First Blood

The boss fidgets in the back of a dark green Suburban as his driver navigates Turnpike traffic during rush hour. It’s Wednesday and he’s running late for a business meeting, but first he has to make a stop outside New Brunswick.

The boss fidgets in the back of a dark green Suburban as his driver navigates Turnpike traffic during rush hour. It’s Wednesday and he’s running late for a business meeting, but first he has to make a stop outside New Brunswick.

“I hate being late, but this is Jersey,” he says with a laugh.
“No doubt,” says the driver, who’s not much more than twenty years old, as he toys with the rim of his St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The driver is no fan of baseball’s 2006 world champions, but he is loyal to the color. It’s not a power tie and Brooks Brothers suit, but it’s a dress code nonetheless: Bloods wear red, Crips wear blue, and the Latin Kings favor black and gold. The Boston Red Sox are a hit with the Bloods because of the “B” on the cap. Crips can be spotted in New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers gear. Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins colors appeal to the Latin Kings.

To kill time, the boss watches the award-winning foreign film Totsi on a DVD player rigged to the truck’s ceiling. It’s a brutal movie about the life of a young South African gang member.

“That there is the way it is, unless you have a mediator,” says the man who has asked to be called Double O.G., combining Bond’s “00” with the initials for “original gangsta.”

“The little G’s are going to run wild without a mentor,” he says. “We got to get the young ones in line. That’s what I am, a mentor. I’m the Dr. Phil of the ’hood.”

No one laughs.

“I like watching that show,” Double O.G. says. “You got to use psychology on the street and in jail if you’re going to survive. That’s where I come in, making sure the little G’s don’t keep screwing up out there. All the fighting amongst each other makes for bad business.” And business is what Double O.G. is all about. He uses his counseling skills to improve an illicit bottom line, not root out trust issues among guys with guns in the waistbands of their droopy jeans.

Double O.G. is vague about his operation. Press him on size of workforce, types of tasks they perform, and their future plans for growth, and you’ll get no response. Some of it happens on the usual street corners and some transpires in more surprising locations, but it’s a safe bet the organization is diversified in illegal activity.

The driver changes lanes and speeds up.  Double O.G. readjusts himself in his leather seat. The sun is setting over Elizabeth. The road is a sea of brake lights. “Take your time,” Double O.G. tells the driver, who slows down and eases back into the middle lane.

An hour later, the Suburban pulls off the Turnpike at Exit 9. The driver pays the toll—despite its convenience, E-ZPass provides a record of where you’ve been—and makes its way onto Route 1 heading south. A little while later, he pulls into a mall parking lot and parks outside a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

The Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings are the most familiar names in a state roster that also includes MS-13, 18th Street Gang, La Familia, Tiny Rascals, Five Percenters, and Skinheads. According to law-enforcement officials, there are more than 690 other gangs craving bigger pieces of turf in the state. They represent the spread of “supergangs,” by-products of a prison system full of young African-American and Latino men. But the color lines are blurring today, and the members are stronger, more ruthless, and more organized. New Jersey State Police Detective Sergeant Ronnie Hampton says gangs claim to have more than 20,000 genuine members, but what concerns officials even more are the thousands of “wangsters”—wannabe gangsters—trying to craft images and take actions that belie their suburban or rural lives.

Double O.G. and his peers from the rest of the state’s gangs want to expand their profit centers. Bored suburban kids, trying to prove that front yards and two-parent homes don’t stop them from having street cred, are playing into gang leaders’ hands. Police chiefs throughout the suburbs talk about the need to put officers in high schools and middle schools to keep an eye on suspicious behavior.

Double O.G. says no town is immune from the influence of gangs.
“We got safe houses in places that would surprise you. They’re places to kick back and count the money. North Jersey, South Jersey, and over the state border… I like it down the Shore and in communities where I can go in and out easily,” he says. “But you can’t be making a lot of traffic. That’s when people start noticing things. You’ve got to keep things looking legit.”

“Kids in the suburbs are looking for a way to belong, and gangs are looking for places with new sources of income and less pressure from law enforcement,” says Lt. Colonel Frank E. Rodgers, Deputy Superintendent of Investigations for the state police. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“Gang members go where there is money to be made,” notes Hampton. “Drugs, racketeering, extortion, auto theft, money laundering, gambling, welfare, mortgage, and credit-card fraud—and don’t forget murder. They’re into it all.”

And they’re into it all over the state. In 2004, police officials reported gang membership in 40 percent of suburban communities, or nearly four times the number reported in 2001.

As 2006 neared its violent close in Newark, the city’s homicide count reached 103, exceeding the 1995 total by one. According to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, five of the eight murders in Plainfield last year were gang related. State police statistics show that 12 percent of the homicides in 2005 and 2006 were gang related. The state Department of Corrections’ Gang Awareness Prevention Program has gang-affiliated inmates speaking to kids as young as ten years old about the dangers of life as a “gangsta.”

But the fight continues on new fronts. In Burlington County, Crips-related graffiti has cropped up on businesses and apartment complexes. In Willingboro, law-enforcement officials have been struggling against attempts by the United Blood Nation and the East Coast Blood Nation to recruit high school students. On July 26 last year, a sting called Operation Nine Connect aimed to cripple the infamous “Nine Trey Gangsters.” One of the more than 60 suspects picked up on racketeering and drug-related charges lives in Pompton Plains, where the average household income is $72,729.

“It’s hard to know if all these individuals are actual gang members, but if they say they are, we take their word,” says Hampton.

Isaiah Thomas is an eighteen-year-old from Brick, a community recently named by research group Morgan Quitno Press as the safest in the United States. Thomas sits in the Ocean County Jail on $500,000 bail awaiting trial on charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and the unlawful possession of a firearm in last April’s murder of 25-year-old Terry Jackson in Lakewood. Last July in the affluent town of Teaneck, fifteen-year-old Ricky Lee Smith Jr. was shot and killed at a party; a seventeen-year-old alleged member of the Bloods has been charged in the murder.

“Gangs pile up bodies like cords of wood,” says Rodgers. “And there is no question that, with the advent of the Internet and gang copycats, these types of crimes are seeping into our more affluent communities.”

While Rodgers says that he’d have a hard time giving Double O.G. or any gang leader credit for being a mentor, he does say that schisms exist in the infrastructures of gangs. Think Godfather II or later seasons of The Sopranos: The older members of the gangs see violence as bad for business because every shooting or murder brings greater scrutiny of their activities. At the same time, the younger, more aggressive, violent “soldiers” are impatient, constantly poised for battles over turf to prove their worth to the leader, or to show the rank and file that maybe the boss is soft.

Double O.G. says he wanted to talk to show that not all gang members are murderous thugs. He gives up no specifics of any activities and is leery of anything that could provide a clue to his identity and the inner workings of his crews. He’s an intelligent survivor who regularly speaks of finding ways to end the lethal violence of current-day gang life. He’s not confident a truce—within the Bloods or among their rivals—could occur, and he admits that the constant reminders of mortality make crime a taxing career.

Teen gang members and wannabes are finding a platform in cyberspace to brag, fantasize, and blog about their exploits. “Originally, gangs advertised their existence and posted their messages in the form of graffiti,” says law enforcement veteran and gang expert Robert Walker on his website, GangsORUs.com. “Now, websites, chat rooms, and message boards catering to the gang culture are popping up on the Internet in increasing numbers.”

Hampton calls the fad “netbanging” and says that a lot of the gang wannabes—who use sites such as MySpace.com, MiGente.com, and Bebo.com to “throw signs,” wear flags (bandanas), and act like gang members—are putting themselves in real danger.

“Violence occurs when gang-bangers read these sites and take offense,” he says. “A kid sitting up in his room in his suburban community acting like a gangster can open up a Pandora’s box filled with real danger. Parents have to be aware of the threat. It’s an epidemic.”
 
An envelope with $5,000 in cash and a used-car ad sticking out the top sits in plain sight between the passenger and driver’s seats of the Suburban. “That there is my alibi in case we get stopped,” Double O.G. says of the envelope. “You can’t ride around with all that cash unless you have a reason. Buying a car is a good reason. You always have to have a reason.”

Double O.G. turns off the movie, grabs the cash, steps out of the Suburban, and heads into the bookstore with the driver by his side.
Inside, customers are lined up at the coffee bar and scattered around on overstuffed couches and chairs, their noses stuck in books and magazines. “It’s like going to the library,” Double O.G. says.

The two head off to a section of the store far away from the front door. Five minutes later, they emerge from the stack of books. Neither of them has the envelope, but Double O.G. is carrying a book, telling his partner as he shows him the cover, “You got to read this book. It’s about an L.A. Crip.”

“How do you say his name, San…yi…ka…Sha…kur?” the driver asks.
“Somethin’ like that,” Double O.G. says. “Let’s get a move on.”
They put down the book and walk out of the bookstore.

“You got to stay here—I know you like to read,” Double O.G. says abruptly in the parking lot. “Word is things are too f—ed up ahead right now. We can’t bring you with us. There’s a bus stop up on the corner by the light.”

Without another word, he and his driver get back in the Suburban and head south on Route 1 toward Trenton.
 
Lt. Col. Rodgers is standing outside the Bloomfield barracks along the Garden State Parkway. He’s on his way to West Point to watch the Army-Air Force football game. Captain Pat Dwyer, a decorated officer in plain clothes, spots Rodgers and gives him a bear hug.

“There is no better man on the New Jersey State Police. He’s given his life to the force,” Dwyer says without being asked. “You can take the cop out of the neighborhood, but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the cop.”

Rodgers grew up in Harrison and still visits his old ’hood. In 2005, state police superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes selected Rodgers, a 25-year veteran of the force, to spearhead the fight against terrorism, organized crime and gangs. Especially gangs.

The early-morning Operation Nine Connect raid capped an 11-month investigation; more than 500 law-enforcement members from 31 agencies in 7 counties arrested 94 suspects and executed more than 15 search warrants. The takedown netted more than 60 alleged Nine Trey members and associates from Totowa to Vineland. Terrence D. Williams, aka Rell-Rell, was picked up in Newark on charges of first-degree racketeering. William E. Robinson Jr., aka Ill Will, was nabbed in Atlantic City for alleged conspiracy to commit first-degree racketeering, possession of a weapon (by a convicted felon), and possession of lethal hollow-point ammo. David “Duke” Allen is the highest-ranking Nine Trey nabbed in the raid. He was easy to find since he was already an inmate in Trenton State Prison where he allegedly worked as the gang’s godfather, ordering contract assassinations and other criminal activities.

Another suspected leader, Emilio Dan Crespo, whom the police describe as a member of the Bloods’ national committee, was arrested in Manhattan on first-degree racketeering charges. “In this operation, we’re striking at the root of evil rather than hacking at its branches,” says Fuentes. “This type of intelligence-based policing reduces crime by eliminating the source.”

Operation Nine Connect was the state’s first major Intelligence-Led Policing assault on gangs. Based on the United Kingdom’s law-enforcement strategy of targeting the leadership of a criminal network, ILP allows organizations as diverse as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and local police forces to work together in developing intelligence and allocating resources.

Jerry Ratcliffe, associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, introduced ILP through his role as a consultant with the state police. “Through information sharing, improved communication, and better coordination, more effective policing will lead to arrests like those made against the Nine Trey gang,” says the British-born Ratcliffe.

“You can arrest 100 drug buyers and not have the same impact as arresting one high-level dealer,” says Fuentes. “That’s the beauty of Intelligence-Led Policing. Numbers of arrests are not nearly as meaningful as arresting the right people.”

The New Jersey State Police intelligence gathering process is keyed by the Statewide Intelligence Management System—a database located at the Regional Operations Intelligence Center, a state-of-the-art facility for intelligence and operational investigations. Known as the Rock, it’s in a secret location off the Turnpike in the southern part of the state and serves as a 24/7 resource for law enforcement. The Rock is staffed by representatives of every major stakeholder in New Jersey’s security picture, including the FBI and Homeland Security.

“Partnerships are the only way to ensure a unified and efficient response to crime. New Jersey troopers are now embedded in many of the larger cities’ police departments,” says Rodgers. “They gather and disperse intelligence and work side by side with local officers to combat criminal influences in these areas. One example is Operation Ceasefire.”

Operation Ceasefire concentrates resources in Camden, Jersey City, Trenton, Newark, Irvington, Paterson, Atlantic City, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Asbury Park, New Brunswick, Vineland, and Millville. It’s already credited with solving nearly half of the shootings that had gone unsolved in some of the targeted communities.

Rodgers points to the recently solved case of the murder of a former federal police officer as an example of the program’s success. The Atlantic City Police recovered a handgun when they arrested three suspected gang members immediately following a Pleasantville shooting. After doing background checks, an embedded undercover trooper discovered the men were suspects in an unsolved murder in the Washington, D.C., area. He convinced the Maryland authorities to compare the shell casing recovered from the D.C. shooting with the gun found in Atlantic City. They matched, and the case was quickly solved. The three men are now facing murder charges in Maryland.

“Some agencies may resist this level of change because it raises the bar and demands accountability for how personnel and resources are deployed,” says Rodgers. “But I predict that ten years from now this will be the way that policing will be done throughout the entire country.”

Graffiti, indecipherable to the uninitiated, brightens the wall above a crumbling statue of Jesus Christ outside the projects in Jersey City. Double O.G. has his hood up as he surveys the block. His left eye is swollen and his skull is fractured, courtesy of that meeting in Trenton.

“I told you things were f—ed up the other day,” he says, rubbing his eye. “We got jumped. At least they didn’t shoot us. It don’t matter who you are, a lot of people got blood on their hands. What you expect when you spend your life in poverty and jail? I make no excuses. People die in my world. And no matter how many times they make an arrest, there is always going to be another me.”

Double O.G. spots one of his underlings. They nod, exchange an incongruously graceful series of ritualized hand movements known as throwing signs, and hug. Double O.G. reaches into his pocket and hands him a wad of cash.

A few weeks later, Double O.G. sits in the back of the Suburban as it pulls into Hoboken from the south side of the city. The swelling around his eye has subsided, and he’s laughing as he watches Johnny Depp’s character get attacked by cannibals in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

“At least we don’t have any cannibals in the ’hood,” he says.
“No doubt, no doubt,” the driver replies, and pulls at his Cardinals cap.

Double O.G. says he’s been a Blood since he was sixteen years old. His introduction to gang life came through a program meant to divert him from the streets. He took part in a public works program in the ’80s.

While there, he met a ranking member of the Bloods who recruited him to sell drugs. That led him into stealing cars, selling drugs, robbing stores, spray-painting walls to mark territory, and building crews of loyal soldiers. When asked if he’s been involved in murders, Double O.G. merely shrugs. He does reveal that he grew up in a situation all too familiar in urban communities; he and family members struggled to survive the cycle of prison sentences and homicide. Articulate, savvy, and introspective about issues gang-related or not, he never raises his voice. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking he’s just another working stiff trying to get along.

Double O.G. says he funnels his earnings into a variety of legitimate businesses. He will not discuss his family, but does boast that he accumulated enough frequent-flyer miles last year to take his family on vacation. The trappings of his wealth are evident, from the luxury car to the comfortable-but-not-palatial home to the expensive but not ostentatious jewelry he wears.

“I tried the Bill Cosby thing, but when you got a record nobody will hire you,” he says. “I worked with kids a long time back, but they fired me when they found out I had a record. I loved the kids and they loved me, but it didn’t matter. I was out the door for a lousy [low-paying] job. I went back to jail right after that. And then when I got out I was back in the ’hood doing the same thing all over again.”

“It’s all about the money,” Double O.G. says. “Why the hell else do you think I’d be doing this shit after so many years?”

Even the most head-in-the-sand suburb-anite has heard about the streets-to-prison cycle for gang members. According to the state Department of Corrections, recidivism among gang members is more than 90 percent. And it’s in prison that gangs control whole wards, recruit new members, and solidify their stranglehold on neighborhoods.

The title Double O.G. was touting in the bookstore is Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. The author, a former member of Los Angeles’ Eight Trey Gangsters, writes: “Since every jail I’ve ever been in is designed to be recidivistic, as opposed to rehabilitative, the criminal culture is very strong. It saturates every level of every jail, from juvenile to death row. And so each individual going and coming back learns a new scheme to be used in the ever-growing arsenal of criminality. The ’hood also gains yet another expert in another field.”

Standing on that corner in the projects of Jersey City, Double O.G. points across the street and says, “Watch this.”

An undercover cop swoops down on a group of young men hanging out on a stoop. He moves right into the middle of them, pulls out his badge, grabs a kid, and pushes him up against the side of a car. The kid doesn’t resist. The rest of his friends disappear. The cop pats him down, talks on his radio, and after a couple of minutes, lets him go. A small crowd gathers, but most people pass by as though nothing is going on.

Double O.G. watches silently, never acknowledging whether he knows or employs any of the kids. “He grabbed the wrong kid,” he says. “If he’d a grabbed one of them other fellas, somebody would’ve been arrested. Sometimes you get lucky out here.”

Hampton, the state police detective, says luck is fleeting on the street. “In urban areas, gang members cause and experience so much violence. But by the time they’re in their 30s, their luck has run out. They’ve either given up on gang life, they’re in prison, or they’re dead.”

All too often, law-abiding citizens are just as unlucky. Last March, Tajahnique Lee, a seven-year-old second-grader in Trenton, was shot in the face while riding a bike outside her grandmother’s house. She survived. The shooting caused outrage in a city hardened by constant gang violence. “I was shaken by the shooting,” says Trenton mayor Douglas Palmer. “I’m angry and so are our citizens. We have to take back our streets from these criminals. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Twenty-year-old Shahcem Brown and Terrence Jabar Howell, 28, were arrested in the shooting. They were released shortly thereafter when the witness in the case recanted her statement to police. Some say she recanted because she was pressured by gang members. Brown and Howell remain free.

Two men sitting in a car in suburban Ewing Township, outside of Trenton, were shot at in an apparent gang-related drive-by incident on the same night Tajahnique Lee was shot in the face. Police helicopters circled the city for days in the wake of the shootings. Shortly after, surveillance cameras were installed on dangerous corners in Trenton, and local police stepped up patrols and began utilizing statistical data from the state police and other government agencies. According to police officials, the city’s murder rate for the second half of 2006 dropped 50 percent.

“The battle against gangs is relentless, but law enforcement alone can’t stop the proliferation of gangs,” says Lt. Col. Rodgers. “Every citizen, religious and community organization, and government official must be vigilant. Law enforcement officers have given their lives in the fight, and we owe it to them and all the other innocent individuals who have been victimized by gangs.”

Rodgers was referring to last summer’s shooting death of 32-year-old detective Kieran T. Shields, a decorated member of the Orange Police Department. The alleged shooter, nineteen-year-old Raynard Brown, had a long criminal record when he crossed paths with Shields. An alleged Bloods member, Brown did a stint at the Jamesburg Juvenile Detention Center for burglary and weapons charges; he was released in 2004 and was out on bail for a 2005 arrest on robbery and weapons charges when he shot Shields in the back. “The killing of Detective Shields shook us to the core and reminded us of just how dangerous this job is,” Rodgers says.

Hampton says that police and thugs understand this world dominated by a violence suburbanites can’t possibly comprehend.

Meanwhile, Double O.G., ready for another day at the office, climbs into his chauffered Suburban.

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