CHICAGO -- Less than 24 hours after a Hollywood studio awarded him a screenwriting contract, a former leader of a national gang that sprung from the hardcore punk scene was sentenced Tuesday to a year in prison by a federal judge in Chicago.
The highs and lows provided a snapshot of the life of Elgin Nathan James, 41, who led a street gang called FSU before turning his life around and becoming a filmmaker who has earned the support of notables such as actors Robert Redford and Ed Harris.
"The last few months have been a juxtaposition of the best and worst of my life," James said after court in a statement. "Today I faced my day of reckoning ... I have accepted responsibility for my past, and I am now looking forward to continuing my film career."
James was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon on Tuesday for the 2006 attempted extortion of a Chicago-area musician who was the target of beatings by the FSU gang. James offered to make the beatings stop for $5,000.
It was a scheme that Conlon said she found particularly disturbing before she sentenced him to one year and one day in prison. The extra day allows him to be released after serving about 10 months.
James' wife and several friends traveled from across the country to be with him in the courtroom. His wife wept loudly after Conlon rejected James' request for home confinement and electronic monitoring.
Prosecutors had sought up to four years in prison, noting the extreme violence in which James engaged. The gang was formed on the East Coast in 1988 to physically confront the neo-Nazi influence at hardcore punk concerts, often videotaping its attacks, according to court documents.
When the undisclosed Chicago-area musician -- a member of the punk band Mest, according to a source -- was targeted, James used fear to extort money from him instead of calling off the violence, prosecutors said in arguing for the harsher sentence.
"The violence was part and parcel of this extortion," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Hedges. "The defendant capitalized on the violence."
James told Conlon that through the support of his wife he has been able to turn around his life and find not only writing success but also repair relationships broken by a troubled, violent childhood.
"I did become a better man," James said.
Among the 60 letters of support sent to Conlon on James' behalf was one from Redford, whose Sundance Institute recently recognized James' film, "Little Birds," as one of 16 finalists from 10,000 entries at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
"I believe that Elgin has the potential to make a difference," Redford wrote to the judge. "He has an important message for people of all ages and the possibility of change (and) the power of non-violence."
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