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Gang problem hemorrhaging

Anthony Taylor Jr. was killed over the color red.

The 20-year-old Bloods gang member was partying with friends past midnight, hanging out on the corner of Guilford Avenue and East 22nd Street, a red bandana tied to his belt.

But police said a member of the Young Gorilla Family, which claimed the Barclay neighborhood as its own, had warned Taylor he was not allowed there wearing the signature color of the rival Bloods.

The two men fought, as they had in the past, but this time another Young Gorilla retrieved a 12-gauge shotgun and, according to police, ended the long-simmering feud with a single blast. The gunman then fired on Taylor's best friend, Adrian Holiday, a hotel valet and Baltimore County Community College student who was not involved in a gang.

Both died on the corner, across the street from a branch office of the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

On city streets long beset by violence, last September's double slaying presaged a rising threat.

Though Baltimore crime has long been fueled by loosely formed neighborhood crews, increasingly organized groups have found new reasons to kill - such as showing a red bandana on the wrong street. Now, those who police the city and schools, as well as the jails and prisons, are fearful of the potential growth and impact of these gangs, which are more brazen in their crimes and quick to pull a trigger.

Seeds of that growth were planted about six or seven years ago, law enforcement officials believe, when out-of-state gangs began targeting Baltimore - taking advantage of the city's thriving drug trade and proximity to Interstate 95. Often, they made inroads by recruiting within the state's prison system.

Today, statistics can be hard to come by and much of the evidence is anecdotal, but police say they already have identified about 2,600 known or suspected members of street gangs, including 400 Bloods, 100 Crips, and a few dozen members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 - a Latino gang that has gained a prominent and violent foothold in the Washington suburbs.

Baltimore gang members mimic the mannerisms, coded language and secret hand signals of their counterparts in Los Angeles and other cities; court documents in a murder investigation even indicate that L.A. gang leaders have sought tribute money from members here.

Most of the gangs' violence-fueled crimes have been restricted to pockets of Baltimore where the drug trade flourishes. But police say that gang initiation rites - such as stealing cell phones - have triggered crime sprees in the Inner Harbor and other areas, while targeting tourists or residents of bustling neighborhoods.

Last summer, for example, about 20 suspected gang members accosted four high-school boys visiting the Inner Harbor from New Jersey, robbing them of money and cell phones, police said. During July 4 festivities at the Inner Harbor, police also rushed to help an elderly woman in a wheelchair who was being harassed by a crowd shouting "L-Up and Blaat," gang slang used by a Bloods offshoot.

In another incident last year, a gang operating near downtown Baltimore required new members to rob people, police said. The initiation rite had to be witnessed by other gang members, who in turn had to rob someone else to build trust within the gang.

"Do you know a wave that sets off?" said Deputy Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "Do you know how many robberies we had? There were a ton."

He added, "The gangs don't achieve stature by academic achievement. They don't achieve stature by goodwill. Their identity is sewn into violence. They are fueled and funneled by the drug trade."

Law enforcement officials are struggling to keep ahead of this new problem in Baltimore. City prosecutors wanted state lawmakers to craft tougher anti-gang measures modeled after federal conspiracy statutes, but were disappointed with watered-down legislation that came out of the 2007 General Assembly session. Authorities, though, are still debating among themselves what constitutes a gang and what kinds of crimes can be attributed to them.

Baltimore authorities say it is difficult to link the new phenomenon with a spike in violent crime, because comparative data from previous years is not available. But based on experiences on the street, they fear an escalation of gang influence as neighborhoods are demarcated by graffiti and children are recruited as early as middle school.

Baltimore school police have identified 33 gangs, including at least nine Bloods sets and three Crips sets, in the school system. Children as young as 12 years old have affiliated with gangs, school police officials say.

The same trend is occurring in other cities. Cleveland police just finished a yearlong drug investigation and arrested four members of the Compton Crips, a California-based gang. The city has also seen a spike in activity from branches of a Chicago gang.

"We do attribute a lot of that, the violent crime, to gang activity, particularly around the narcotics trade," said Lt. Thomas Stacho, a spokesman for Cleveland police.

To fight back, Baltimore police began intensive intelligence-gathering efforts on the streets last year. Sgt. Ted Friel runs a four-officer gang intelligence unit in the Eastern District, the first such mini-unit in the city. Other districts have begun to create their own.

"For the most part, the existing drug territories and the gang stuff goes hand in hand," Friel said. "The drug organizations have become the gangs."

Face of gang life

In many ways, Kevin Gary is the face of gang life in Baltimore.

He is well-known on the streets, both to gang members and to police. And he took a common path, prison recruitment, to become a member of the Bloods. Though recently acquitted of a murder charge - he was accused of killing a young man who wanted to leave the gang - he admits that he has stabbed people in jail and that there are violent people in his Bloods group.

Still, he says, gangs are being unfairly portrayed. He thinks they provide needed structure for the youth and uplift the community.

He answered the door at his mother's East Baltimore house on a Saturday morning, his eyes deep red - an effect achieved with tinted contact lenses. He has a tattoo under each eye; a star on the left and the letters B.G., for "Baby Gangsta," on the right. The word "Piru," a Bloods reference, is etched on his forearm. Near his biceps is an inked graveyard, with an image of four headstones, for friends who have died. On his forearm is a fifth headstone - for another dead friend.

At 25, Gary says he is older than most gang members, already hardened by prison, and is perhaps more philosophical than his younger friends. He says he is not in a gang. He is in a movement.

"It is about us taking care of our own," he said.

The Bloods set that Gary is a part of has a list of laws. The laws are typically written down and members are required to memorize them. City police have seized "knowledge books" or "Bibles" - composition notebooks or binders - in which gang codes and hand signals are written.

Rules include: No rape. Respect authority of the gang. No drug use, aside from marijuana. If two gang members have a disagreement, they have to fight it out with fists. No homosexuality.

Gary started selling drugs when he was 15, after his best friend was killed and after the family moved to Clinton Street. This is how Gary recalls his teenage years: "Locked up. Foster homes. Boot camp. The whole juvenile system. ... Then I graduated to Central Booking. Got locked up for guns."

Gary then went to the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, where, he said, "I was fighting all the time stabbing people."

His record includes drug and assault charges. Prosecutors believe that the man Gary was accused of killing was trying to leave the Bloods. His throat was slit, he was stabbed several times and dragged to an alley a couple of blocks north of Patterson Park. Gary, who denied any involvement, was acquitted in December.

Like many gang members, Gary was recruited while in prison. Jail authorities said that around 2000 and 2001, when Gary was locked up, they began to see an uptick of gang members migrating from other East Coast cities, particularly New York. Members of a New York Bloods set began coming to Baltimore, lured by the disorganized state of local gangs and the attraction of running criminal enterprises out of a major city along the I-95 corridor.

Their main business: the drug trade. And many ended up behind bars in Maryland, where they recruited locals, who went along reluctantly. "A lot of these people don't want to be gang members, but they'll join for survival," said Kenneth Bartee, chief of security for the Baltimore City Detention Center. "They'd rather be with them than against them."

While in prison, Gary became a member of a Bloods set called Tree Top Piru, a gang formed in the 1970s outside Los Angeles; Baltimore police say it is one of the biggest gangs here. When Gary got out in 2003, he went back to his East Baltimore neighborhood.

"There's no jobs," he said. "We're convicted felons. Why do we have to settle for a construction job?"

As a Bloods elder, Gary's place in the gang is secure.

Now, he plans to extend his influence. He wants to publish a magazine on gang life called B'More Careful. The gang plans to dabble in real estate and open a child care facility called Teachers Teaching Parents - the initials, of course, match Tree Top Piru.

"I'm a smart man," Gary said.

The person who looked up to Gary most was his 16-year-old brother Shawn Tiller, who desperately wanted to join a Baltimore gang.

While Gary was locked up awaiting his homicide trial, Shawn was "put down with" - street talk for joined - a gang and then was shot and killed in November on an East Baltimore street. No arrest has been made in his case.

Days after Shawn's death, two makeshift memorials appeared. Family members tied balloons and teddy bears to a street sign near where he was cut down at East Hoffman Street and North Luzerne Avenue. Across the street somebody scrawled gang graffiti on the sidewalk and walls - a letter "B" with an arrow pointing up was written under the words "RIP Shawn," the phrase "one blood" was spray painted in black on the ground.

At his funeral Shawn was laid out in a red sweater. His young friends placed red bandanas on his chest. Red flowers flanked the casket; red shoe laces were worn by some mourners; pictures of Shawn in red were in the obituary.

The crowd of about 200 at the Preston Street funeral home was split into two distinct audiences: his real family and his street family.

In one group, ladies dressed in black skirts, men came out in pinstriped suits. They shouted "Hallelujah!" and "Thank you, Jesus" during the service.

The other half were dressed in street wear: T-shirts and sneakers. Most of them did not join in when the congregation sang and shouted for Jesus, but the preacher tried to reach them. "I encourage every young person here to look at Miss Linda," said Bishop Robert E. Farrow. Later he said, "For the children here, you don't know the pain that you bring on a mother."

Linda Robinson, Shawn's mother, said she didn't believe that Shawn was in a gang until she saw everyone at the funeral. Now she goes to the corners and pleads with witnesses to testify.

Few options

Friel, who runs the gang intelligence unit in the Eastern District, said children in blighted neighborhoods have few options.

"It's a matter of finding something positive for these kids," he said. "These [older] guys get a hold of them and let them be a part of something. You get a secret handshake, you get some special clothes, and automatically, you've got 300 friends."

Friel and his officers are often on the lookout for gang colors. If someone is wearing multiple pieces of red clothing, there's a good chance that they will pull up in an unmarked car and strike up a conversation.

One afternoon, the officers chatted with a man who wore a red Boston Red Sox hat and a red leather coat.

"What's up with all the red? You in a gang?" said Detective Louis Holley, a 14-year veteran. "You in a gang?"

"You have Blood love?" Friel asked, holding his digital camera at his side as they all stood on the sidewalk. But the man denied being in a gang, volunteered that he did some time in jail and that he's not interested in gang life.

They parted after a few minutes, and Friel did not take his picture; the officers concluded that he was most likely too old to be connected to gangs and was sporting the colors for fashion's sake.

But if someone admits to a gang affiliation, the officers snap a photo. Tattoos are also noted. The information they gather is entered into a database, and they share intelligence within the department or with other agencies, such as the jail or the school police.

In a small way, Friel said, having gang members openly wearing colors and identifying themselves publicly makes it easier to track criminal activity. "Back in the day, you'd roll up on a corner and wouldn't know who you were dealing with. Now, at least, they stick out more."

But Holley said the new crop of gangs differs in one important way: commitment. "The drug game you can walk away from, but the gang thing is supposed to be for life."

Contact with gangs can come at an early age. But it's difficult to persuade young people to speak candidly about gangs; some don't want to advertise their gang membership; others don't want to offend gang members.

The Westside Youth Opportunity Center is neutral ground in a violent neighborhood. Youngsters agreed to talk to two Sun reporters on the condition that their full names not be disclosed. Sitting at a large table in the basement, they talked about rivalries and the sometimes deadly consequences.

Two young men, Nino and Rashod, both 20, admitted to being in a Bloods gang. Both talked about tensions that can develop between members of gangs and "'hood crews." Gangs can draw from a wide area, but a 'hood crew represents a particular neighborhood.

When conflicts arise, there are no clear rules about where loyalties lie. Asked how they would choose between the gang and the 'hood crew, Rashod put his hands on his face and said: "Man, you're making my head hurt."

Nino said the gangs are selective: "People don't choose a gang. The gang chooses a person."

Gang members will beat up a recruit before he can join, Rashod said. It is called "tough love" and Rashod likened it to initiation hazing in college fraternities or sororities. He said recruiting occurs in schools and even in churches.

They talked about how gang members learn to use hand signals, speak in code and in some cases, learn Swahili - a way, authorities say, for prison gang members to speak freely without corrections officers understanding them. Nino blurted out a phrase in Swahili, but refused to translate it for the group and did not allow a reporter to record it.

A young woman sitting at the table, Kendra, 18, said she has seen recruiting in schools. "They are forcing young kids who aren't even in high school to do it. They say you should be in this clique with me."

Kendra noted that the gangs do positive things in the neighborhoods. They sponsor block parties called "'hood to 'hoods." At the parties there are DJs and basketball games.

"There are good people in gangs that will help us out, for real," she said. Gang members, she said, are often flush with cash and will sometimes lend money to people in the neighborhood who need it.

Police fight back

To combat gang influences, Baltimore police are committed to a combination of intelligence-gathering, enforcement and outreach to the youth most at risk - those just starting to get involved in fights and other trouble. Police are going to their homes, talking to parents and alerting them to the possibility of gang influence in their children's lives.

Police are trying to reach out to the children and offer an alternative to gangs. Bealefeld, the deputy police commissioner said, "There are many at the beginning of this thing, who are 9 or 10 - who are on the cusp of figuring out what way should they go."

Police have also had some recent success on the streets.

On Friday, Shaidon Blake, a high-ranking member of the L.A.-based Bounty Hunter Bloods, was found guilty of torturing and killing a man in West Baltimore. He told homicide detectives that he came to the Druid Hill Park neighborhood in November 2005 to sell heroin and separate the real Bloods, who pay him tribute money, from the fakers who lack out-of-town connections.

Blake's trial offered a glimpse of the violence connected to gang crimes.

Police think that the victim had mishandled money from a drug deal and participated in a fight in violation of orders from gang leaders. Prosecutors said Blake, 35, oversaw the "DP" or discipline, which included slashing the victim with a box cutter, hitting him with a sledgehammer, stabbing him with a samurai sword and burning his lifeless body.

Police are investigating Blake's role in four other slayings.

Police also have made an arrest in another suspected gang-related killing.

On May 16, 18-year-old Eric Tate is to be tried in the slayings of Taylor and Holiday - homicides triggered by a red bandana.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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