COLUMN ONE : When L.A. Gangs Move In : How three smaller communities across the U.S. coped when gang culture moved in. Drug-dealing and violence usually weren’t far behind.
When five shots were fired from a car passing slowly by another right there on Main Street, not far from the grain elevators where farmers store their barley, one detail especially piqued the interest of Tom Mattingly, the one-man police force in this town of 1,200: the car of the gunman had California license plates.
Mattingly remembered seeing something on TV about drive-by shootings in Los Angeles. He got on the phone and soon was talking to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Wes McBride, who maintains a computer system that logs 70,000 gang members.
“It’s probably nothing,” Mattingly said, “but I was wondering . . . .”
McBride takes a call like that every day, from a cop somewhere around the country worried that Los Angeles-area gang members are invading his turf. Usually it is nothing. The cop has stopped a young black man or Latino wearing a blue or red baseball cap, and his imagination runs wild with visions from the movie “Colors.”
Mattingly recited the name of the 21-year-old suspected of firing a snub-nosed pistol out the window of his car. McBride punched it into his computer.
The name was a hit. The man was a member of a well-established Long Beach-based gang.
Thus was the 73rd dot placed on the large “gang migration” map of the United States that graces the walls of sheriff’s offices in Whittier.
The map went up several years ago, after it became clear that reports of Los Angeles-area gang members in far-off cities could not be dismissed as local paranoia, the law enforcement equivalent of flying saucer sightings. No one was imagining the 1986 shooting of a policeman in Denver by a Crip from California, or the murder the next year of a cop in Honolulu.
The first reports suggested a random spread of gangs, a few members moving away simply to live with relatives or escape the violent streets of Los Angeles. “We might be after them or another gang might be,” noted McBride. “When he gets there, he looks around. . . . Those little tentacles get set up.”
Then came the crack connection, with Crips and Bloods spreading out to sell the cheap cocaine in cities throughout the country. A series of law enforcement reports recently described how anti-drug efforts in Miami prompted a shift in the importation route for Colombian cocaine, bringing much of the supply through Los Angeles and creating a burgeoning business for the street gangs. One federal study last September said gangs from Los Angeles and surrounding cities controlled 30% of the nation’s crack trade.
“If there’s a market, they’ll go there,” said Detective Bob Jackson, one of the Los Angeles Police Department’s leading gang experts.
A dot went up over Seattle, which now has three federal prosecutors whose sole job is to prosecute Los Angeles-area gang members. Another dot marked Portland, which eventually called out the National Guard. In December, the city placed some unusual posters on the sides of buses--a photograph of unwelcome visitor Tim Booten, sentenced to 76 months in prison, with his lament, “If I knew I was going to do this much time, I would never have joined a gang.”
But connect all the dots and the lines form a web across the United States that includes more than just large cities. Ensnared as well are places such as Hobbs, N.M., and Peoria, Ill. The people affected are not all blacks or Latinos. And the problems exported from Southern California do not always involve drugs. Even more dangerous, some communities have discovered, is the whole insane culture of gangs, with its secret world of nicknames and hand signs, fierce territorialism and violence over the color of shoelaces.
In Lakewood, Colo., an upper-middle-class suburb west of Denver, all it took was one 13-year-old from San Bernardino sent to live with his grandfather.
“He brought his knowledge, mimicked what he had seen, and in a very short time had a following,” said Lakewood Detective Greg Bramblet. Soon there was graffiti advertising the “104 Street Crenshaw Mafia Bloods” on houses, parks and a lumberyard. There is no 104th Street in Lakewood.
In Boise, the encounter was with the “Santa Ana Boys,” a Vietnamese gang.
In Honolulu, the gang members imported from Southern California are Samoan and Filipino.
And in Colorado Springs--a city without housing projects, ghettos or barrios--authorities recently began noticing white youths among the followers of some gang members who arrived from Los Angeles. The initiation might be beating up someone at the video arcade or stealing Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments, but this was not merely a play version of the gang world. There was a triple stabbing as well, in which one youth chanted, “Don’t mess with the Crips.”
Jake Garcia, a school disciplinary officer in the city of 215,000, started thinking about the pattern of youngsters coming to his office.
A 16-year-old, whose father had left home when he was 6, said he was skipping school and hanging around with gang members because he was afraid “they’ll waste me.” A 17-year-old, whose mother managed the household on her own, had threatened another student. A 15-year-old, unsupervised at home until 11 p.m., vowed to shoot an assistant principal. All were white, and would-be Crips.
“The overriding issue is not ethnicity,” Garcia concluded. “These are latchkey kids, kids from single-parent families, kids hurting from a psychological standpoint, looking for a sense of belonging.”
Garcia was all too aware of the studies documenting the decay of the American family.
“If you study the demographics, we’re ripe,” he said. “Not just here but around the country.”
What follows is a closer look at three of the dots on the map, at three communities experiencing different elements of the phenomenon.
In the small, historic city of York, Pa., the gang migration was about business, a dozen or more Crips traveling cross-country in search of drug profits--and inspiring an unprecedented law enforcement mobilization.
In Shreveport, La., drugs are not so much the problem as the social elements of gangs, with drive-by shootings becoming a nightly fact of life among sects that draw their names from streets they have never seen in South-Central Los Angeles.
Then there’s that dot in the middle of nowhere, along what should have been a quiet stretch of highway in Idaho. At the site of the most unlikely drive-by of all, Tom Mattingly wonders whether he has stumbled on a crime problem or, simply, some young men in search of a better life.
The Town That Drove Them Off
How harmlessly it began:
Sabrina Cole’s mother divorced and moved back to her hometown. Cole, 20, working as a hairdresser in Los Angeles, drove out for a vacation. Days after arriving, she telephoned her boyfriend in Los Angeles. “He said that he missed me,” she recalled, “and that he wanted to come also.”
Benjamin West liked what he saw in York. Soon a group of friends joined him in the city of 50,000 in the midst of Pennsylvania Dutch farming country.
Two years later, they would sit together in Federal Court in nearby Harrisburg wearing blue jackets, blue shirts and, in West’s case, turquoise shoes.
But few recalled such an obvious display of Crips colors when the young men started filtering into town in 1987. They were distinct from local youths by their hair--the wet “jheri curl” look--and the late-model cars they drove, but otherwise they did not draw attention to themselves.
“They were very quiet, very reserved . . . health freaks, bodybuilder-types,” noted Bob Simpson, 44, director of the Crispus Attucks community center, where West and a colleague would work out. “They never touched drugs themselves; they seemed to know the consequences.”
Lee Smallwood, a black city councilman, was one of the first people to be suspicious of the outsiders. His daughter, who had just returned to York after graduating college, told him of a party where “they had young folks running around with beepers, girls with beepers.”
Smallwood urged police to keep an eye on the newcomers and sent his daughter to live with his ex-wife in New Jersey. “I got her the hell out of here,” he said.
Authorities eventually estimated that West and his friends were taking in $40,000 a week selling crack cocaine in York.
In many ways, what happened in York was typical of gang drug trafficking. It was not so much a highly coordinated enterprise with gangs functioning in the mold of McDonald’s or Burger King, systematically handing out franchises in promising locales. Rather, it was more like a gold rush--legions of individuals and small groups packing their bags and seeking a new claim, or a piece of an established one.
Founded in 1741, York has a rich history, serving as home to the Continental Congress during nine months of the Revolutionary War. Surrounded by agricultural counties, York grew as a manufacturing center for farm and construction equipment.
The prime drug-trading area, as in many cities, is dubbed “The Strip.” There, two alleys intersect amid the old wood and brick row houses that shelter much of the city’s minority population--about 16,000 blacks and 6,000 Latinos.
Longtime residents talk with embarrassment about how easily a succession of locals made their homes available for drug dealing by West and the other “Cali boys.” It was nothing like other cities, where gaining control of drug markets often precipitates clashes with local dealers or other outside groups, such as violent Jamaican “posses.”
One woman let West use her apartment for $80 a night. A young mother recalled that when “I got my phone cut off . . . he paid it.”
A former local basketball star got hooked in. So did the security guard at the Starlight Building, a three-story hotel turned into apartments. Hired to keep undesirables out, he accepted drugs and money to let West and others in.
Police couldn’t help but notice how a lookout with a walkie-talkie would sit on a fence outside the Starlight. And there were some arrests--even West got picked up once for possession of cocaine.
But, for a year or more, no one sensed exactly what was happening. West, for instance, was allowed to plea-bargain a meager four-month jail term. Even then, he had second thoughts and disappeared before sentencing, heading back to Los Angeles.
Most of the cocaine was being transported by air, with teen-age girls used as “mules” to travel under false names and strap the precious powder to their bodies. One shipment was concealed in Christmas presents of model cars and trucks. “Get well Grandma,” said the card. The turning point was an incident in April, 1988. Two other young men were arrested in a raid at which $50,000 in crack was found. They claimed to be the sons of a local woman--which they weren’t--and bailed themselves out with $30,000 in cash. Then they fled to California.
“We realized this $30,000 was a joke for them,” said Mayor Bill Althaus.
Recalled Police Chief William M. Hose: “The first time you arrest somebody, you don’t realize you have an invasion of the Crips. . . . After this, we realized we had to hit them with everything we had.”
From then on, bail was set at $1 million when one of the outsiders was arrested. Undercover officers were imported from out of town. There were raids on apartments and motel rooms, one stumbling on Sabrina Cole flushing crack down a toilet. Finally, 80 officers were assembled from local, state and federal agencies to serve warrants for the arrest of 123 people.
Most of those arrested were prosecuted in local courts. But federal charges--carrying far longer sentences--were filed against 21 people, 15 of them gang members from California. Prosecutors then introduced helicopter photos to show that drugs had been sold within 1,000 feet of schools, allowing even stiffer terms.
By the standards of Los Angeles, the crack dealers had been peaceful. There was only one shooting, a 15-year-old girl wounded in the foot outside the Starlight. Only a few weapons were seized.
But when they appeared for sentencing last November, the terms reflected a community’s rage. The shortest sentence was 10 years without possibility of parole, while West and another man were given 30 years. A third defendant got 27 years and faces additional time in Indiana, having left York and been caught selling drugs in Indianapolis--another dot on the map.
“The continuing debate is, why York?” said Mayor Althaus. “Why a small city like this? They won’t tell you, of course, but our thinking is this is a growing international business and they identify cities that they think don’t have the resources to fight back.
“Well, in this case they were wrong.”
No one pretends York’s drug problems are solved--some Dominican drug dealers have moved in--but the supplies are not as plentiful as they once were. And the experience has put a community on alert.
Drug education soon will begin in kindergarten. Simpson’s organization posted 150 “Drug Watch” signs across a 6-by-8 block area, and five police officers now patrol there, paying attention not only to crime but “quality of life issues"--helping remove abandoned vehicles, clean up garbage and board up vacant homes.
In late November, days after West was sentenced, Chief Hose was invited to a law enforcement conference on the Crips and Bloods in Atlantic City--one of three conferences held around the country the last two years--to explain how he did it. “You’ve got to jump on them,” he said.
Hose came away depressed. He found 300 cops sharing similar problems, and heard their war stories: about the 11 Crips accused of selling crack in Akron, Ohio., where 32 weapons were seized in raids; about what would become a high-profile case in Washington D.C., in which a jury heard evidence of how a Los Angeles gang member served as “narcotics broker” for a massive crack ring that imported drugs in suitcases; about the travails of Oklahoma City, where police reported they were beset by more than 100 L.A. gang members.
“I just feel,” Hose would say after the conference, “like we’re really under siege.”
The police chief also realized how lucky York had been. Not only had the Crips been conquered, they had not left behind their culture.
There were no legions of local youngsters wearing blue and red, throwing each other hand signals and carving out turf. Others at the conference could tell him that, for many communities, these social elements of gang life are the worst part of being a dot on the map.
Murder at the ‘Fun Center’
Before making his evening rounds, Sheriff’s Deputy Talben Pope drops off his “Love of Life” tape at the small cinder-block building that houses gospel radio station KOKA. Here in the Bible Belt, you attack a problem with God as well as guns.
He drives his unmarked car into Queensboro, a neighborhood where boarded-up houses have become billboards for battling graffiti: “I Die For My Colos” “w/s 52 Hoover Crips” “Rolling 60s” or simply “HK,” for Hoover Killers.
Walking down the street are six teen-agers who look like they might be auditioning for jobs as Santa Claus, they wear so much red--jackets, caps, bandannas and sneakers. With them is a man in his early 20s, who has no red on him.
“Let’s see that Blood sign, bro,” one of the teen-agers shouts.
“Can’t do that, man,” Deputy Pope says, sticking his head out the car window.
A pudgy youth lifts his shirt to show a tattoo: “LA Bloods.”
The man wearing no red, his head covered with a dark wool ski cap, walks over. The man, who goes by the street name Sebo, is the real thing, from Los Angeles. No need to show his colors. The younger ones trailing along have never been out of Shreveport.
“Why come down here to mix with these fakes?” Pope asks Sebo. “ ‘Cause it got too hot for you?”
One of the tag-alongs answers for Sebo. “Nah, to kill some Crips.” Then another chimes in, “Sell some dope.” Then a third, “Have some fun, gangbang. You know, do the right thing.”
Several teen-age girls approach, also in red. Bloodettes. The boys head off to meet them.
Pope turns on the car radio. There’s gospel music in the background and, over it, his own voice using the soothing tones of the youth minister he is during off hours. “So much violence,” the broadcast says. “So much killing in our city.”
For a long time, community leaders and city officials debated whether there was a real gang problem in Shreveport. Gang members from Los Angeles were picked up from time to time--one shot a man in the back over a drug deal gone awry--but few cops saw a pattern.
Even after bands of teen-agers began embracing blue and red, some dismissed them as no different than the ".22s,” an old neighborhood gang in the northern Louisiana oil city of 200,000. The movie “Colors” had come out in April, 1988, and these youths were seen as harmless imitators, kids playing a modern urban version of cowboys and Indians.
“There’s a lot of wanna-bes out there so we don’t know if it’s bunk or if it’s real,” one officer said after a raid on a crack house uncovered a poster identifying Crip hand signs.
But, in August, 1988, someone yelled, “Crips Rule!” behind a crowded fast food restaurant and 20 shots were fired, killing a 19-year-old passer-by. Police arrested 11 young men. “We ain’t no Crips and Bloods, we mommas’ boys,” one joked outside a jail elevator.
Police formed a gang unit after that.
Then 1989 became the year of the drive-by. It started in March when four teen-agers were wounded by assault-rifle fire. By fall, there were two or three drive-bys most weeks. Winter saw seven shootings in a three-day period.
Sometimes someone is grazed, but most of the time no one gets hurt and no one talks to the cops. They just retaliate.
“We figure it started after the Hoover Street Crips came to town,” Shreveport Police Detective Don Ashley says now. “Then some Rolling 60s came. They start feuding. It started out over some territory, then it’s tit-for-tat stuff. They’ve cranked it up pretty good.”
So it was that Shreveport joined a long list of cities duplicating the Southern California experience. Drugs get most of the attention, but police say they are the motive for only a small portion of gang-related violence. Most of the gunplay--in Shreveport as in Los Angeles--is over turf, small insults or revenge.
Typical incidents in December included strafing a Shreveport house with eight rounds of gunfire, shooting up a Lincoln Continental and firing shots from a car passing another outside Fair Park High School.
And on the same day as the high school incident, 19-year-old Roderick Harris died at a local hospital. Shot between the eyes as he exited the MLK Fun Center, he was the city’s first fatality from a drive-by shooting.
Days after the death, Shreveport Detective Michael Price rolled up to the MLK Fun Center.
Located near the end of a semi-rural neighborhood with no sidewalks and bungalows with peeling paint up on blocks, the “fun center” has five pool tables, a jukebox, a row of video games and enough warnings on the walls to rival the Ten Commandments: No Guns. No Drugs. No Alcohol Nor Profanity. No Minors After 10 P.M. Another starts by saying, “Hug A Kid,” but the rest is blocked by the “Shoot Away” game, in which two players stand in front of a large screen with rifles.
At night, this is headquarters for the Rolling 60s, who favor blue jackets and black Raiders caps.
An employee, a man in his 50s, tells Price he heard about the “roll-by shootin’,” but didn’t see anything. “I just give ‘em change and stuff. I don’t mess with them young guys.”
To police, it’s no mystery. “The Hoovers,” led by two brothers from Los Angeles, were rolling on the 60s, sending a message. Price had prepared an arrest warrant for one of them, but prosecutors said he needed more witnesses placing the man in the car from which the shots were fired.
“There were at least 50 people in this parking lot,” the detective says. “It’s amazing how no one saw anything.”
He drives to the home of one potential witness, a young woman. She’s in bed, cuddling her baby, a multicolored quilt over them. The woman’s mother is there as well, and several other children play on the floor.
“The only was we can stop this,” Price tells her, “is to get people to testify.”
“It happened so fast,” she says. “All I saw was this person hanging out the window, shooting.”
“What’s his initial?” Price asks, seeing if she’ll talk in code.
She shakes her head. “The first shot went and I ducked my head.”
It’s clear she will not be the witness Price needs. He thanks her and walks out the door. The mother follows.
“Those Hoovers won’t shoot up here, will they?” she asks.
That afternoon, the New Jerusalem Baptist Church invites youngsters in the neighborhood to a special meeting. Five boys and three girls show up, most 10 to 13 years old.
Emerlyon Mosby, a plump 61-year-old in a red dress, leans over the front pew.
“C with us,” she tells the kids, “stands for Christ. And B with us stands for the Blood of Jesus. So rather than the Crips and the Bloods, we’re going to be the Christians and the Believers.”
Then she asks, “You understand what I’m sayin’?”
During the next hour, they show how much they understand. They tell her the price of crack and the new drug “ice.” They tell how some gang members now wear black and gray and purple “so they won’t be identified.” They tell how, before you’re truly accepted in a gang, you’ve got to do a little shooting.
Mosby, a community activist for years, goes on to announce that the church is going to offer reading and self-esteem classes, and perhaps hunting trips with Pastor Aaron Franklin.
“But before he takes you hunting,” she says, “he’s going to take you out to the rifle range and make sure you know how to handle a gun properly. And he’ll do a little psychological testing to make sure you’re fit for a gun and not trying to get first prize in a street shoot-out. You understand?”
The youngsters nod.
‘I Wanted to Get Away’
Winter is the quiet time. The population drops as tourists don’t stop and temporary farm labor is off in warmer climes. The fields are covered with snow, as is the Targhee National Forest, which extends west to Yellowstone Park, 25 miles away.
Not that Ashton ever is a turbulent place--the drive-by on Main Street was the only shooting requiring investigation by police in 1989.
Mattingly did not make an arrest.
The man who was the target refused to talk to him, much less file a complaint. A typical drive-by.
Besides, none of the five bullets even hit his car.
“This guy,” Mattingly said of the gunman who had put Ashton on the gang map, “was either not very serious or he’s one of the lousiest shots I’ve ever seen.”
It had happened in August, during the annual festival along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. As best Mattingly could determine, a fight broke out when one man was accused of drinking more beer than he paid for. The man drove off. The California car followed.
Alerted to the gunfire, the 38-year-old Mattingly got in his truck, drove around town and found the Californian standing by his car. “He didn’t understand a lot of English,” the chief recalled, ‘No comprende. ‘ “
From Los Angeles, Sgt. McBride’s computer reported that the man had belonged to the Largo set, which has been around Long Beach at least 15 years and is known to battle Crips and Samoans. The good news was the man had no criminal record.
The computer spit out a similar profile when, a month later, Mattingly spotted a second newcomer from California. He was 17 years old, a cousin of the 21-year-old’s wife.
“All sorts of nice retirement spots being ruined around the country,” the L.A. cop joked.
McBride did not have to tell the chief to keep an eye on the two men. Already under way in Idaho was a top-secret investigation of cocaine dealing in Pocatello--two hours from Ashton--by a dozen Latino gang members from Los Angeles.
“The No. 1 case in the state,” U.S. Atty. Maurie Ellsworth would say after a Jan. 8 raid by 160 officers, a mobilization much like the one in York--a raid that made Pocatello the latest dot on the map.
But there was another possibility to consider in Ashton.
“There are cases where they move,” McBride advised, “and they stay straight.”
Both newcomers had obtained jobs in nearby lumbering operations, trimming branches off felled ponderosa pines. It’s difficult work, paying $600 to $900 a month, but money carries a ways in a place where you can still buy a house for $20,000.
A few days before Christmas, the 21-year-old was out of town, helping the family of a co-worker killed in a logging accident. His wife was at home, though, caring for their 2-month-old child. The 17-year-old was home as well.
Icicles hung from the front porch of their small wood-frame house, but it was warm inside, a wood stove going full bore in the living room. Under the Christmas tree, a dozen presents were arranged in perfect symmetry.
In California, “we lived near a liquor store with an aunt,” the 17-year-old said in Spanish. “There was noise, traffic, other dangers.
“An uncle of mine was a gang member,” he added. “It’s nothing but trouble.”
He fashioned his fingers like they were pistols and made shooting gestures.
“The uncle, friends of his were fighting with enemies . . . They’d invited me to fight with them. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to get away from them.”
He was wearing thick rubber boots and bluejeans. Slender and about 5-foot-8, he might look younger than 17 if not for a slight mustache.
“There was no work there. I came here to work.”
He looked past the Christmas tree, through the front window frosted over from the cold.
“I like the snow falling here,” he said. “I think I’ll stay here.”
Told later what the young man said, Mattingly thought it over a while.
“I hope that’s true,” he said. “I hope that’s why they came to this one-horse town.”