduce violence in Central Florida.
"There's too many people working on this to not have an impact," he said.
But the goal isn't to "steal" cases from the local agencies or state attorney's office to take credit, Handberg said. It's to make sure the cases are handled as efficiently as possible so the violent criminals are arrested.
"We are part of the community," Handberg said. "We live here, we work here. We want to improve our community."
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