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SUBURBAN GANGLAND

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In middle school, they were friends, playing in the same local football league. Some kids played for the Crofton Cardinals. Others wore the jerseys of the Odenton Wildcats.

It was innocent then, when the Cardinals - three seasons undefeated - began calling themselves TNT, or The New Threat. The kids from Odenton became ESD, or the East Side Diamonds.

Born of a sports rivalry, the two groups developed into what Anne Arundel County police are calling dangerous gangs. A resulting conflict left 14-year-old Christopher David Jones dead late last month. Days later, the home of someone erroneously believed to have been involved in Christopher's death was firebombed.

The death of Christopher, who was riding a bicycle in his neighborhood, has angered and shaken a middle-class community where families move for good schools and safety. It has also provided a stark illustration that gangs are not a problem confined to inner cities and the suburbs closest to them.

Experts say gang activity in suburban and more affluent communities, prevalent since the early 1990s, is expected to peak in coming years as the population of the most susceptible youths, ages 14 to 17, booms.

"The suburban gang trend is on the uptick," said Dan Korem, author of Suburban Gangs: The Affluent Rebels.

The development poses a challenge to law enforcement, schools and parents. Tackling the problem has been complicated by classroom privacy laws, and by the difficulty in figuring out whether a group of teens who give themselves a name will blossom into a dangerous organization or will dissipate in a few months or years, as they often do.

"We're not saying that every kid on a street corner with a T-shirt down to his knees is necessarily a gang member," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson.

'Fatherless generation'

Of about two dozen gangs identified in Baltimore County, most have fewer than 25 members, Johnson said. In some cases, he said, "10 kids get together and decide to form a gang," and often it doesn't last.

"Yes, we do know there are gang members in the schools," said Anne Arundel Police Lt. J.D. Batten Jr., head of the school safety division, during a recent legislative hearing examining legal changes intended to prevent deaths such as Christopher's. "It is not illegal in the state of Maryland to be a gang member. To be a gang member is not an actionable offense," Batten said.

One out of two police agencies in suburban communities nationwide reported gang problems in 2007, according to that year's National Youth Gang Survey, the most recent figures available.

Suburban teenagers join gangs for reasons similar to their big-city counterparts, experts say. They tend to be at-risk youth struggling with family problems, such as divorce or separation, physical abuse or dysfunctional parents. The biggest factor, according to Korem, is that children don't have an adult to turn to for guidance.

Billy H. Stanfield Jr., a member of a Baltimore gang who was shot in both legs in 1993 and subsequently served nearly six years in federal prison on drug-trafficking charges, said gang membership is being fueled by a "fatherless generation," as well as continuing economic hardship and videos and music that promote a gangster lifestyle.

"You have a lot of misguided young people" who believe they have nowhere else to turn, said Stanfield, 40, who founded New Vision Youth Services to counsel young people in Baltimore and neighboring counties to stay away from gangs.

While some youths can be reached, Stanfield said, others are unmovable, even after hearing of his near-death experience. "A lot of them think it can't happen to them," he said.

Tactics vary

The activities of the organized street gangs and suburban gangs can be strikingly different. While urban gangs often operate large drug-selling operations and are involved in fatal shootings, suburban gangs are typically more notable for fistfights and "tagging" - the painting of gang symbols on buildings, bridges and elsewhere.

"When [police] see these kids in the suburbs, they say it's a wannabe gang," Korem said. "I said, 'Wannabe? It's still a gang.' It might not be about running a certain corner; it might be just kids who want to put graffiti and beat people up, or do an attack on a school."

Teenagers have been killed in gang disputes in communities from suburban Boston to the western suburbs of Omaha, Neb., according to news reports. The gangs have surfaced on Long Island, N.Y., the suburbs of San Diego and in New Jersey. Last year, a Bergen County, N.J., community college established the "Suburban Gang Project," designed to research the area's gangs and reach out to youth.

Christopher was not part of a gang, his family and authorities say. He was, though, friendly with members of TNT.

Police, parents and students said both of the Arundel groups began committing small crimes, such as tagging at school. Then they started beating up other kids and stealing iPods and bicycles, police said. Most recently, gang members sold marijuana.

Initially, county Police Chief James Teare said, the crimes were misdemeanors and were "off the radar" of the police.

In Baltimore County, "historically, our gangs have been nonterritorial and nonadversarial unless disrespected or encroached upon," said Sgt. James Conaboy, head of the county's gang unit, in a summary of gang activity he prepared for The Baltimore Sun.

"This has recently been shifting and we have seen an increase in violent crimes - shootings - by gang members against gang members in an effort to claim territory," he said. "We have also seen recent violence against rival gang members simply due to affiliation with a rival gang."

In other words, the kind of behavior seen in city gangs.

Hundreds arrested

Last year, Baltimore County police officers arrested 451 adult gang members and 309 who were juveniles, said Johnson, the county chief.

The numbers are down significantly this year, he said. "We're taking them off the streets," Johnson said.

Still, there are plenty of gang members left. The Bloods have the most adherents of any gang in the county - 406 - followed by Dead Man Inc., with 147; the Crips, 141; and MS13 (the initials stand for Mara Salvatrucha), 26, police said. The rest of the county's gangs have fewer than 25 members each.

In Howard County, Chief William McMahon sees less of a gang problem, although it has been growing in the past few years.

"There were always little neighborhood groups that sort of grew out of their behavior and went on with their lives," the chief said. "But four or five years ago, we started to see more hard-core guys, people associated with the bigger gangs, like the Bloods and the Crips."

Without a Howard police gang unit at the time, an officer was assigned to "help us get a gauge of what was out there," McMahon said. "Now we have two full-time gang officers, both detectives, and that's their primary mission, not only intelligence-gathering and helping our main investigators to see if there's a gang attachment in a case, but trying to do a lot on the prevention end."

That involves having the officers speak at schools and community groups and "trying to educate parents and teachers" as to what to look for when schoolchildren start showing signs of gang membership.

"We're very concerned with middle schools - 12- and 13-year-old kids who are susceptible to all kinds of influences," McMahon said.

Bullied at school

Christopher Jones hardly seemed to be someone who would wind up as the target of a gang.

A high school freshman, he enjoyed ice skating, often spending time at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena. He played baseball and ice hockey, and was a fan of the Washington Redskins.

But he had begun to endure bullying at school. His mother, Jenny Adkins, called Arundel High School to complain. At the end of April, Christopher transferred to South River High School to escape the bullying, his mother has said.

School officials in Arundel have been quiet about what happened in the classroom, noting federal laws.

"We routinely receive information from police about incidents that happen in the community, and there are times when appropriate disciplinary action is taken against students for such 'community offenses,' particularly when they endanger the safety of other students in a school," county schools spokesman Bob Mosier said in an e-mail.

"Likewise, schools will often provide police officers with information that has been brought to their attention through students or other means. It is a collaborative relationship that helps to address issues both inside the schoolhouse and outside it.

"As we become aware of students who may be involved in gangs or similar groups, police are notified immediately."

Teare, at the legislative hearing, said police had "very little" information about the bullying that Christopher experienced at school.

"There was no communication," Teare said. "The Police Department was not made aware of why Christopher Jones left the school."

'Mom, I'm fine'

It wasn't just at school that Christopher had to worry. The two teenagers charged in his death live just blocks away, hanging out at the same pools and parks as he did.

A week before he died, Christopher was at the Wellfleet Pool with his girlfriend, Giselle Lynn, 15, a South River High school student.

Christopher pointed out a group of boys standing outside the chain-link fence. "Those are the guys that want to jump me," Christopher told her.

The next weekend, Christopher's mother, Jenny Adkins, was at the same pool. She saw a group of boys she thought were gang members. About 3:30 p.m. May 30, she called her son.

"Be careful, it looks like there's a gang up at the pool," she said, according to an interview on CNN Headline News. "The very last thing he ever said to me was, 'Mom, I'm fine.' "

Forty-five minutes later, a group of East Side Diamonds members surrounded Christopher as he pedaled his blue-and-white bicycle near the pool, police said.

The group "thought Christopher had said something negative about one or more of them, so they decided to confront him," county Detective Kelly Harding said in Anne Arundel County District Court last week.

Punches flew. Christopher tried to get away, pedaling his bike 30 feet before falling to the ground. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Baltimore Washington Medical Center.

Javel M. George, 16, and another teenager each struck Christopher at least once, police said. George has been charged as an adult with manslaughter, second-degree assault and reckless endangerment, and a 14-year-old has been charged as a juvenile with the same offenses.

George's attorney disputes the account, saying George was only play-fighting.

Several hundred people attended a candlelight vigil for Christopher, and even more attended his funeral.

His family has asked neighborhood youths to refrain from retaliation. But a 22-year-old former gang member was arrested soon after and charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail at the home of someone he mistakenly thought was involved in Christopher's death. No one was hurt in that incident.

Since the beating, police have stepped up patrols in Crofton, mollifying some of the public anger. But for those closest to Christopher, the pain remains.

"He was the light of my life," Jenny Adkins said in a tearful television interview. "He died on our street. In suburbia, where our shutters have to match our doors."

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