Posted on August 17, 2004

Ganging Up On Us

Kalen Churcher, Times Leader (Penn.), Aug. 15

The 20 kicks to Gerard Cabrera’s head left the 22-year-old Scranton man lying in a pool of warm, red stickiness. Residual blood spattered a nearby wall and collected on the dirty sidewalk outside The Glass Bar in Edwardsville.

“See what I can do?” a man had shouted as he repeatedly attacked Cabrera, police say.

The brutal June 25 beating sent Cabrera to the hospital in serious condition. It also sent up a flare locally that gang-related crimes have taken a foothold in Luzerne County.

“This isn’t anything new,” said Cpl. Leo Hannon of the Pennsylvania State Police Criminal Investigation Division in Wyoming. “We’ve been seeing big city gang activity in all facets of life.

“There’s a pretty significant influx.”

Three major city gangs have been confirmed in Luzerne County by local and state police: the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings, with the Latin Kings said to be concentrated more in southern Luzerne County. Though word of their presence might come as a shock to some, it comes as no surprise to those who understand gang activity.

Surveys conducted by the East Coast Gang Investigators Association reveal a trend of gangs moving toward more suburban areas, where major cities are a few hours away.

Luzerne County fits that bill. Just check out the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site.

“Few areas can match its accessibility with Interstates 80, 81, 380 and 84 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike crossing through its region,” the Web site suggests.

That makes the region a less competitive and more profitable arena for gangs peddling a buffet of drugs. Crack cocaine, marijuana and heroin are big sellers and methamphetamines are making a comeback, according to Bill Chalfant, a detective with the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office and president of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association.

“Whatever the buyer wants. Whatever (a dealer) can make a profit on,” he said.

There is little doubt gang-related violence can prove fatal.

The charred remains of two men accused of being drug dealers, tagged by police as Bloods gang members, were found last year buried in back of a Kingston Township home. Hugo Selenski is set to be tried in the deaths of the two: Frank Jermaine James, also known as Rudy, a 29-year-old New York City man; and Adeiye Keiler, also known as Redman, a 22-year-old illegal alien from Guyana using a Kingston address.

And in July, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office announced it would not prosecute 20-year-old Laval “Murder” Farmer despite its belief he pumped five bullets into a South Welles Street man in July 2002. That man survived. Instead, Farmer will be prosecuted on federal charges out of New York. Authorities there said Farmer, suspected of being a Blood, killed a 14-year-old rival Crips member nearly three years ago.

An ‘excellent’ market

The Edwardsville incident has been dubbed a “gang-related incident” and “retaliation for some prior event,” according to Hannon. Police were not specific about which gang or gangs might be involved.

Such retaliation is expected to continue. Hannon has witnessed an influx of gang members who have relocated to Luzerne County, at least on a part-time basis.

Police have identified Cabrera’s attackers as Shukri Darnell Moore and Craig Andrew Simmons, who have out-of-state ties. Moore, originally from New York City, moved to Wyoming Street in Wilkes-Barre. Simmons resided in Atlanta before relocating to Wilkes-Barre, police said. Moore remains on the lam.

The attackers as well as the victims hung out at the Glass Bar occasionally, police say. But, why a bar in Edwardsville? Why Luzerne County?

“They get more, so to say, for the welfare buck,” said Thomas Kelly, a state trooper stationed at the Wyoming Barracks. He believes gang members can work the welfare system easier in less populated areas.

The area is also “an excellent market” for drugs, explained Wilkes-Barre police Chief Gerry Dessoye, who believes gangs and drugs go hand-in-hand. The interstates coupled with a local bus terminal make the area easily accessible to larger cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Newark.

Dessoye said those three megalopolitan areas are Wilkes-Barre’s largest “feeder cities,” with the New York boroughs of Queens and the Bronx ranking on top.

Seeking out security

Chalfant, the Lancaster County detective, said there is a misconception that gang members are simply kids from broken homes who are looking for trouble. Many are disenfranchised and seeking family and a sense of belonging. Gang life seeks to provide that family and sense of security some crave. Coupled with the promise of money and women, the lifestyle possesses an often deadly appeal.

“Some kids put themselves out there for recruitment. They’ll start ‘tagging’ and putting up representative graffiti,” Chalfant said. “Let’s face it, in America, money is status. You can make a lot of money selling drugs. Kids think for the moment; they’re never going to die.”

Neighbors near Wilkes-Barre’s Rees and Sheridan streets are faced with a red Crips tag scrawled on a street post. Intermingled with other graffiti, a black MOB (Member of Blood) tag has been sprayed on the side of brick Bennett Street building. Though their authenticity is questionable because of the colors — Bloods like red and Crips favor shades of blue — they are an indication gang culture and the parallel drug lifestyle have an appeal in the Wyoming Valley.

In Chicago, gang drug trade can bring in upward of $500,000 per week. Police have previously said drugs locally may be priced at double or triple their big city value, and they may be sold in a purer form.

All that has an appeal to kids as young as 8 years old, dubbed Pee Wees, who are sometimes targeted for recruitment, Chalfant explained. He added that recruitment typically begins at 12, and might start in schools.

Hazleton Area School District Superintendent Frank Victor said the district’s dress code prohibits items such as bandanas and hats -clothing that might be construed to be gang related — but added there is no ban specific to gang-related clothing or activity in any of its policies. Victor said Vincent Zola, the school district’s security director, has attended seminars on gang activities and keeps a lookout for warning signs among students. So far, there have been no problems, Victor said.

“We’re not naive to the point that there are some things going on out there,” Victor said.

Younger members, as well as women, might be pulled into gangs to be used as mules, the name for people who transport drugs.

There is no retirement age.

“You can never be too old to be a gang member,” Chalfant said. “It’s a mentality thing.”

One of the gang

In October 2001, Raheem Bolden, formerly of New York City, was denied a bail reduction on identity theft charges. Authorities said Bolden, who was living on South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre, had several felony convictions and was a member of the Bloods.

It was the first time a Luzerne County resident was identified as a member of one of New York City’s major street gangs, according to Times Leader files.

The Bloods, according to gang experts, exhibit strong predatory and violent behavior, especially against their rivals the Crips. For their part, the Crips have been associated with drug sales, urban warfare and violent robberies.

The Latin Kings have become known for drug sales, weapon trafficking, robberies and protection.

Dessoye knows there is a gang presence locally, though he’s hesitant to put more emphasis on it than he would any other criminal activity.

“There are gang affiliates out there. We’re not trying to hide that. I don’t ever want to send a message out there that a gang member is more dangerous than a non-gang member.

“Our number one concern is to enforce drug laws and get guns off the street. Everything else will fall into place after that. Every officer is encouraged to make drug arrests (as opposed to automatically calling for a narcotics officer).”

That’s a stark contrast from Dessoye’s earlier days on the police force when removing the “Jamaican Posse” from the city was a priority. According to Dessoye, the Posse — so named because of the Jamaicans’ fascination with American westerns — tried to take over the city’s cocaine trade in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

In that instance, the Jamaican Posse was specifically targeted and removed, the chief explained. Any gang affiliates now are not as territorial. Dessoye said Wilkes-Barre police no longer label a criminal as a gang member anymore; the only real benefit in knowing if someone belongs to a gang is if it can lead to future intelligence.

Dessoye also does not want his officers to overreact — or underreact — to a suspect on the assumption of gang affiliation. Identifying a gang member from a “wannabe” means looking at the entire package and not just relying on a piece of clothing or a rumor. Dessoye said a gang member with a gun is just as dangerous as a non-gang member with a gun.

Chalfant agrees law enforcement must be careful when labeling someone as a gang member, but cautions against keeping the public uninformed.

“Other than their own admission, out of their own mouths, a tattoo might be the next best admission,” Chalfant said. “There’s nothing more permanent than a tattoo on their body.”

Even then, a gang member might have an excuse for what appears to be a tell-tale gang tattoo, Chalfant said. “MOB,” a common tattoo for a Member of Bloods, might be explained away by “Money over Bitches.” Other tattoos, such as the Latin Kings crown or lion and the Crips “211” (which after decoding stands for “Blood Killer”) might seem rather innocuous to the untrained eye.

While establishing absolute gang affiliation may be difficult, Chalfant advises against disregarding people as wannabes.

“It’s a process of denial. It’s a process you go through as an area. You try to avert it. Your city administrators don’t want to admit it. . . . You have to call it what it is. Gangs are nothing new to any area.

“(Wannabe) is one of the worst terms. You step back, wipe your brow and say, ‘Thank God they’re not here.’

“If they’re a wannabe, they’re a gonnabe.”

A proactive approach

Wilkes-Barre police will receive gang training in the near future, but Dessoye insists it is part of an ongoing training program and not in reaction to anything happening in the city.

Luzerne County District Attorney David Lupas is considering establishing a gang task force, and state police confirm municipalities — including Wilkes-Barre — keep files on known gang members.

Still, authorities say local gang activity is different than that of Philadelphia or New York. For starters, local gangs are not as territorial.

“They’re more tolerant,” Kelly said. “It’s not so much someone is going to be shot for wearing blue in a red (area).”

Even gang-related graffiti is more about making others aware a gang is present and less about carving out territories, Dessoye said.

He added that a strong police presence keeps gang members moving.

“That guy that’s on the corner this week might not be the same guy on the corner next week,” Dessoye said. “The goal is to make the entire city a hostile environment to sell drugs in.”

When gang activity strays from drugs and into violence, that violence is typically directed at other gangs or members, Dessoye said. In the case of Bloods vs. Crips, the chief points to “an element of machismo” mixed with “an element of vendetta,” as initiating violence.

The average citizen is rarely in danger, unless by accident, Dessoye said.

That may be the case for now, said Chalfant, who has watched the gang scene infiltrate Lancaster County, but potential must be acknowledged.

“There is no ceiling to the escalating of violence.”