Big-city gangs cropping up in small Oklahoma farming towns


FREDERICK, Okla. -- A dilapidated shell on the west side of town bore the first cryptic advertisement that something was amiss in rural America.

It simply said, "Bloods."

Then came graffiti on wooden barns, rickety tool sheds and the backs of stores on Main Street.

One scribble in black paint said, "Police 187." Most folks in this tranquil town of 5,200 figured it was just juvenile gibberish.

But Police Chief Jack Whitson read it as a warning that trouble was moving into this farming community, which lives off the deep, rich red Oklahoma earth.

"187 refers to the section in the California penal code that pertains to the murder of a police officer," says the stocky chief, who rides around town with a pistol under his car seat.

"It could be a threat," he says. "These signs are turf signs. Each gang is staking out a territory."

Unbelievable as it seems, little Frederick, Okla., is under siege by the bad guys.

The tentacles of two notorious Los Angeles street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, have slithered into America's heartland. They are taking hold in this quaint community, where rain-drenched cotton struggles to defeat Mother Nature, where cows grow fat in windblown pastures and where life revolves around the Bombers, nickname for the athletes of Frederick High School.

Authorities say the violent, drug-dealing gangs that infiltrated Oklahoma City in the past decade and have moved to Frederick, folding its children into their ranks with the lure of gold chains, stuffed wallets and the illusion of power.

"They [gangs] want to expand their markets," said Chief Whitson, a down-home man with wire-rim glasses. "Little towns . . . are one area they can move into."

They are moving into Oklahoma towns like Ardmore, Hobart, Hugo and Elk City, bringing the drugs and violence that made their reputation in Los Angeles.

In Ardmore, a quiet town dotted with grassy green pastures and placid ponds, there have been drive-by shootings and random beatings.

"There is no place to run," says Ardmore Police Chief Bill Culley. "There's no place left to hide."

So far, the gang activity in Frederick has been limited to thefts, shoplifting, graffiti and intimidation. There have been reports of drug dealing, and notes left on cars have carried warnings like "The Crips are going to burn down your house."

But some people think the gang activity has been "overblown."

"I don't think we have any gangs," says Brent Morey, president of the Frederick Chamber of Commerce. "I don't see it as a problem."

Chief Whitson, however, is not awaiting a community consensus that trouble is afoot. He said a state official had counted 14 gang factions in a town where the high school population numbered just 340.

"Our intelligence now is telling us is that [gangs] are integrating in Oklahoma," he said. "They have documented [that] the Crips and the Bloods now are getting Hispanic and white members."

In October, a state agent spent 10 hours in Frederick explaining how to recognize gang graffiti and colors. Forty-five small-town police departments sent officers to the meeting.

Frederick police are using a new pair of drug-sniffing dogs in random drug sweeps at Frederick High School. The Town Council recently set a curfew to keep young people off the street at night.

The gang members are not a collection of strange faces. Some grew up in Frederick, went off to Oklahoma City and then returned as gang members ready to recruit locally. Others arrived as refugees from Southern California, sent by relatives to live in a town they feel is a step slower.

Frederick looks like a town where the clock stopped in the 1950s.

The radio station favors rock-and-roll oldies, but the town seems to run to a pure country tune.

Main Street dissects the heart of town, with its general stores, with its giant supermarket, with shops full of ladies' fashions, cowboy boots, T-shirts or videos to rent.

But Main Street bears hints that the '50s are giving way to the 1990s.

The sign in the plate-glass window at Bill's Dollar reads, "Only one student at a time."

Effie Martin, a kindly woman wearing a baggy sweat suit, said the sign went up a month ago after gangs began sweeping through, grabbing whatever they could fit in their pockets.

This was a bad year for farmers, and the key cotton crop may be 50 percent below last year's.

More than 40 people lost their jobs after Centra Leather Goods, which makes billfolds and leather products, changed hands in August.

When the job market tightens in a small town, teen-agers get squeezed out. And in a town without a movie theater or a bowling alley, jobless young people find they have plenty of idle time.

"In Frederick today, there are young guys trying to get jobs," said Dyke Crane, 15. "But you can't get a job around here."

Gwen Perry, a high school teacher, blames the problems on outsiders who come in to recruit. She says local gang members are "wanna-bes" who are imitating life in the big city.

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