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In August 1999, Veal awoke on the couch of a friend’s house to law-enforcement officers banging on the door. He was arrested on a homicide warrant, but the case was hardly solid. The evidence was scant. There was no physical evidence, just the word of two informants.

“We didn’t have overwhelming proof to hit him over the head with,” Mr. Brittin later recalled in court.

Nonetheless, offered the chance to cooperate, Veal eventually started talking and “what he told us was breathtaking, astonishing,” Mr. Brittin said at Veal’s sentencing.

Veal told authorities about six other murders for which he was not charged, including some in which investigators said they had no clue of his involvement. Prosecutors said Veal led them to ballistics evidence and told them about guns he used that were later matched to crime scenes. He re-enacted his killings. And he gave information on associates close to Gray, including several who ultimately cooperated with the government and got sentencing deals of their own.

When prosecutors approached Gray confidant Maurice Andrews about cooperating, Andrews pleaded guilty and testified against his former associates. “I knew y’all had Oscar,” one prosecutor said, paraphrasing Andrews’ words. “I knew y’all had me. I knew y’all knew what we did.”

Veal ultimately pleaded guilty to eight counts of racketeering conspiracy and seven counts of murder.

At trial, defense attorneys representing Gray, Moore and other co-defendants whom Veal testified against, one after another painted a very different portrait of Veal than that of a contrite former killer. The defense told jurors Veal cooperated with the government to save himself and was willing to lie to do so. Lawyers also said one of his killings happened after Veal said he converted to Islam.

“He sure doesn’t want to pay the price that one respectably, in a decent society, pays for murdering seven people,” Frances D’Antuono, who represented one of the Gray trial co-defendants, argued at trial. “No, he doesn’t, and he’s not going to.”

Kenneth D. Auerbach, who represented another co-defendant, argued that Veal “needs the United States‘ help, big time.”

“He needs their help because he’s got these murders to deal with, and eventually he wants to be standing in front of [U.S. District Judge Royce C.] Lamberth and get a wonderful recommendation for a reduced sentence.”

The reward

By the time Veal was led by U.S. marshals into Judge Lamberth’s courtroom for sentencing in December 2005, Gray and Moore and their associates were facing life in prison. Veal had reason to hope that, despite his murderous past, he soon could be a free man.

After all, Veal already served about six years in prison, and multiple murderers-turned-cooperators in other jurisdictions had received sentences of “time served” or just a few years, his lawyer argued in court records.

Among others, Veal’s lawyer cited Phillip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti, one-time underboss of the Philadelphia mob who turned government witness and served just five years despite a criminal record that included 10 murders. And perhaps the most famous government cooperator, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who was sentenced to five years despite his involvement in 19 murders and other crimes.

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