Monday, April 28, 2008

Gang activity in suburbs acknowledged

Nashville crackdown has forced migration into nearby countiesBy CHRISTINA E. SANCHEZ • and MARIA GIORDANO (Tennessean) • April 28, 2008 Two weeks before the fatal shooting of a Franklin teenager in what appears to be a gang-related fight, Nashville police gave gang awareness training to Williamson County school faculty. The school officials' request in March for the training suggests a willingness to acknowledge, although not yet publicly, what they and local law enforcement had long been reluctant to admit: Gangs exist in suburbia. "Gangs have always been here, probably much longer than the Police Department was aware or recognized," said Sgt. Charles Warner, a detective with the Franklin Police Department. "We've started to see a slow increase. By no means is there an epidemic." Several smaller communities outside of Nashville have seen an increase over the past few years in gang presence and gang-related crime. Local police departments attribute gangs' migration to growth — and to Metro's aggressive police crackdown on street gangs in Nashville, which pushes criminal activity to outlying cities. But experts say that the gangs building bases near newer, pristine subdivisions lack the organization, hierarchy of power and carnage that are hallmarks of notorious gangs in Chicago or Los Angeles. "You have suburban communities surrounding a metro area, and gang activity does spill over sometimes," said John Moore, director of the National Youth Gang Center in Florida. "The gangs in the Nashville area are much more typical as a whole to the rest of the United States, but unlike places such as Chicago." They rarely deal drugs; petty thefts and gang-on-gang violence are traits of the suburban gang. Middle Tennessee's gang members are youths and adults, of different races and ethnicities. They wear signature colors, flash gang signs, have nicknames and mark their territory with graffiti. They join for reasons that range from false promises of the get-rich-quick gangster to the desire to have a "family." Tackling gang activity is necessary to keep it from escalating. Already about 10 percent to 15 percent of youth violence in Tennessee has gang ties, Moore said. "No city wants to admit that they have a gang problem, but you can't deal with it until you acknowledge it," he said. "These communities that are saying they have a gang problem are taking the first of 12 steps to deal with the problem. Conflicts can turn deadly Sometimes, the interaction of rival gangs turns violent and even deadly. Authorities believe an argument between members of different gangs on April 13 in Columbia, Tenn., had fatal consequences for Juan Castro, 16, of Franklin, and Patricia Garcia, 24, of Spring Hill. A group of men in a car pulled alongside the sport utility vehicle carrying Castro, Garcia and nine other people, and opened fire. No details have been released on what gangs were involved or what the argument was about. "We have enormous intelligence that this particular incident was gang related and that there are gangs in Maury and Williamson counties," said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "We can't say how many gang members there are or that this gang is this. It's hard to know." Not all cities or law enforcement agencies track gang members or gangs. The Metro Police Department started a database in 2004, said Metro police Sgt. Gary Kemper. Metro logs all suspected gang members who get arrested in Davidson County into a database. Officers have recorded 4,700 gang members with 15 major gang names such as Bloods, Crips, SUR-13, MS-13 and dozens more subsets within those categories, Kemper said. Some of the gang members arrested in Davidson are from other counties, and in a recently prosecuted gang case — one of the largest in Middle Tennessee history — half the members of a gang known as MS-13 were from Wilson, Rutherford and Williamson counties, Kemper said. He sees more Hispanic gangs in Williamson such as SUR-13, a Mexican gang also known as surenos. In Rutherford, more Asian gang presence is felt with groups such as Asian Pride. "Just because a community has families that make a little more money doesn't make them exempt," Kemper said. Educators get training Awareness and training can teach communities and parents the signs to look for to know if their kids are involved in gang activity, Kemper said. In a rare meeting of two school boards in Williamson County last week, directors Becky Sharber of Williamson County Schools and David Snowden of the Franklin Special School District said that gang activity was a possibility and that they were taking steps to raise awareness. Administrators and staff are undergoing training to identify the signs and colors of gang members. Teachers are expected to get training later. Both leaders told board members that there was no significant activity now but that they were committed to dealing with the issue openly. Capt. Alan Laney of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office, who oversees resource officers in Williamson County schools, said they had not seen gang activity in schools until this past year. So far, the presence has been little more than fights between boys, he said. Nevertheless, Laney said officers have heard that Juan Castro was affiliated with a gang. "We have identified the student that was the victim and other students as being involved in gangs," he said. Some parents of students at Centennial High say the school was unfairly and unjustly targeted as having a "gang presence" simply because Castro went to school there. Franklin resident Darlene Johnson has two children at Centennial High School, one a senior and the other a sophomore. "Before they run scared and fear the worst, look at what the school is doing positively, like Challenge Day," Johnson said referring to an anti-conflict program that brings students closer together. "What people seem to be clinging to are the negativities," she said. School presence not seen Laney said there's little to suggest these gangs of young men are doing anything more than emulating the gang-member lifestyle. There's no evidence of illegal activity in the schools, Laney said. "We don't know what goes on outside of school," Laney said. "I can't say they have weapons." In the April 13 shooting that lead to the death of Castro and Garcia, police said, an AK-47 automatic assault rifle was used to fire at the sport utility vehicle in which Castro and Garcia were riding, Columbia police reports show. The firefight stemmed from a dispute at a birthday party in Columbia, though officials have declined to release what the fight was about. A 22-year-old Columbia man, Javoris Deray Sparkman, who was one of four people arrested in the shooting, claims to be a member of the Vikings, an offspring of a predominantly black gang known as Folk Nation. The Vikings have a presence in Maury, Davidson and Rutherford counties that sometimes spills into Williamson, authorities said. Pictures of Castro found on the Internet and circulated among his friends show him and others flashing hand signs associated with the Hispanic gang known as SUR-13. According to, an independent research site on criminal justice issues, SUR-13 is a street gang that exists in all major cities. It's widely believed that such gangs originate in prisons, where membership affords protection from other inmate populations. In Franklin's Cadet neighborhood off Liberty Pike, where Juan Castro lived, few neighbors would comment publicly about any gang activity in the area because of fear. Many neighbors said they were well aware of an increase in police surveillance. A bright blue 13 on a stop sign in the neighborhood and more gothic-style writing on a drainage culvert in the Franklin neighborhood identify SUR-13. In Lebanon in Wilson County, police have seen similar signs of gang activity in federal housing. Two of the city's three murders last year are believed to be gang related, said Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen. While police have seen an increase in robberies and shootings that have gang connections, they have not heard of a real gang presence in the school system. Most of the gang members who commit crimes in Lebanon are not from there, he said. "It seems like when Metro cracks down, it pushes them to us," Bowen said. "We're seeing more and more people come up to our projects from Nashville to deal their drugs and do their business." Staff writer Mitchell Kline contributed to this report. Contact Christina E. Sanchez at or 726-5961. Contact Maria Giordano at or 771-5425.

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