Is a key government witness telling the truth this time about a double murder? | Bleader

Is a key government witness telling the truth this time about a double murder?

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Police officer Robert Soto was killed along with social worker Kathryn Romberg in 2008. Authorities say convicted drug dealer Jason Austin was the gunman.
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Police officer Robert Soto was killed along with social worker Kathryn Romberg in 2008. Authorities say convicted drug dealer Jason Austin was the gunman.
Jeffrey Scott's girlfriend woke him in the wee hours of August 13, 2008, and said his younger brother Terrance had shown up and needed to talk to him right away.

Jeffrey found his brother freaking out. "He asked me for a cigarette," Jeffrey Scott, now 28, testified in federal court Thursday. "He was shaking. He was jittery. He was like he'd just seen a ghost. He said J-Rock just shot some people."

J-Rock was Jason Austin, who employed both Scott brothers in the drug organization he ran at Kedzie and Ohio in West Humboldt Park. Terrance Scott told Jeffrey that he and another friend had been in Austin's car on a quest for high-grade marijuana when Austin thought he saw some people he knew sitting in an SUV on West Franklin—a bitter rival of Austin's known as Quick, along with Quick's girl, who stood out in the neighborhood because she was white.

"Jason Austin said he was going to get them," Jeffrey said his brother told him. Austin then circled around the block, pulled up next to the SUV, jumped out, and shot both passengers, Scott said.

But Austin hadn't taken care of Quick and his girlfriend—he'd killed police officer Robert Soto and social worker Kathryn Romberg.

By the time Jeffrey Scott saw Austin at their drug spot the next morning, the news had spread, and Austin was anxious too, Scott said.

"He handed me some marijuana and a cigar to roll," Scott testified. "He said, 'Man, I effed up. I didn't know it was a cop and a lady."

Scott's testimony highlighted the second day of a hearing to determine how long Austin, 32, is going to prison. The account is central to the efforts of federal prosecutors to hold Austin accountable for the double murder even though evidence wasn't strong enough to convict him of it.

The case offers a vivid snapshot of how powerful and dangerous the illegal drug trade has become in some depressed parts of the city, and of the limits of the criminal justice system alone to combat it.

Austin's drug organization was profitable but under constant threat, Scott said. Street-level dealers were frequently robbed, and Quick was undermining business by distributing his own inferior heroin. In early August 2008 the conflict escalated from a verbal exchange to a shooting that destroyed the rear window of Austin's car. Scott said Austin had taken to carrying a loaded 9mm handgun.

"It was like survival of the fittest," Scott said in court. "Kill or be killed."

But during the investigations into the Soto and Romberg killings, Scott changed his stories multiple times, a fact hammered home by Austin's attorney, Richard Kling.

"You lie when it helps you, don't you?" Kling asked him.

"No," Scott said.

But Scott had initially told investigators that his brother was with him the night of the shooting—and not in the car with Austin. When Kling pointed this out, Scott said he'd been afraid that Austin would retaliate if he cooperated with authorities. "I lied to protect numerous people, including me and my brother."

Kling also read from a complaint that Scott filed with the city alleging that he'd been mistreated in police custody during the investigation. In it Scott claimed that a group of cops had handcuffed him facedown on a bench in the police station locker room, then hit and kicked him.

Scott downplayed the incident in court. "The things in the locker room happened, but it wasn't that harsh," he said.

Scott hasn't been sentenced yet, but he's hoping for reduced time in return for his cooperation—another point that Kling stressed repeatedly.

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