Ganging up on crime
Marty Hiles was shocked when flyers for the Vagos motorcycle club started circulating in Garland, a berg of about 2,000 people in Box Elder County that he jokingly calls his personal “Mayberry.”
Shortly after Hiles noticed recruitment efforts by the outlaw motorcycle gang posted throughout town, he saw other graffiti and heard stories of gang fights at Bear River High School — issues he thought he had left behind when moving to Utah from a gang-plagued neighborhood in California.
Concerned about a gang presence trickling in from Ogden, Brigham City and Tremonton, Hiles formed a Neighborhood Watch group with Garland City Council member Jonna Constock aimed at reducing crime in the small community.
The two also are spearheading a grassroots effort to toughen gang laws in Utah, with Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, joining the cause.
She plans to introduce a bill to the state Legislature this session that would make associating with or being a member of a criminal street gang illegal in the Beehive State. A similar law currently exists in California.
While Menlove’s bill is still in the drafting stage, she said the state needs to take a bold stand against gang activity. “What we’re seeing is the gang influence spreading into smaller towns in rural communities,” Menlove said. “The goal is to send a message to criminal street gangs that we are not interested in having them operate in our state.
“Her bill is the latest in a spate of gang legislation inspired by California’s gang laws, said Paul Boyden, executive director of Utah’s Statewide Association of Prosecutors.Boyden and a group from two state gang investigator associations have spent recent months researching other states’ gang laws to find ideas that may be effective in Utah. The result is five bills that will toughen the punishment for involvement in gang activity if they are made into law, he said.
Debate over those proposals is expected to heat up when the legislative session starts Jan.26, Boyden said.
Garland will keep a close watch on potential changes to gang laws that could allow prosecutors to crack down on gang activity, Hiles said.
The town is experiencing minor gang issues, said Garland Police Chief Linda Bourne, with the four-person police department more often noticing teenagers flashing gang signs and dressing in traditional gang colors.
Bear River High School has reported fights linked to gang disputes, Bourne said. And Harris Market, Garland’s sole convenience store on Main Street has been burglarized four times and vandalized in the process. Three of the four burglaries were linked to juvenile gang members, who trashed the store in the process of stealing beer and cigarettes, she said.
Bourne said she’s not surprised by gang activity in the small town, but residents usually are.
“People consider us a bedroom community where nothing ever happens and supposedly everyone knows their neighbors,” Bourne said. “It’s not that way.”
Bourne said Garland’s gang members are from a variety of groups, most notably sets of bloods, crips and Juggalos (followers of the rap group Insane Clown Posse). The Vagos motorcycle club placed an advertisement in one of the local newspapers advertising a fundraiser for Toys for Tots, a move gang detectives caution can be a ploy for recruiting members to participate in illegal activity.
It was the Vagos advertisement along with Vagos’ flyers posted at a restaurant and park that spurred Hiles to action.
He organized the Neighborhood Watch group with Constock, and arranged to have Neighborhood Watch slogans placed on the town’s gateway signs. The group is in the process of brainstorming how else they can ward off gang activity. They’ve elected neighborhood captains who will work in close contact with the police department to report suspicious activity.
“To me, gangs are urban terrorists. People are afraid to report or stand up to them,” said Hiles, a former Marine who observed his neighborhood in Oceanside, Calif., deteriorate because of gang activity.
“We’re not trying to scare people, we’re not trying to make Garland look bad. We’re just trying to be proactive.”
While Garland’s gang issues are a far cry from crime like drive-by shootings that occur occasionally in Ogden and Salt Lake City, graffiti and minor gang problems can often lead to more violent situations, said Lt. Loring Draper of the Ogden Metro Gang Task Force.
Draper said officers from Ogden’s gang task force visited a Garland Neighborhood Watch meeting and presented information on gangs to better educate the community on how the groups operate.
He said Garland is in a geographic location to catch spillover activity from gangs in Ogden, Brigham City and Tremonton.
“It’s happening everywhere. There is not a community that is safe from it,” Draper said.
SB16 — Prohibited gang activity » Loitering in a public place by members of a gang or group after police asked them to leave would become a class B misdemeanor.
SB 19 — Criminal offense penalties » If a defendant commits a crime to benefit the defendant’s relationship with a gang, the crime is subject to the same enhanced penalty as when a person commits a crime with two or more other people, possibly allowing longer prison sentences.
HB37 — Violent offenses amendments » Creates enhanced penalties for committing a first-degree felony with other gang members.
HB36 — Criminal offense elements and penalties » Aggravated assault; failure to stop at the command of a police officer; and discharge of a firearm would change to second-degree felonies if committed by gang members.
SB28 — Prohibited activities after conviction for a gang-related offense » After conviction for a gang-related offense, a person would be prohibited from engaging in certain activities, such as possessing a weapon
Also » Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, will introduce a bill that outlaws being an associate or member of a criminal street gang. The bill is in the drafting stage. Menlove studied California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act or STEP law, which makes gang membership a felony punishable by up to three years in prison in some cases.