CHICAGO — A former general in Chicago’s infamous El Rukn street gang who was at the center of a stunning plot with Libya to commit terrorist acts in exchange for cash has been ordered released from federal prison due to a terminal illness.
Melvin Mayes, 64, had been serving three life sentences at a medical prison facility in North Carolina stemming from his conviction in a massive racketeering conspiracy case that included large-scale drug trafficking, contract murders and other violence.
Mayes was also deeply involved in the alleged $2.5 million terror deal with Libya, negotiating the purchase of shoulder-fired rockets and even helping arrange a phone call between then-dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi and imprisoned El Rukn boss Jeff Fort in March 1986, according to federal court records.
Mayes began petitioning the court for his compassionate release nearly two years ago because of “chronic hypercapnic and hypoxemic respiratory failure,” a progressive condition that requires around-the-clock supplemental oxygen and has confined him to a wheelchair. Doctors have given him only months to live.
Prosecutors had opposed the move on technical grounds relating to sentencing laws. But in an order posted Thursday, U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said Mayes’ attorneys had shown “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances that favor compassionate release.
“Mayes’s terminal illness defines his day-to-day life,” Pallmeyer wrote. “He can no longer care for himself independently and has no realistic prospect of recovery … Given his debilitating condition, Mayes appears to pose a minimal risk of future criminal behavior.”
Pallmeyer ordered Mayes’ life sentence be converted to time served as of Feb. 15. He plans to live with his sister and her husband in suburban Chicago, where they’ve arranged for hospice services, court records show.
Mayes’ attorney could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
His pending release marked yet another twist in the saga of the El Rukns, a ruthless and insular gang co-founded by Fort in the 1970s that operated under cover of a so-called religious organization out of a heavily fortified former movie theater that once stood near Pershing Road and Drexel Avenue.
Mayes was among 65 members of the gang indicted for racketeering conspiracy in 1989 in a wave of prosecutions that ultimately brought down Fort’s organization.
At the time he was charged, Mayes was a fugitive, having disappeared after he was indicted in August 1986 on charges of negotiating to buy armor-piercing “LAW” rockets as part of the gang’s plot to commit terrorist acts in the U.S. for Libya.
Fort, who was still running the gang from prison in Texas, and four other El Rukn associates were also charged in the Libya plot. A jury convicted them in 1987, while Mayes was still on the run, court records show.
At that trial, the government’s star witness, longtime El Rukn associate Tramell Davis, testified that Mayes was talking to Fort one day in March 1986 when another phone rang at the gang’s South Side headquarters.
It was Gadhafi, the man the gang referred to in code as their “young friend,” Davis testified. Mayes hooked his phone up to a speaker system and arranged a crude three-way call so Fort could speak to Gadhafi from prison in Texas.
“Salame alekum,” Fort allegedly said to Gadhafi, an Arabic greeting meaning “peace be with you,” according to Davis’ testimony.
The FBI stumbled onto the plot later that month after getting court authorization to wiretap telephones at the El Rukn headquarters as part of an investigation into a drug ring that Fort was running from prison.
Instead of narcotics, however, agents heard Fort and others talking about Libya, which at the time was engaged in an armed conflict with U.S. forces over the country’s terrorist ties. A federal terrorism task force was called in to set up a sting to try to catch El Rukn members attempting to buy rockets and explosives, according to trial testimony.
In early August 1986, Mayes and fellow El Rukn lieutenant Alan Knox bought an M-72 light antitank rocket from an undercover FBI agent in a hotel room in suburban Lansing. They also ordered a crate of hand grenades, flak jackets, night binoculars and five more rockets, according to a Chicago Tribune report.
Five days later, agents executed a search warrant at an El Rukn-owned building on South Kenwood Avenue where they found the rocket in a hollowed-out stairwell, along with 33 automatic and semi-automatic weapons and three hand grenades, the Tribune reported.
Davis also helped prosecutors translate coded telephone conversations in which Fort and Mayes could be heard discussing ideas on how to use the weaponry to their advantage, according to Tribune reports.
In one recording, Mayes proposed testing the antitank rocket on a veteran Chicago police sergeant who had been investigating gang crimes in Chicago for decades, according to Davis’ testimony.
Fort could be heard laughing with Mayes as he talked about how he would like to “canvass” the sergeant — an El Rukn code word for murder, the Tribune reported.
In another coded conversation, Mayes could be heard saying, “They’ll hear like they be in manifest in the science of up and the last words.” Davis explained Mayes meant the gang was planning to blow up an airplane and make sure Gadhafi knew the El Rukns were responsible, according to Tribune reports.
Mayes, who fled to Libya after his indictment, was arrested in a South Side apartment in 1995 after nearly nine years on the run.
He was convicted at trial a year later on charges including conspiracy to murder four members of the rival King Cobras gang and also arranging a contract hit on a man in South Carolina. He was sentenced to life in 1998 by U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
Fort, 74, is serving a 168-year sentence for his various convictions. He’s currently being held at the “Supermax” prison facility in Florence, Colorado, records show.