Controversial former gang leader takes stand at Minneapolis murder trial

A controversial former gang leader recently returned to a Hennepin County courtroom, this time as a key witness in a murder trial.

Sharif Willis spent more than 20 years in prison, following his rise to the highest ranks of the Vice Lords during a turbulent era for Minneapolis street violence. In recent years, Willis has attempted to diffuse some of the issues in the community, particularly among young Black men. But some in the community, including law enforcement, have questioned his motives.

"We got to put some of these guns down," Willis said during an interview last Friday morning following his testimony from the witness stand. "We got to stop killing each other. It’s senseless. It’s useless. Everybody is the victim in this."

Willis testified at the trial of Deandre Turner. Turner is accused of gunning down Drew McGinley outside a large memorial vigil involving several dozen people with ties to the Vice Lords. The shooting happened June 30, 2021, outside the Elks Lodge on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis. McGinley was described by friends and loved ones at the time as a trusted community member, who gave his time to mentoring and coaching young people in the city.

It is alleged McGinley was killed in retaliation because he may have assaulted Willis. Willis declined to say much about what happened that night during the interview with FOX 9. He was called as a witness for the prosecution.

Sharif Willis (FOX 9)

Since getting out of prison in 2017, Willis has worked publicly with Reverend Jerry McAfee. Their latest effort is called, the 21 Days of Peace Initiative, involving volunteers holding space and taking back several high-crime, violent corners of Minneapolis.

"The numbers keep going up," said Willis. "We have young people, we go, we respond to different crime scenes. There's 30, 40, 50 different shell casings on the ground. You know, an individual was shot sometimes that didn't have anything to do with the altercation that occurred. You know, and we try to work to resolve those differences."

The one-time face of the Vice Lords dating back to the 1990s days when Minneapolis was dubbed "Murderapolis," Willis was once thought to have pulled the strings on the ambush slaying of former MPD officer Jerry Haaf. Willis was never charged with being directly connected to the murder and has denied any involvement despite the fact top Vice Lords leaders sanctioned the killing.

Willis also attempted to broker a peace deal between warring street gangs and the police, but some wearing the badge never trusted Willis, believing he never gave up calling the shots for the Vice Lords.

He spoke to FOX 9 several times over the years, including from federal prison, about his journey to reform and make a difference for those growing up in the culture of gangs and guns.

"I spent too many years in prison, that were unnecessary years. And a lot of the young people who make the choices, they commit an act in 15 seconds, and it gets them 15 years. And here we can kind of get in there and engage them and get them to direct it on another path. That's our mission," the now 72-year-old said about his current efforts.