A suspicious image

COLUMBIA - Seventy-five miles northeast may seem like a strange place to go for a story about gangs in the Garden City, but not really.

It's exactly where to begin. Local law enforcement and activists hold up the capital of South Carolina as what happens when a city doesn't take emerging gangs seriously. So consider Columbia-Richland County one possible future for Augusta.

"Columbia didn't react to it, and now they're having a major problem with gangs," Devon Harris, a gang intervention specialist, told a packed house during a gang awareness seminar at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in January. "I just don't want to see Augusta like that."

"Like that" means having more than 50 percent of all crimes in Richland County committed by gang members, say law enforcement there.

"Like that" means more than 40 hardcore gangs with at least 2,000 members.

"Like that" means having feared, nationwide gangs such as Folk Nation, the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13 and Latin Kings peddling crack cocaine in your neighborhoods and recruiting children to do the footwork.

"Like that" means an ongoing gang war, with shootings in the news almost every week.

Gangs exist in Augusta, too. The question is how clear a picture law enforcement is painting of the problem here, how accurately the media are portraying it and whether the public, which depends on both to be fully informed, is getting what it needs to form an educated opinion.

RICHMOND COUNTY Sheriff Ronnie Strength strongly sounded the alarm about a growing gang problem last year at an Augusta Commission work session when commissioners were discussing budget cuts to city departments, including the sheriff's office.

"It would be scary for me to describe what is going on with gangs in Richmond County," the sheriff told commissioners at the Sept. 28 meeting.

The sheriff's office and the FBI have identified 38 to 44 groups, six of which they consider legitimate gangs that sustain themselves through criminal enterprise. They go by the names of O-Dub, 23rd, Hilltop Posse, Sunset, Uptown and Ridge Boyz.

The estimated total membership is at least 300. They're involved in drug dealing, armed robberies, home invasions, burglaries, shoot outs, drive-by shootings and car thefts.

On a four-tier system developed by the U.S. Department of Justice to classify a community's gang problems - four being the worst, one being a city with no gang activity - FBI Augusta office Supervisory Agent Ed Reinhold said Augusta-Richmond County ranks between a two and a three, and Evans-Martinez a two.

"We're setting up this task force to address the problem before it gets out of hand," the agent said about the CSRA Safe Streets Task Force, which includes an array of local, state and federal agencies.

Like gangs themselves, the opinions by top law enforcement officials about these organizations have been fluid.

Six years ago, Sheriff Strength downplayed the notion that Augusta was becoming a breeding ground for hard-core gangs.

In a May 2001 article in a local weekly newspaper, he expressed doubt about reports in The Augusta Chronicle - which were based on interviews with his own investigators - estimating that the city had 40 to 60 gangs with 500 to 1,000 members.

At the time, Sheriff Strength made a distinction between gangs and "groups."

"The media wants us to have a gang problem. I'm glad we don't," the sheriff was quoted saying. "We've got group problems. They paint on buildings - graffiti."

Sheriff Strength said he couldn't say that now.

"Do we have a gang problem? Absolutely," he said last month.

Agent Reinhold said in November that none of Augusta's gangs had connections to any nationwide gangs, even if they do borrow their colors and symbols. In April, without elaborating, he said some national gang members have gotten out of prison and moved to the area, and now they're trying to recruit.

Sheriff Strength said Augusta's relatively low crime rate compared with other mid-sized cities in Georgia shows that no national gangs exist in Augusta. If they did, the crime rate would be higher, he said.

Augusta's violent crime rate, based on 2005 figures, is 392.3 per 100,000 people, well below the state average of 448.9.

When told that Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott attributes 50 percent or more of his county's crime to gangs, Sheriff Strength said gangs are likely responsible for less than 10 percent of Augusta's crimes.

SHERIFF STRENGTH said his warnings last year had nothing to do with a recommendation by City Administrator Fred Russell to eliminate 25 deputy positions to help the city balance its 2007 budget. He hit the alarm button because there were signs of gang growth and he didn't want it to get out of control, the sheriff said.

"I knew they weren't going to cut my budget, but I had to make that point because of the recommendation from the city administrator," he said. "We think we were right on target. What if we had sounded the alarm a year earlier but couldn't show anything?"

Some of the teens and young adults who live in Augusta's predominantly black neighborhoods where police say most of the gang activity exists find what authorities claim amusing.

A half-dozen teens from the Sand Hills neighborhood - congregating at an empty lot at the corner of First Avenue and Wheeler Road - laughed about Agent Reinhold and Sheriff Strength's pronouncements in a recent newspaper article that a west Augusta gang called Hilltop - one of the big six - has 30 to 40 members.

They are Hilltop, the youths said. It's what they call the neighborhood and anybody who lives there. They have a hand sign for it - a letter H - but that doesn't mean it's a gang.

"Thirty members ain't even a gang," one youth who wouldn't give his name said, laughing.

"It's just a neighborhood - Sand Hills," said a 25-year-old who called himself "Beezy." "There ain't no gang, man."

Dressed in baggy pants and T-shirts, some wearing camouflage-colored wind jackets, they mused that the claims of gang activity in their neighborhood gives authorities an excuse to harass them at random. Since they look and dress a certain way, they automatically get labeled as thugs.

"Just because a person isn't wearing colors doesn't mean they're not in a gang," said a 20-year-old, who would identify himself only as "Daniel" or "Byrdman the Great." He claimed he is an inactive Folk member who left the gang about a year ago.

"Just like, just 'cause a person's wearing a red shirt and a red hat, that doesn't mean they're in a gang."

DISTINGUISHING WHO'S a thug and who's just into the hip-hop lifestyle is tricky, and broad assumptions have led to serious misunderstandings in Augusta. The foremost example: First Friday.

The controversy last year over late-night partying after the official festival ended was thick with overtones about gangs taking over downtown. Some Broad Street business owners privately took to calling the festival "Thug Friday."

Most of those participating in the so-called After First Friday festivities - walking up and down sidewalks and cruising Broad Street with car stereos thumping - were young, black and dressed in "urban attire." The concern, which nearly led to the festival being canceled, contributed to the image that gangs were running rampant in Augusta.

Sheriff Strength admits as much.

"Can I sit here and say no, there were never any gang members during First Friday? No, absolutely they were down there. But I would have to say well over 70 percent were not," he said.

"But the general public, in reading, associates all of them as gang members or part of gangs or thugs or whatever, and that's not accurate at all.

"Just because there are groups out there that do things a little different than I do or you do, does not mean that they are probably in a gang. There's a lot of identification there that is inaccurate."

The sheriff said local media must take some of the blame for painting that inaccurate picture.

"Y'all ask the questions," he said to a couple of reporters. "And y'all ask the questions in a way that the answers would come back as possibly not the whole story."

The shooting of 17-year-old Joshua Albright on July 27 is a case in point, in which both the media and law enforcement began brushstrokes, then never completed the painting. When the teen was killed in a drive-by in Harrisburg, the sheriff's department initially told the media that two gangs, Hilltop and Harrisburg Posse, came up during the investigation.

No media have since reported whether the slaying was gang-related, even after arrests were made. Sheriff's Lt. Scott Peebles told The Chronicle for this story that the incident turned out not to be gang-related.

IN COLUMBIA, the story about gangs is still unfolding as authorities do their best to contain the situation.

Like Augusta, it's a proud, deep-South city with sultry summers. Its middle-class neighborhoods have the same styles of boxy, brick homes with Magnolia trees, dogwoods, pines and palmetto trees growing in their yards. The sheriff's office patrol cars are even the same shades of black and gray.

And like Richmond County, Richland's crime rate isn't at epidemic levels. The county's major crime rate - including murder, rape, burglaries and arson - dropped 6.5 percent between 2000 and 2005. Within South Carolina, Columbia's 2005 violent crime rate, the most recent year for which figures are available, was surpassed by Florence, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Law enforcement officials in Columbia were split over the seriousness of the problem before the gangs grew to their current levels.

In 2001, The (Columbia) State published a story comparing the statements of Sheriff Leon Lott to those of Columbia Police Chief Charles Austin, who is now the city administrator.

Sheriff Lott said several hundred people were involved in about 40 gangs with names like Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Anarchist Society and Metro Marbles. He said the members were committing violent acts and selling drugs. Gangs were even active on the campus of Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, Sheriff Lott said.

Chief Austin, however, said the city had "no documented gang structure." He said people were jumping to conclusions based on false perceptions, such as the colorful bandanas many young people wore.

"Right now, we are dealing in conjecture based mostly on the color of someone's clothing that could or could not be gang clothing," Chief Austin said in the article.

Then, in 2004, there were back to back shootings - one at a public fair.

"You couldn't ignore it at that point. That was way too late," Sheriff Lott said. "For a long time, a lot of people in our community denied we had a gang problem, and that allowed it to grow. Now we're addressing it as a community, but we're playing catch-up."

DURING A VISIT in March to the shell of an abandoned Columbia public housing complex - one so crime-infested and covered with Folk Nation graffiti that the city shut it down - Richland County Sheriff's Investigator Kelvin Griffin watched a teen walk by in a black shirt with a black doo rag on his head. He said the youth is a known Folk gang member.

Tooling other mean streets in his patrol car, Investigator Griffin demonstrated how he can pick out gang members simply by the color of clothing they're wearing. Near Hyatt Park, he spied a chunky black teenager walking up a street in a long, bright red jersey.

Investigator Griffin said the youth is a Blood. Asked if the boy's appearance couldn't mean that he just shops at an urban wear store, the investigator said his instincts tell him he's right.

"In this neighborhood, you wouldn't just walk around in a big, red shirt," he said, "because there might be people driving around looking for someone to shoot, and these kids in the schools know that."

The Rev. A.V. Strong, a former Richland County deputy and Los Angeles Bloods member who heads a gang intervention organization called A Better Way/Project Gang Out, said the problem in Columbia spiraled out of control while city leaders haggled over how to define a gang.

The FBI's definition is a group of three or more individuals who engage in criminal activity and identify themselves with a common name or sign. The Rev. Strong suspects the dawdling had to do with commerce; a gang situation isn't something a city wants to advertise.

"For the last three or four years, gangs were growing while we were haggling over a word that's already in the dictionary," the Rev. Strong said, estimating that nearly 1,000 youths have gone through his program, leading to about 800 agreeing to "drop their colors."

"We should have been talking honestly, talking openly about this problem. I think we delayed that process until we started having killings. We got war right now between the Folk and the Bloods. That's why we have all these killings. It's a war over drugs and territory."

ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE involved in that war is a 19-year-old from the north side of town, who would identify himself only as Terrel.

Investigator Griffin pulled up to a row of seedy apartments, went inside and came out with him.

Tall and lanky, with dreadlocks bunched into three pigtails and wearing a long white T-shirt, Terrel acknowledged he was a Folk member.

While he spoke, he nervously swung his arms up and down, both of them marked with gang tattoos.

Folk isn't a gang, he said, it's an "organization." Terrel was recruited when he was 12 by a man who moved in from Chicago, looking to turn Columbia's burgeoning gang activity and drug dealing into his own lucrative franchise. Terrel's mother was hooked on crack, and he was already "thuggin'" when the man from Chicago approached him.

"I struggled all my life," he said. "They tell you they'll give you an opportunity - make money, become a better person.

"It's just like religion, if you think about it."

The worst thing he did: shoot at a rival gang member. Does he regret the life he chose?

"Everybody regret it, dog," Terrel said. "This (stuff) is getting sick."

Reach Mike Wynn and Johnny Edwards at (706) 724-0851.