Police forces unite for gang fight

Gangstas beware.

The FBI-led task force that has been targeting Augusta-area gangs for the past six months is now backed by federal funds, and police, prosecutors, campus police and federal agents are banding together to cut off the growing problem at the knees.

"We're trying to be proactive," Augusta FBI office Supervisory Special Agent Ed Reinhold said at a news conference Tuesday morning. "And we're setting up this task force to address the problem before it gets out of hand."

Part of the CSRA Safe Streets Task Force's strategy is to put criminal street thugs away for longer prison stretches. Its goal is to prosecute as many gang members as possible in federal court using racketeering laws, drug and weapons charges and the Hobbs Act, which prohibits robbery or extortion, or attempted robbery or extortion, affecting interstate commerce, Agent Reinhold said.

If a gang member goes to a state prison for five years or less, he comes out with more credibility and seniority, only adding to the problem, Agent Reinhold said. At the federal level, however, offenders get harsher sentences with no parole.

The task force already has busted about a dozen gang members since forming last year, but Tuesday's announcement was that the U.S. Department of Justice is now officially funding its mission to "disrupt and dismantle violent gangs." Agent Reinhold would not say how much money the federal government is kicking in, but he said the funds will be used to set up headquarters and pay overtime for officers.

The task force includes an array of local, state and federal agencies, including Richmond and Columbia counties' sheriff's offices, Richmond and Columbia County schools' police departments, the Augusta District Attorney's office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Georgia Department of Corrections, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, the U.S. Marshals Service, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Agent Reinhold said the task force has identified more than 40 gangs in the area with more than 300 members. Their members range in age from middle schoolers to 30-year-olds, police say, and are both black and white, male and female.

Many of the so-called gangs, however, are no more than unorganized neighborhood groups of youngsters who might shut down when one of their mothers takes their car away, Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength has said in the past.

Other gangs are involved in drug dealing, armed robberies, home invasions, burglaries, shoot outs, drive-by shootings and car thefts, among other things, Agent Reinhold said. Most Augusta gangs seem to be home-grown, but there are indications that a national motorcycle gang involved in transporting drugs might have a tie here, and there have also been signs of the national Latin Kings gang, he said.

Augusta is still a long way from being a place where residents should fear walking streets at night, Agent Reinhold said. And authorities have yet to see someone attacked for wearing the wrong colors.

The point is to keep things from going that far, he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

THE BIG SIX

Both Augusta FBI office Supervisory Special Agent Ed Reinhold and Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength say the task force is focusing on six gangs that seem to be sustaining themselves through crime:

O-DUB, aka "OWTT": The area's largest gang, with about 100 members, based in south Augusta around the Barton Village neighborhood. Reputed O-DUB members Kevin Evans, 18, and Jonathan D. Harrell, 17, were arrested last week in a drive-by shooting, with police seizing weapons that had been stolen from Shooters gun range.

Georgia Deadly Boys, aka "23rd": Based in south Augusta off Willis Foreman Road, with about 60 members.

Sunset: Based in or near Cherry Tree Crossing apartments, formerly Sunset Homes, off 15th Street, has 40 to 50 members.

Fairington Gangsta' Thugs, aka "Uptown": Based out of the Fairington neighborhood in south Augusta, with about 30 or 40 members.

Hilltop Posse: Based in west Augusta, its 30 or so members primarily attend Westside High School.

Ridge Boyz: Based in Columbia County in the area of Blue Ridge Drive, with about 15 to 20 members.