Last fall, Richmond County Sheriff's Investigator Bill Kitchens got a letter from a jail inmate. The sender's name was familiar. He was someone the department had been gathering intelligence on as a high-ranking south Augusta gang member.
The message said he wanted to talk. On the same piece of notebook paper he sketched a hodgepodge of Satanic-type symbols, letters and numbers.
"Later on I asked him what that was all about," said Investigator Kitchens, who has spent the past three years tracking gangs for the sheriff's office. "He said it was so I'd know he was the real thing."
The letter came from Juan D. Roane, 25, who is locked up on drunken driving, vehicular homicide and hit-and-run charges. The cryptic designs were gang art, markers for the Chicago-based FOLKS syndicate, which can include pitchforks, the number 666 and hexagrams.
Mr. Roane had some things he wanted to get off his chest. The death of James "B" Ramsey, 15, whom he is charged with killing, had opened his eyes, he said. He wanted to tell what he knew about gangs in Augusta and the role he played in recruiting teen-aged troublemakers into his own criminal crew.
Firsthand information is just one way the sheriff's office keeps tabs on organized street crime in Augusta. Investigator Kitchens and two other deputies spend their spare time keeping up with the groups by documenting the spray-painted messages they leave and the felonies and misdemeanors their members commit. More importantly, they work to build trust among the members who are willing to talk.
Mr. Roane said he was a set king, loosely comparable to a squad leader or a battalion sergeant in the military. Investigators say they know he held a leader's slot.
Given his rank, he offers a rare glimpse into the underground. His story says a lot about how gangs are evolving in the area, and about a perilous lifestyle that can be impossible to shake.
In his heyday, Mr. Roane was one of the city's most notorious thugs. They called him "Killajuan" on the streets. He arrived in Augusta at the close of the 1980s and spent the next decade mustering scores of followers into a gang rooted in FOLKS, or Gangster Disciples.
He also contends the chain of events that cost him his freedom started as a plan to retire and pass the scepter to a teen-age protege at a meeting in Pepperidge subdivision. That was where he was going before the wreck Nov. 7, he said.
According to an indictment handed down last month, Mr. Roane was drunk that night, when he crashed his Ford Aspire into an oncoming minivan on Tobacco Road, then made a dash into the woods but collapsed, unconscious. The impact killed James. A 54-year-old woman in the minivan suffered debilitating injuries to her arm, shoulder and leg, and a 16-year-old back-seat passenger in the Aspire suffered a deep gash to her forehead.
Mr. Roane has been locked in the Richmond County jail since trading his hospital gown for jail garb.
"All those years we robbed, we partied and we hurt people," he said. "What do we have to show for it?"
A hard habit
It's tricky leaving a gang. Mr. Roane isn't the first person wanting out, only to find themselves in a world of hurt.
While disenfranchised and disillusioned youths are easily seduced by the groups, escaping them can be as tough as quitting a drug habit, experts say. Parents often react by dragging their teens to psychologists or clergy, which does little to solve the problem.
Starting a new life takes strong support systems among friends and relatives, and counselors who understand the culture, said Steve Nawojczyk, an Arkansas coroner turned gang researcher and educator. Intervention programs dealing specifically with gangs are nearly nonexistent in the Augusta area.
"Gangs spread myths that they accept the kids for who they are. A lot of times, they're lured in by older kids who want them to do their dirty work," Mr. Nawojczyk said. "What they don't tell them is that they're expendable."
In this area, police haven't had much trouble with turf wars, said Deputy Scott White, also a gang watcher. A bigger risk to an Augusta gangster is a beef with a fellow member, he said. Most slayings, shootings and assaults with a gang flavor appear to have started with someone "dissing" another person, as in the killings of Corey McMillan and Niteka Wesbey over a Book of Knowledge last year.
Other health hazards come in entering and trying to leave. Converts are baptized by violence. Then, as the outfits become meaner and more organized, the leaders become less willing to allow members who want to quit to just walk away.
"I've had parents call me and say their son got beaten up because he tried to get out of a gang," Investigator Kitchens said. "I've personally talked to some who were in the process of getting out but kept getting jumped on."
There are many ways of joining. Investigator Kitchens has found initiation rites to be not unlike those reported in countless other communities and metropolitan centers. The most common is the "beat down" or "jump in," where a new recruit is outnumbered in a fistfight and gets pummeled with punches and kicks. Or there's "doing dirt," which means earning membership by pulling off crimes.
Whatever new recruits have to do, it doesn't seem to phase them, Investigator Kitchens said. Many who take the plunge don't realize what they've gotten into until it's too late.
"It might be they didn't realize the true aspects of being in a gang. They didn't realize it was as criminal in nature," he said. "A lot of times the gangs don't want you to get out because you've been privileged to the inner workings. It's a matter of trust."
When one of his underlings wanted out, Mr. Roane said he'd let them go. But he said he'd better not catch them running with another organization, or claiming to still be in his. The code he describes is not unlike a noncompetition clause in a severance agreement with a company.
Violators can be beaten "to a point that it might kill them," he said. Some members would offer to kill them outright. Mr. Roane said he instructed them to "just beat them, and if they die later so be it."
In most areas, gangsters are in for life, said Chicago Police Department Sgt. Robert Stasch, who trains agencies facing gang violence throughout the country. A member can be deactivated, he said, but not decommissioned.
"For the most part, it's almost like the Marine Corps, where there are no ex-Marines, only former Marines," Sgt. Stasch said. "A guy might come to a point in his life where he raises a family, settles down and has a legitimate job and goes to work Monday through Friday. But he's still got in the back of his mind that gang lifestyle and that gang mentality."
Back in the day
If he does walk away, Mr. Roane knows better than anyone what he'll be up against. He describes gangs in Augusta as a sweeping underground operation with hundreds of members devoted to robbing, stealing, dope dealing and a rigid code of silence.
It was people like him who set it off. By his account, he became a foot soldier in FOLKS after surviving a beat down at age 9 while living in the Baltimore area. He stole cars and took them to chop shops. He sold crack, cocaine, heroin and angel dust. He held up stores and homes at gunpoint.
When his family moved to Augusta, he found himself alone. All he had left was his rank.
He said he first got into trouble at Hephzibah Middle School for selling dollar liquor shots in the bathroom. At A.C. Griggs Alternative School, he was introduced to like minds. They were just "wannabe thugs," but it didn't take long to whip them into shape.
Soon they were breaking into cars and stripping them, and peddling drugs.
As the enterprise flourished, Mr. Roane faded into the shadows. He took jobs at fast-food restaurants in Augusta and South and North Carolina as a cover to help him set up drug-dealing and gun-buying networks with gangs from afar, he said.
Over the years, he collected a tattoo of a six-point star on his arm, the names of his past leaders on his leg and the brand of his set. He also has a bullet wound in his chest, which he said is self-inflicted. It was the result of suicidal thoughts in 1998, and he barely missed his heart, he said.
There was a man at his side to carry out personal orders. There were six division leaders spread out in the city seeing to day-to-day business. There were dozens of female members who had been "sexed in," and their lot was to lay down and submit at anybody's whim.
They partied constantly - almost every day, he said. They drank liquor, smoked marijuana, used cocaine and took Ecstacy.
At some point, they stopped showing their white and black colors when they dressed. He didn't want the FOLKS on the front lines. If someone exposed the set king or anyone else, they risked being killed.
As he got older, Mr. Roane's life changed. The birth of his first son put his world into perspective long before the wreck.
"I looked at him and I named him junior," he said, "And everyone was saying, `I hope he don't end up like you.' And I was thinking the same thing."
In Augusta, Mr. Roane estimates there are about 40 FOLKS sets, each with its own king. Membership is in the hundreds, possibly nearing 1,000, he said. That's not including Bloods, Crips and other gangs.
"Augusta's full of them," Mr. Roane said. "If they all just came together and said, `Let's shut down Augusta,' they could do it.
"This place is a time bomb just waiting to explode."
Deputy White said the department doesn't have a solid estimate of the number of gangs or gang members in the city, but he suspects Mr. Roane's figures are a stretch. A more realistic figure for the total number of gangs may be between 25 and 40, he said.
"It's hard to determine," Deputy White said. "We have certain criteria to determine what is a gang member, but their criteria may be different than ours."
If the inmate is being honest about his plans to change, a thorny road awaits him on the outside, the deputy said. "I think that's going to be a tough thing for him to do because of the pressure they put on them."
Mr. Roane isn't worried about his own crew retaliating, because he's confident they still have love for him. As for other FOLKS members, he's not so sure.
"Whatever happens, it won't matter because I have God," he said, "so if I die I will go to heaven."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.
Warning signs that your child might be becoming involved in gang life:
Obsession with one particular color of clothing or desire for a particular logo over and over
Use of hand signs while with friends; practicing them at home
Appearance of injuries, followed by lying about the events surrounding the injury
Unexplained cash or goods, such as clothing and jewelry
Peculiar drawings or language on school books, which might appear later as tattoos or brands
Excessive jewelry with distinctive designs, especially when worn only on either the right or left side of the body
Obsession with gangster-influenced music, videos and movies to the point of imitation
An unusual desire for privacy and secrecy; completely rearranging living quarters to create more privacy
Source: Steve Nawojczyk's Parent Resource Guide at www.gangwar.com.