A gang war in Augusta is heating up, say Richmond County authorities, adding to the gun violence in the area and leading witnesses, and even some victims, to go into hiding.
A slew of recent shootings have been the result of a feud between the Shirley Avenue gang and the South Side gang, Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Vinson said. In the past three to four weeks, police have been called to at least five gang-related shootings where the victims and witnesses refused to cooperate with law enforcement, forcing police to work off rumors and even target victims in order to get answers.
“It is absolutely necessary to have witnesses,” Vinson said. “The evidence is key, but witnesses can tie it all together.”
Gang mentality is very much like a cult, said Devon Harris, a local gang interventionist and founder of Full Circle Refuge Ministries. The gang leader often has deluded members to such an extent that they don’t trust anyone outside the group. They also fear retaliation from their gang if they go to law enforcement.
The saying is “snitches get stitches,” Harris said. The fear of retaliation is often strong enough to keep law-abiding residents quiet.
“The fear is that they are going to come after me,” Harris said.
Because gang members prefer to retaliate on the street rather than go to police, finding witnesses and victims who will talk is becoming harder, forcing law enforcement to look elsewhere for information and evidence, Vinson said. In a case where no one is talking, police can try to make a case against the victim, if there were drugs or illegal guns involved. Making a strong case against the victim can sometimes lead to a suspect.
On Friday, police responded to a shooting at Pak-N-Go on Olive Road. On surveillance video, they saw the victim, Richard Mills, 19, of the 2000 block of Jordan Drive, was targeted by the shooter.
“He walked into the store and shot Mills point blank,” Vinson said. “Even though there were other people in the store and parking lot, he only shot Mills.”
Police were told the shooting was one gang retaliating to a shooting the week before. At Pak-N-Go, there were multiple witnesses, even one caught on video, but none have come forward.
Police did get some anonymous tips, and through them identified and arrested Marcus Anthony Leverett, 28. Vinson said several tipsters identified Leverett as the shooter.
“We will take anonymous tips,” he said, but often with gang-related shootings police don’t even get that.
In July, six people were shot on Broad Street after First Friday. That shooting, which has been linked to gang activity, is a “cold case” until a reliable witness surfaces.
“I think people are afraid,” Vinson said. “They don’t want to be involved and see it every day. It is very hard to convince them to come forward.”
Gang violence also is getting bolder, he said. Shootings used to happen after dark but now are being carried out during the day, and in front of witnesses.
The ultimate fear for police, Vinson said, is an innocent person getting in the crossfire.
The crime scene is often chaotic. Cpl. Bruce Williams, who has been a Richmond County deputy for 16 years, said when deputies arrive they try immediately
to identify and separate witnesses before rumors and corroboration of stories can begin.
“We get what we can from the field interviews,” he said. “But if someone doesn’t
want to talk, we can’t make them.”
Williams, who works with the housing team, said deputies rely heavily on relationships they have with people in the neighborhoods. When a scene is clearly gang-related – which they can usually tell from the color of clothes and types of tattoos – police occasionally can get someone to talk if they are away from the crowd and cannot be labeled a snitch.
Williams and Vinson said people who do come forward are usually sick of the violence and want to help stop it.
“We need more of those,” Vinson said.
Occasionally, a victim’s parent will become a source of information, even when the victim has refused to help.
Vinson said parents often don’t know or want to accept that their child is a gang member, and instead choose to see it as childhood friends. Without the fear of a violent retaliation, parents tend to reach out.
Harris said one sure way to combat gang violence is for the public to work with law enforcement.
“We need to step up and take responsibility,” he said. “As a society, we can’t be afraid to talk.”