Gangs establishing major foothold in ‘burbs, say local prosecutors

State of gangs in metro Atlanta

FBI: More than 20,000 gang members operating in the region

Police: Local groups tied to larger criminal organizations

Skeptics: These groups are "unsophisticated"

It’s not a club that shows up in any prep yearbook, but the notorious Bloods street gang has established a presence in each of Cobb County’s high schools, a former member testified last year.

The same goes for Paulding County, said a former member of the gang who testified for the prosecution in a 2014 drive-by shooting case in Kennesaw.

“Gangs were on the back burner for me when I took office,” said Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds, elected in 2012. “But if I get a second term, they will be my first priority. It’s a growing problem and, if we don’t get a handle on it fast, it’ll grow beyond our control.”

While officers continue to investigate whether a Wednesday shootout in Lawrenceville involving roughly 20 people is gang related, law enforcement officials say it's clear the problem is expanding beyond traditional urban boundaries.

Last week, a DeKalb County grand jury handed down a 45-count indictment against nine members of the Hate Committee, the local enforcement arm of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples.

Exact statistics on gang membership and the amount of crime they’re responsible for aren’t easily available. But prosecutors and police agree the numbers are on the rise, as is gang influence in everything from narcotics to identity theft.

Jim Hurley, an agent with the FBI’s Atlanta’s Safe Streets Gang Task Force, estimates there are up to 20,000 members in metro Atlanta — a significant increase since 2000.

“For every gang member we’re aware of, we assume there’s three more,” Hurley said. He reached that estimate by collecting gang data from local jurisdictions.

Hurley said well-known gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples are either co-opting or usurping the local neighborhood crews that historically ruled Atlanta’s streets.

Their arrival in metro Atlanta has resulted in a more rigid structure and greater violence, said DeKalb District Attorney Robert James.

“Before that we had a few neighborhood groups, young men engaging in mischief, but it was nothing like you’re seeing now,” he said.

But not everyone buys the evolving gang narrative. Rick McDevitt, who works with at-risk youth at a Peoplestown youth center that bears his name, said the criminals he’s observed don’t seem any more sophisticated or sinister than their predecessors.

“Most of these people are unemployed knuckleheads who see themselves as thugs,” said McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. “Most of these guys, they don’t follow instructions. They’re unsophisticated and can’t be trusted. That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous — because they are — but I’m not seeing these vast crime syndicates.”

James points to the Hate Committee indictments as evidence that gangs aren’t what they used to be. The group was responsible for five murders in DeKalb between May 13th and July 30th, according to prosecutors. Their victims were current or former gang members who had run afoul of the Disciples rules and regulations.

While gang violence is nothing new, their expanding interests are claiming more and more victims with no affiliation or prior beef with the organizations, said James. On Friday, prosecutors are expected reach a plea deal with alleged Bloods member Darrius Aderhold for his part in the 2012 murder of Robert Ross, 46.

Ross — targeted because he was gay, according to James — was lured into a Tucker motel room, where he was bound and beaten beyond recognition by Aderhold and fellow Bloods Jonathan Ray and Christopher Foreman. Ray and Foreman previously agreed to plea deals that carried a minimum of life in prison. The victim’s body was so badly mutilated that first responders couldn’t determine his sex or race.

“We had some gang cases when I first came to this office (in 2002), but this level of violence just didn’t exist,” James said.

Gwinnett County Police Detective Marco Silva said they’ve actually seen a decrease in gang activity but added the 30 or so crews that remain have become increasingly barbaric.

Wednesday night, Gwinnett police responded to a involving nearly 20 male teens and young adults in a neighborhood near Norcross. Officers arrived and found Tre Edwards, 20, shot and lying in the roadway. He died en route to a local hospital. Three other men were hospitalized with gunshot wounds but are expected to recover.

“When we have two opposing groups like this, and we have a fairly large number of people involved, that will be an angle that we’re going to investigate, whether or not there was any gang activity going on here,” Gwinnett police Cpl. Jake Smith said Thursday.

As they expand their reach, today’s gangs are constantly looking to build their membership. Recruitment begins as early as 4th grade, said Wayne Pickney, an investigator with the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office gangs unit.

“The idea is to have as many members as possible,” said Pickney, a former school resource officer. Grade school recruits may be enlisted to make a delivery or act as a lookout.

Gangs have become adept at using social media to both establish their presence and lure potential members.

“These kids see these videos about gang life, and it’s very alluring,” Hurley said. “If you wait until middle school to try and prevent these kids from gravitating toward that life, you’re too late.”

The desire to maintain a large roster of foot soldiers has led gangs to diversify. Many no longer limit their membership to a specific race or ethnic group, Pickney said.

Even gangs such as Cobb’s Ghost Face Gangsters, founded in Georgia’s prisons by white supremacists, will nonetheless pursue alliances to further their financial goals. They recently partnered with a Latino gang to enhance their stranglehold on the narcotics trade in northwest Georgia, Reynolds said.

“The larger gangs do it all,” he said. “The old rivalries don’t matter as much anymore. It’s much more economically driven.”

And once you’re in, there’s no getting out, said Reynolds, who last year brought indictments against four members of the Piru Bloods who allegedly participated in the Kennesaw drive-by. They tried, and failed, on two occasions to shoot and kill a one-time associate who had quit the gang.

Reynolds said the problem is nearing a crisis point and believes Georgia’s attorney general should form a statewide gang prosecution unit and build a “gang database” to aid law enforcement.

McDevitt, the longtime child advocate, said he’s wary whenever he hears talk of gang proliferation.

“It’s in (law enforcement’s) interest to make people believe it’s the wild, wild West out there,” McDevitt said. “You say gangs, and the public responds by saying we better give the police more equipment.

“I don’t doubt that criminals have become more sophisticated than they were 20, 25 years ago,” he said. “But that’s going to happen in a city that’s growing like Atlanta.”