UPDATED 9:40 a.m. | New details emerged Tuesday about the recent outbreak of gun violence in Bloomington-Normal as authorities pointed to a new rap video that they say shows a deadly dispute between two hybrid street gangs.
The 3-minute music video was played in court Tuesday as prosecutors won a 7½-year prison sentence against its lead performer, Richard Sims of Bloomington. He had pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm, after police saw him showing off a gun on Snapchat.
Authorities said Sims is a member of two affiliated hybrid street gangs, the 400 and BBE. Their rivals are the 200s, also known as FBMG. Sims’ music video contains several references to recent fatal shootings in Bloomington-Normal, many involving gang-affiliated suspects and victims. WGLT previously reported that this same gang dispute between BBE and FBMG/200s led to several shootings and other violent incidents in early 2019—suggesting much of the gun violence in Bloomington-Normal in the past 18 months is the work of a relatively small number of people.
Following the nine gun homicides in 2018—a modern record—and continuing shootings this year, the McLean County state’s attorney’s office is focused on cracking down on gun crimes, said Assistant State’s Attorney Ashley Scarborough. She asked for the maximum sentence (10 years) for Sims, and for Judge Casey Costigan to “send a message to the community that gun violence cannot be tolerated.” Both Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner and State’s Attorney Don Knapp were in the courtroom for Sims’ sentencing.
“The community is really paying attention to it,” Scarborough told WGLT. “People are really fired up and really concerned about. They ought to be.”
The music video was posted online in mid-August, while Sims was out on bond. Bloomington Police gang and crime analysis expert Jack McQueen testified Tuesday that three-quarters of the young men featured in the video are gang members, like Sims. Authorities also said the vehicle Sims stands on during much of the video was stolen. Several guns are spotted in the video, though a disclaimer says they are just props. McQueen said the video was apparently filmed outside an apartment building on Rainbow Avenue in east Bloomington.
McQueen dissected the song’s lyrics line by line during his testimony.
“We give a free smokes to the ops” is a reference to shooting at their opposition, or “ops,” the FBMG/200s, McQueen said. “LS caught a couple shots from a 40 and now he’s past-tense” is a reference to Steven Alexander, an 18-year-old who was fatally shot in June 2018 on Orchard Road in Bloomington. McQueen said Alexander was a member of the 200s.
The song also references by name “Kirkwood,” an apparent nod to Trevonte Kirkwood, who was fatally shot in October 2018 on North Oak Street in Bloomington. Kirkwood was an associate of 200 members, McQueen said. (Also spotted in the Snapchat images that led to charges against Sims was Quentin Jackson, one of the men now charged with killing Kirkwood.)
“(Sims) is talking about the community. This isn’t just an abstract song,” Scarborough said.
The video itself isn’t a crime, she said. But “the right to free speech does end where threats to other people begin. This is arguably a veiled threat to ‘ops,’ to opposing gangs,” she said.
The video remained available on YouTube and Instagram as of Thursday, though Bloomington Police requested those companies take it down.
"We can't control what they choose to screen from their sites," McQueen said Thursday. "Ultimately they are the deciders of what content violates their terms and conditions."
Rise of Social Media
The music video is the latest example of real-world disputes among young people playing out on social media.
There’s a history in McLean County of rival groups using music and social media to send messages to each other, Scarborough said. A Normal Police detective testified Tuesday that Sims’ Snapchat images with a gun were intended to show his enemies he was armed.
Social media is now a standard part of the investigative process after a homicide happens locally, she said.
“We’re getting search warrants and preservation orders on Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. They’re using those more than they’re calling or talking to one another,” Scarborough said.
At Tuesday’s sentencing, prosecutors described Sims as a violent young man who blew a chance at rehabilitation by violating the terms of his probation in a prior case. He was also found guilty of misdemeanor resisting a peace officer after getting into a fight in the lobby of the McLean County Law and Justice Center on a day that the alleged Orchard Road shooter, Hammet Brown, was in court.
Sims’ attorney, Brian McEldowney, said Tuesday that Sims suffers from “debilitating” mental health issues, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse issues.
Jillana Norris, Sims’ mother, said they’ve tried to get help for these issues but don’t have insurance.
“He expressed feelings to me that he wanted to do better, was trying to do better,” Norris said. “There’s always a door shut.”
She said her son is talented and driven and wants to pursue a career in music. His rap persona is just a façade, she said. Police and prosecutors are “are trying to make it seem like something it is not,” she said.
“Richard is not in a gang,” Norris said. “They’re a rap group, young men trying to do music.”
Despite prosecutors hoping to send a message, Judge Costigan said he would decide Sims’ sentence based solely on the details of his case.
“I’m not considering sending a message to anyone or to the community,” Costigan said.
Sims himself briefly addressed the judge before being sentenced.
“Everything that happened in court today has opened my eyes,” said Sims, adding that he doesn’t want to return to a courtroom again. “I’m really speechless.”
His mother added: “We’re gonna take this sentence and we’re gonna make something positive.”
Editor's note: At the request of Bloomington Police, WGLT has removed a link to the YouTube video referenced in this article. BPD cited a specific, new concern about public safety in requesting its removal, and WGLT honored that request.
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