By Ed Runyan
Fourteen young Warren men were singled out because of their criminal histories and told to come to the Trumbull County Courthouse, where for 90 minutes Friday they were told to put down their guns.
The talks delivered by eight people were the kickoff of the Ohio Attorney General’s Safe Neighborhoods Initiative being operated here by the Warren Police Department, a host of other law-enforcement agencies and a social-services agency.
The 14 were chosen because of their history with guns and their connections to Warren violence, but the speakers brought some firepower of their own.
They didn’t have guns, but the speakers packed a different kind of heat: Facts about the type of punishment that awaits them in federal prison, graphic photos of local gunshot victims, and appeals to their sense of responsibility to their children and parents.
Along the way, there also was a dose of encouragement that a different life is within their grasp.
Each of the men was required to attend the event as a requirement of their probation or parole.
Vince Peterson is a Trumbull County probation officer, but he spoke to the participants as a pastor. He grabbed the attention of his listeners when he arranged to have his cellphone ring just as he started to talk.
He answered it, then repeated the same question awkwardly into the phone about 10 times — “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” In reality, he was addressing the question to the young men.
Peterson, an imposing former football player, told them how much the old telephone ads that asked, “Can you hear me now?” pertain to their lives right now, saying all seven speakers who preceeded him were asking that same question.
“People have poured out their heart to you,” Peterson said. “If you don’t stop, if you don’t lay down your guns, if your boys don’t lay down their guns, you’ll be in prison, you’ll be dead.”
David Toepfer, assistant U.S. attorney for this area, wanted the men to understand that federal sentencing is vastly different from anything they’ve experienced in Trumbull County. Sentences are usually twice as long as in local courts, and the prisons are as much as 20 hours away, making family visits impractical.
Toepfer showed a newspaper headline regarding the April indictment of 97 people in a state, federal and local investigation that was focused on Warren and some of its drug-supply networks.
Toepfer said those 97 people — 55 of whom were indicted by federal courts — are “just like you.” He echoed several other speakers when he told them law enforcement will be watching them carefully.
He wanted them to know that in the federal courts, a person with a previous felony conviction who is found to have a gun, a part of a gun or even a bullet in his pocket can be sentenced to 15 years to life.
The average sentence in the federal courts is six years, and there is a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison if you “bring a gun to a drug deal.”
There is no early release from federal prison, there is no parole, and a person convicted previously of violence can get a 20-year sentence.
Warren Police Chief Eric Merkel listed all of the agencies participating in the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.
“All of them are on board with this initiative to see that the violence comes to an end,” he said. “I’m not going to hesitate to call on them if you or any of your crew commit violence.”
Tammy Weaver of Coleman Professional Services told the men of the agency’s 24-hour crisis center at the corner of North Park Avenue and Washington Street and gave out a phone number only for them — to “help you start a new life.”
Coleman helps people with employment services, mental-health issues and substance abuse problems, among other things.