Originally created 12/17/00

Augusta fights spread of gangs



They pledge their allegiance to the Weaver Height Pimps. Or the Sunset Posse. Or 9th Ward.

Augusta's gangs, for years just loosely organized groups of thugs, are becoming more sophisticated.

And more violent.

"They're getting better at what they do," said Investigator Bill Kitchens, who tracks gangs for the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. "It's been going on long enough that they're bound to get better. The members are getting older. It's just snowballing."

In the fight against gangland crime, Augusta may be facing a cancer that's spreading beyond the city's pockets of poverty.

Police and court authorities concede it's been a local affliction for the past decade, mostly in the form of robberies, burglaries, car thefts, vandalism and drug peddling.

But, in some respects, what happened the day after Thanksgiving at Westwood Village Apartments marked a turning point. The two deaths from gunfire in an apartment behind the manager's office off Marks Church Road were Richmond County's first clear-cut gang-related homicides, officials say.

Investigators said the slayings began with an argument over a copy of Book of Knowledge, a spiral notebook containing the rules and symbols of the Chicago-based FOLKS gang.

Although such notebooks are typically kept by a gang's leader, new recruits often are given copies to study and memorize. The pages can contain the group's history, creed and initiation rites; names, nicknames and ranks of members; and keys for deciphering their hieroglyphic alphabets.

"That's a dedicated, hard-core gang member that'll kill over something like that," said Chicago Police Department Sgt. Robert Stasch, a national consultant and trainer for agencies facing gang violence. "In a gang, they'll kill you over colors, they'll kill you over hand signs, and they'll certainly kill you over a Book of Knowledge."

The deaths have led to more emphasis on stopping the spread of gangs - an effort that has to start with eliminating their recruiting pool, experts say.

Attacking a disease

A 1999 survey by the National Youth Gang Center, a U.S. Department of Justice program, reported 26,000 gangs with 840,500 members in the United States.

Though several churches and inner-city outreach ministries in the area counsel gang members and potential gang members, one dealing head-on with the problem isn't easy to find.

In Columbia County, however, a pilot program started in October by the sheriff's office is reaching out to middle school pupils. Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT, is a national school-based gang prevention effort started in 1991 by officers from the Phoenix Police Department and special agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The program sends uniformed law enforcement officers into sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms for nine weeks.

"Typically, kids that join gangs come from troubled or broken homes," said Columbia County sheriff's Investigator Bruce Walker. "They have that desire to be wanted or included."

Once a week, Investigator Walker uses role-playing techniques and lecture topics such as cultural sensitivity and prejudice, conflict resolution, drugs, and neighborhoods and responsibility to turn pupils away from gangs.

Columbia Middle School Principal Donna Anderson said she was excited when Sheriff Clay Whittle approached her about using her school for the pilot program. The sheriff's office wants to implement the program in all the county's middle schools eventually.

"The curriculum deals with conflict resolution and other topics, taking a pro-active approach to gang resistance," Ms. Anderson said. "That's what I like about the curriculum; it's not just focused on gangs."

Program supporters say GREAT yields results: A 1995 study showed that pupils who had completed the program were less anti-social, had better attitudes, talked with their parents more often and had a greater commitment to school than those who did not participate.

Followers

If not for 6 inches of bad aim, Augusta's first official gang killing could have happened nearly two years ago. That was when Lawrence "Rambo" Miller, 21, ordered three teens to rob and shoot A-Awesome Jewelry and Pawn Shop Manager William Lake. The Feb. 4, 1999, incident was part of an initiation into a group affiliated with the FOLKS gang.

More than 90 percent of Augusta's organized street gangs claim allegiance to FOLKS, Investigator Kitchens estimated. It is one of the four main gang syndicates in the United States. The others are the Bloods, Crips and People.

FOLKS stands for Followers of Our Lord King Satan, or Followers of Our Lord King Solomon. Though much of the gang's symbols and jargon borrow from devil worship and Judaic religion, FOLKS ideology centers on founder Larry Hoover, 46, who is serving a life sentence for murder and drug trafficking in a federal maximum-security prison in Colorado.

The Augusta crews go by localized names such as Gilbert Manor Posse, Harrisburg Posse, Wood Valley Crew, Goshen Retreat Boys and Third World. Members are a mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics, ranging from young juveniles to twentysomething adults.

At the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, Investigator Kitchens and two other deputies use their spare time to amass files containing street art, surveillance photos and snapshots of local graffiti and teens flashing hand symbols - known as "stacking." By comparison, Atlanta - two hours away and with more than five times the population of Augusta - has its own gang task force in the Atlanta Police Department to combat the epidemic.

Investigator Kitchens has befriended some local gang members, and to help understand their underground culture, he listens to rap acts such as Tupac Shakur, Mystikal and Eminem, he said.

One artist he's particularly interested in is platinum-selling Atlanta rapper Pastor Troy, a former Paine College student whose damning lyrics in Above the Law are aimed at the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. The song refers to the 1998 shooting of Alfaigo Davis, who was black, by two white sheriff's deputies, which sparked a controversy that nearly tore the community apart along racial lines.

In a telephone interview, Pastor Troy, whose real name is Micah Troy, said the song represents the frustrations of Augusta's black, inner-city youth. He said he associates with gang members in Atlanta and Augusta: They're his blanket of protection.

"I'm sticking my neck out for them," he said. "In my lyrics, I'm speaking for them to everyone from the Richmond County Sheriff's Department to the (expletive) White House.

"They need to take it seriously, because it's some serious stuff going on."

Investigator Kitchens knows that. Though he declined to say how many gangs and gang members he believes are in Richmond County, a year ago he said there were 23 gangs. Now there are more, he said.

"It's almost like if you've got a neighborhood, you've got a gang problem," he said. "Schools, period, are one of the best recruiting grounds."

Suburban thugs

In Columbia County, Sgt. Harold Clack said, the sheriff's office began to notice the presence of gang activity in the suburbs about six years ago.

Typically, suburban gangs have more of a reputation as hard-core partiers than as hardened criminals. Most of them come from affluent families, so committing crimes for monetary reasons is not an issue, Sgt. Clack said.

"The kind of gangs they have in L.A., New York, Chicago, we don't have that kind of gang activity," Sgt. Clack said. "But we do have one real active gang in Columbia County."

He declined to name that gang.

Georgia is one of at least 35 states with legislation geared toward strengthening sentences for convicted gang members. Provisions to state law enacted in 1998 can beef up prison terms between three and 15 years for gang-related crimes and add a consecutive 10 years for gang leaders.

District Attorney Danny Craig said his office has not yet applied the law.

"Our crimes that we've had where the gangs were involved have been so severe that the enhancements did not apply," Mr. Craig said, explaining that trying to add 10 years to a sentence of life plus 25 years wouldn't have made much sense.

The worst thing a community can do is ignore the problem, said Steve Nawojczyk, a retired county coroner in Little Rock, Ark., and a lecturer on juvenile violence prevention.

"Denial comes just before disaster," Mr. Nawojczyk said. "The community has got to make it clear that they're not going to allow this to happen."

Reach Johnny Edwards and Ashlee Griggs at (706) 724-0851.