Many of these gang members are ex-inmates who learned about gang culture in prison. Others are moving from bigger cities such as Columbia and Atlanta. They see Augusta as an opportunity to make money with less competition.
The two gangs making the biggest push are the Bloods and Crips, said Richmond County schools Public Safety Cpl. Adrienne Burns, who has seen significant gang action in the school system.
At her school, Butler High, Burns said there are at least eight gangs, adding that this wasn’t just an anomaly at Butler.
She said the Bloods are becoming the prevalent gang. In a drawer of “flags” or bandanas she’s confiscated during the past school year, more than 50 percent of them were red, the color of the Bloods. The rest were primarily black or blue, the colors of the Folk Nation and Crips, which Burns said have formed a local partnership.
“Now, they work together to commit crimes and make money,” said Burns, a 10-year schools police veteran. “It’s more organized than before. If we continue on this path, we will see much more violent and nonviolent crimes.”
A few years ago, the local gangs were neighborhood-based, such as the Georgia Deadly Boys, also known as the 23rd Street gang after a road in south Augusta, and the Harrisburg Posse or Burg Gang. Now these two gangs are affiliated with the Bloods, said Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Vinson, who supervises the department’s gang investigators.
Vinson said members of Black Gangster Disciples, affiliated with Folk Nation and the Crips, are leaving prison and taking over the East Boundary gang known as the Bottom Boyz. They are also taking control of territory in the Hyde Park area.
“The jails are so full. In a 10-year robbery sentence, they maybe serve one year,” Vinson said. “Guys in their 30s get out of prison and puppet-master these kids with what they learned inside.”
Independent gangs still exist, such as the 9th Street Ward, the Hilltop Posse, Sunset, O-Dub or OWTT, the Meadowbrook Clique, the Apple Valley Posse, and the Southside Posse, he said.
Burns said there is a strong likelihood they will eventually become affiliated with a national group.
The issue of gangs in Augusta resurfaced after six people were wounded in a July 6 shooting on Broad Street that happened after the First Friday festival. No one has been arrested, but authorities say witness accounts lead them to believe gangs were involved.
A number of high-ranking gang members were taken off the street in a 2007 undercover sting operation in which the sheriff’s office teamed up with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Operation Augusta Ink, which operated out of a Tobacco Road tattoo parlor, netted 100 arrests, many of whom were gang members, authorities said, and confiscated more than 400 firearms.
“Richmond County should be commended for that operation,” said Devon Harris, a gang intervention specialist and founder of Full Circle Refuge, a ministry for at-risk youths. “However, the problem is not gone.”
Harris said that after Augusta Ink, many gang leaders were sent to federal prison, and “lieutenants” vied for the coveted leader positions.
“It also allowed for national leaders to move in,” Harris said.
Gangs are now multiracial, he said.
“Whether or not people want to see it, we have a gang problem in Augusta,” Harris said. “They are getting smarter, committing more crime and moving faster. The violence is also worse.”
Three task forces are working to combat local gangs: the FBI’s Safe Streets task force, the ATF’s Operation Cease Fire in Augusta, and the Regional Anti-Gang Enforcement based in South Carolina.
In September 2010, Corey Reid Garnett, 20, was shot in his apartment on Damascus Road. His homicide is unsolved, but his friends say they know it was gang -related.
James Sullivan, an 18-year-old graduate of the Academy of Richmond County and a friend of Garnett, watched his friends get caught up in gangs. However, the music engineer never saw the attraction to gangs, even before his former marching band mate was killed because he tried to “jump gangs.” He was a Crip and was trying to become a Blood, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he had Harris as a mentor, though, something a lot of his friends did not have.
“Being in a gang is also about acceptance,” Harris said. “It’s about having a role model you don’t have at home.”
Burns said she regularly finds high school students, and even middle and some elementary school pupils, writing gang content in notebooks. She said she is also seeing more girls involved in gangs. They move to high schools and recruit the boys.
Burns sees gangs as a form of bullying and hopes to address the issue this year with a bullying-intervention seminar at the school.
“Some of these kids see me as a mother figure,” Burns said. “I will be whatever I need to be for them. Whatever keeps them out of a gang works for me.”