|HAMMOND | The clanking of shackles around wrists and ankles of elected officials charged with public corruption sends a sensory message, whether intended by law enforcement or not.
A message also comes across with the massive billboard-sized FBI logo on the sides of an evidence truck parked outside a local government building being raided.
At least one region defense attorney contends — and some federal agents agree — authorities here are sending a more visual, public message these days in a crack-down on alleged public corruption and other offenses.
Criminal defense attorney Scott King took note last year when his client, former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til, was led into Hammond federal court — shackled hand and foot — for his initial appearance on public corruption charges.
At the time, King said it was the first time he could remember seeing a client accused of nonviolent offenses marched into court in chains.
But it wouldn’t be the last.
King also is representing Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist and the mayor’s wife on charges of stealing from campaign and city food pantry funds, among other accusations. On Thursday, the U.S. Marshals Service led Soderquist, his wife and stepdaughter, who also face charges, into Hammond federal court with the defendants clad in wrist and ankle chains.
King said he vehemently disagrees with the practice of shackling defendants charged with nonviolent crimes before they’ve been convicted of doing anything wrong.
He said he went on record with the complaint last year, sending a formal letter of protest to Northern District of Indiana U.S. Chief Judge Philip Simon.
Simon was unavailable for comment Friday.
The U.S. Marshals Service, the agency providing federal courtroom security, would not comment on any security measures or decisions, agency spokeswoman Pamela Mozdzierz said.
But to King, the shackling practice is a visual splash that presumes guilt of nonviolent offenders before they’ve been tried or convicted.
“Historically, in cases of people accused of nonviolent offenses, you didn’t see this practice,” King said.
“It’s a visual act that I don’t think is justified by any real security threat. They’re bringing people into the courtroom in chains at a stage where they’re presumed innocent.”
In the case of Van Til, he ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of using county government resources to further his campaign and then directing the destruction of evidence to cover it up.
But Van Til, who is free on bond awaiting sentencing in his case, had not yet been convicted in May 2013 when he entered a federal courtroom with shackled wrists and ankles that also were connected to a chain around his waist.
King acknowledged that since Van Til’s initial appearance, he is seeing more use of shackles for all defendants during initial appearances on criminal charges in Hammond federal court.
Though the U.S. Marshals Service declined to comment on the practice of shackling inmates, another federal agency’s office admits a concerted effort to become more publicly visible in some of its operations.
Last month, the 600 block of Connecticut Street in Gary was closed down, and a large white truck with a prominent FBI logo was parked outside the Calumet Township trustee’s office.
FBI and IRS had closed down the office and were seen carrying boxes and at least one computer out of the trustee’s facility while serving a federal search warrant.
Throughout the morning, and in spite of an intermittent cold rain, a few people living in the nearby neighborhood came out to gawk at the truck and snap its picture in front of Trustee Mary Elgin’s place of business.
Though no charges or reason behind the raid have yet been made public, the FBI made no secret it was there.
And according to a local FBI supervisory agent, that’s partly by design.
“We are going to be visible and active, because part of our success is our visibility in the community — like when our personnel are actively engaged in investigations, collecting evidence and serving subpoenas,” said Bob Ramsey, supervisory agent for the FBI’s Merrillville office.
“It’s a good indication we are out there working hard and protecting the public’s interests. “There haven’t been any directives specifically from Indianapolis. Just our mindset up here is that there is work to do, and we are going to be aggressive.”
Ramsey acknowledged crime deterrence is one of several reasons for the agency’s high-profile look.
Marc Chase email@example.com, (219) 662-5330
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