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FL – Gangs boost their local profile, deputies say

February 1, 2010

Gangs boost their local profile, deputies say

Thyrie Bland

Escambia County sheriff’s investigators are taking a hard look at what they believe is an increasingly serious gang problem locally.

What they know so far is some 200 gang members and associates of gangs have committed crimes from drug-dealing to drive-by shootings, five gangs have adopted the names of local streets or neighborhoods and members of the national Outlaws Motorcycle Club have recruited here.

But Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Rick Vinson, who began working as a gang unit supervisor in April, said that’s only what’s been proven. Investigators suspect there are another 15 local gangs and five national gangs here, he said.

“I knew we had a large street-level crime problem,” Vinson said. “But when I started looking into it and doing the investigations, the numbers were very, very surprising to me. I mean it’s astonishing to me that we have that large of a problem in Escambia County.”

It has been nearly a year since Sheriff David Morgan first expressed concerns about a significant gang problem.

To learn more, Morgan formed a gang unit, consisting of Vinson, another sergeant and an investigator. The deputies work with two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents to investigate gangs.

In next few months, more deputies will be assigned to the unit, Vinson said.

During the unit’s first year, investigators have spent a good bit of time trying to confirm what they believed to be true about gangs here. “As street officers, we knew some of them were out there,” Vinson said.

“We all believed it, but we had to go out there and find the facts to be able to prove what we as street officers knew.”

Homegrown problem

The unit is finding that the gangs causing the most trouble are those homegrown gangs that have adopted the names of local streets and neighborhoods, Vinson said.

Law enforcement and prosecutors are reluctant to name the gangs committing crimes here.

“We truly believe that these gangs are dangerous,” Assistant State Attorney Jeff Gaddy said. “The more notoriety you give them, the more power you give them.”

Like national gangs, the neighborhood gangs sell drugs and commit violent crimes, including drive-by shootings, Vinson said.

“They say we have these neighborhood groups, but these neighborhood groups are shooting at people,” he said. “They are doing home invasions. Each individual in that group has a rap sheet that’s is as long as my arm.”

In at least one high-profile case, investigators discovered such a neighborhood gang connection.

On Oct. 23, the Oakcrest Lounge on West Fairfield Drive was robbed.

Jared Ortiz, 24 was shot and killed during the robbery as he sat on a bar stool.

When Brandon Davis, 20, one of the suspects, was arrested on a murder charge, he was asked about being part of the Wedgewood Boys. The gang is named for the area west of Pensacola Boulevard and between Oakfield Road and Olive Heights.

“I ain’t gonna put on this tape that I’m a Wedgewood boy,” Davis said during the Oct. 29 interview.

“Yeah, you’re gonna have to,” the investigator told Davis.

“Yeah, I am from Wedgewood,” Davis responded.

“Do you claim to be (in) a … Wedgewood gang?” the investigator asked.

“Yeah,” Davis admitted.

Vinson called the robbery and shooting gang-related because of Davis’ suspected involvement. But he said he couldn’t answer whether the crime was gang-motivated.

He said he does not understand why there is a reluctance among some to acknowledge neighborhood gangs as real gangs.

“They are tattooing themselves with the same name,” he said. “They are throwing the hand signs up representing a criminal street gang. I ask people, ‘What are they doing that’s any different from a national gang?’

Gang members often commit crimes to further their standing within their gang or in furtherance of the gang’s name, Vinson said. The motivation is almost always money, he said.

“They have tattoos on themselves, and the wording depicts money over everything,” he said.

Long list

The sheriff’s gang unit maintains a list that includes the names of gang members and their associates, Vinson said.

To be added to the list, the person must meet the criteria set by state law to be considered a gang member or associate, he said.

The list is shared with the State Attorney’s Office to ensure that those on it face stiff penalties when prosecuted for crimes involving guns, officials said.

“None of these cases are plea bargained without permission from a supervisor,” said Gaddy, who handles gang and gun-related cases. Gang members and associates are being added to the list through the efforts of investigators and patrol officers and tips from informants that are verified through investigative work, Vinson said.

Some gang members and associates are in jail or prison, and their status is verified through corrections officials, Vinson said.

Investigators are tracking gangs, too, but more work is needed to determine whether the 20 suspected gangs meet the state definition of a gang, Vinson said.

State law defines a gang as a formal or informal organization of three or more people who have a common name or identifying signs, colors or symbols and whose primary activities are criminal or delinquent acts.

The gang unit doesn’t label a group as a gang unless it fits that definition, Vinson said.

Additional Facts

Florida gang law

State law defines a gang as a formal or informal organization of three or more people who have a common name or identifying signs, colors or symbols and whose primary activities are criminal or delinquent acts.

Under Florida law, a gang member is someone who meets two or more of the following criteria:

n Admits to gang membership.

n Is identified as a gang member by a parent or guardian.

n Is identified as a gang member by a reliable informant.

n Adopts the style of dress of a gang.

n Uses a hand sign used by a gang.

n Has a tattoo used by a gang.

n Associates with one or more known gang members.

n Is identified as a gang member by an informant whose reliability is not known and when the identification can be corroborated.

n Is identified as a gang member by physical evidence.

n Has been seen in the company of one or more known gang members four or more times.

n Authors communication indicating responsibility for the commission of any crimes by a gang.

Under Florida law, a gang associate is someone who:

n Admits to gang association.

n Meet any of the criteria for being a gang member.

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