With the arrest of Atlanta rapper Young Thug, who was among more than two dozen co-defendants named in a sweeping gang indictment Monday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis proclaimed a victory in one battle against violent crime, but indicated the war is likely far from over.
The award-winning hip-hop artist, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was among 28 people named in the 56-count indictment, which includes charges ranging from drug and gun possession to murder.
“As the district attorney of Fulton County, my No. 1 focus is targeting gangs,” Willis told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “And there’s a reason for that. They are committing, conservatively, 75 to 80% of all of the violent crime that we are seeing within our community.”
The Grammy winner’s two charges are participating in criminal street gang activity and conspiring to violate Georgia’s criminal racketeering law, but the indictment alleges more serious crimes. Prosecutors accused Williams of renting an Infiniti Q50 sedan that was used in a 2015 deadly drive-by shooting that killed alleged rival gang member Donovan Thomas Jr.
Willis acknowledged that not everyone named in the indictment has been arrested, but she estimated 10 were already in custody and said three others were arrested Monday night. Some of the defendants will face life in prison if convicted, Willis added.
Williams’ attorney, Brian Steel, pushed back against the allegations.
“Mr. Williams committed absolutely no crime,” Steel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The charges in the indictment against him are baseless.”
Williams appeared before a Fulton County magistrate judge Tuesday afternoon, but because he was already indicted, the issue of bond likely won’t be taken up until the case goes before Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville, his attorney said.
Also named in Monday’s indictment were fellow rapper Gunna, whose legal name is Sergio Giavanni Kitchens, and Christian Eppinger, who is accused of seriously wounding an Atlanta police officer in a February shooting.
Georgia’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, was passed in 1981 by state legislators concerned about “the increasing sophistication of various criminal elements.” Modeled on a federal statute enacted 10 years earlier, it has been used successfully against street gangs, an assisted suicide network and the wide-ranging cheating scandal over changed standardized test scores in Atlanta public schools.
“I believe it allows juries and the communities to see the complete picture of a crime,” Willis said, adding that the public should expect to see more RICO cases brought against “street gang organizations.”
Elected in late 2020, the longtime prosecutor has indicated she is also eyeing RICO as she evaluates whether former President Donald Trump and his allies committed crimes in the aftermath of Georgia’s 2020 elections.
A defendant need not have committed a crime to be guilty on a RICO charge — they could be convicted because of their association with illegal acts. Prosecutors must prove that at least two offenses, such as murder, theft or bribery, have occurred and that they were carried out by two or more people seeking to control or protect an institution, property or interest.
Critics say prosecutors have exploited the statute far beyond its intended reach and used it to introduce evidence that otherwise would not be admissible in court.
Monday’s indictment centers on “Young Slime Life,” an alleged gang co-founded by Williams in Atlanta with ties to the national Bloods gang. YSL, or Young Stoner Life, is also the name of Young Thug’s record label.
“As associates of the enterprise Young Slime Life, the defendants conspired to associate together and with others for the common purposes of illegally obtaining money and property through a pattern of racketeering activity” that includes murder, assault and other acts of violence, the indictment alleges.
According to prosecutors, the gang started in the area of Cleveland Avenue in 2012. The indictment named Walter Murphy, aka “DK,” and Trontavious Stephens, aka “Tick” and “Slug,” as co-founders alongside Williams. As Williams rose to stardom, so did the profile of YSL thanks to frequent mentions in his music, prosecutors said.
Willis was asked about her decision to use the rapper’s often violent lyrics against him and his alleged associates. The DA called the First Amendment “one of our most precious rights,” but argued free speech doesn’t protect someone from having their own words become evidence in a criminal proceeding.
Steel, Williams’ attorney, said his client’s songs were simply a form of self-expression. “It’s offensive to take a musical artist’s poetry and then twist it out of context into crimes,” he said.
Willis hinted at the pending RICO indictment last month, when Eppinger, an alleged gang member also known as Bhris, was granted bond in the police officer’s shooting.
Williams, whose arrest made national headlines Monday evening, was taken into custody during an Atlanta police raid at his Buckhead home.
“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is,” Willis said. “If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, and you commit crimes ... you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office.”
— Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.