Wednesday, Oct. 23, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
A Los Angeles gang member admitted to planning the brazen robbery of Harrah's hotel-casino in 1994, shaving years off his prison sentence and sparing his mother from criminal prosecution.
Melvin "Poppa" Foster accepted the government's offer minutes before trial was to begin Tuesday. The defendant wavered Monday, delaying the trial for about four hours before rejecting the offer.
But the 29-year-old Foster, who met with his mother Monday evening, changed his mind and answered guilty to the charges. His attorney, Paul Wommer, said he believed that the seriousness of the crime made an impression on Foster during the night.
"He could have received 100 years," Wommer said. Instead, his client faces from 10 to 20 years in prison when sentenced Jan. 31.
In return for Foster's guilty plea, the U.S. attorney's office agreed not to prosecute his mother on allegations that she lied to the grand jury. Wommer said the government's promise greatly influenced Foster's decision.
Meanwhile, the lone defendant, Chet "Shortdog" Govan, placed his hope in a jury trial that began listening to evidence Tuesday.
The 29-year-old alleged LA gang member is charged with recruiting five younger members to carry out the $97,400 casino heist on April 24, 1994. Those five gangsters were caught, admitted to the robbery and are serving prison time.
The stolen cash has never been recovered, but FBI agents said they have evidence that Govan, Foster and Govan's girlfriend, Dionne Chappelle, drove the money back to Los Angeles.
The day after the robbery Govan -- "who does not have two legitimate nickels to rub together," according to federal prosecutor Tom O'Connell -- allegedly bought a $9,000 used Chevrolet pickup. The government said that casino money was used.
O'Connell plans to use fingerprints, casino surveillance film, telephone records and one of the five gangsters' own words to prove the government's case. Crips member Joseph "Baby Boy" Wright will testify that Govan was at Harrah's during the robbery and planned the attack, he said.
Earlier this month the government tried to close a portion of the trial over concerns that threats made against witnesses would prevent them from testifying. U.S. District Judge Philip Pro denied the request. However, there were at least three deputy U.S. marshals in the courtroom at all times.
"Mr. Govan set up the robbery in such a way that when the dust settled he was in LA and Mr. Wright and four others were in (the) Las Vegas jail," said the prosecutor, adding that Wright had an "ax to grind."
Govan's attorney, Donald Green, urged the jury to listen to Wright's testimony with skepticism because the gang member may lie in hopes of currying favor with the government.
The U.S. attorney's office has told Wright and another gang member expected to take the witness stand that if they cooperate and their testimony is useful, the government may reduce their sentences.
Like Foster, Govan is charged with conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats or violence, use of a firearm in a crime of violence, aiding and abetting, money laundering and forfeiture.