Man pleads guilty to carrying gun he test-fired, unwittingly drawing 2 Chicago police officers to their deaths on Metra tracks

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Chicago police officers salute as the casket of fallen Officer Conrad Gary is carried out of St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel following his funeral service on Dec. 21, 2018. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — At an emotional court hearing Wednesday, a South Side man pleaded guilty to carrying a gun he had happened to find in an alley — sparking a chain of events that ended with two Chicago police officers fatally hit by a train.

Edward Brown, 26, pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful use of a weapon in exchange for a sentence of one year in prison. With credit for good behavior, he could be released as early as this fall.

Prosecutors said Brown found the gun in an alley on Dec. 17, 2018, and took it to nearby train tracks to test it. The sound of the pistol going off drew Officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo to the tracks to investigate, where they were struck by a passing commuter train.

“There is no sentence or judgment I can give that will bring those two men back to their families or fellow officers,” Judge Diana Kenworthy said, her voice shaking.

Kenworthy paused to compose herself before explaining that Brown had no criminal background, cooperated extensively with the police investigation and never violated the terms of his pretrial release. The charge carries a penalty of one to three years in prison.

“I understand that the sentence may not seem appropriate to some, but I accept that,” the judge said from the bench. Brown was escorted into custody shortly afterward.

On the witness stand Wednesday, Marmolejo’s widow, Maria, gave a victim-impact statement and recalled a news story that characterized Brown’s actions as his “biggest mistake.”

“Your biggest mistake was not a mistake, it was a choice you made,” she told Brown. “Bad and illegal choices that resulted in an unimaginable reality, in the death of two men that were in search of the man doing something wrong, because it was their oath and they were doing the best they could at their jobs.”

Given the opportunity to speak on his own behalf before the sentence was officially imposed, Brown declined.

The tragic and improbable chain of events that day began when a resident of the Rosemoor neighborhood on the South Side took the garbage out on his way to a doctor’s appointment. He had a black fanny pack with him, containing his firearm owner’s identification card and his .380 semiautomatic pistol, prosecutors said.

When he left for the appointment, he accidentally left the fanny pack on the ground in the alley, Assistant State’s Attorney Andrew Varga said in court Wednesday.

Brown, on his way home from work, found the fanny pack in the alley and took it, Varga said. He took out the gun and walked to the Metra station near 103rd Street, where he fired it three times: once in the air, once down the tracks and once in the direction of a nearby elementary school, Varga said.

“I was just trying it out,” Brown told detectives, according to police reports.

The gunshots were detected by the police’s ShotSpotter system, and several officers responded to the area, including Marmolejo and Gary. They climbed up a gravel embankment to the tracks, where they saw Brown heading south and tried to follow him.

They stayed on the tracks used by southbound trains because they saw a northbound train approaching, police said at the time. They were unaware they were in the path of another train.

An engineer on one of the trains saw a silhouette and heard a thumping and immediately hit his emergency brakes, a police report said.

Meanwhile, other officers arrested Brown and took him to a police station, unaware that Marmolejo and Gary had been fatally struck. After finding the pistol, Brown told detectives that he discarded the fanny pack on the roof of a garage near his residence. Detectives located the bag on the roof and found the owner’s FOID card inside.

Ultimately, prosecutors determined they could not reasonably charge Brown with the officers’ deaths. He faced instead several counts of unlawful use of a weapon and reckless discharge, all but one of which were dropped as part of his plea agreement.

Brown’s attorney Frank Kostouros said little during Wednesday’s hearing, but at Brown’s initial appearance in bond court he had called his client “devastated” by the officers’ deaths.

Brown had thought it would be safer to go to the train tracks to fire the gun, the lawyer said.

“This is a completely unforeseeable and unfortunate series of events,” Kostouros said at the time. “He wasn’t gangbanging. It was just the worst of luck.’'

Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The body of Chicago police officer Conrad Gary is carried out following his funeral at St. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Police officers salute as the remains of Chicago police Officer Conrad Gary arrives for his funeral at St. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The casket of fallen Chicago police Officer Conrad Gary is carried out of St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel following the funeral service for Gary on Dec. 21, 2018. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS