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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.

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A Folk Nation member in Columbia, identified as Terrel, shows a gang tattoo on his arm.  Annette M. Drowlette/staff
Annette M. Drowlette/staff
A Folk Nation member in Columbia, identified as Terrel, shows a gang tattoo on his arm.

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.

Comments (10) Add comment
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PopieBoy 05/14/07 - 08:16 am
There or no real gangs in

There or no real gangs in Augusta they are want to be gangs. I'm from LA and if have of these clowns where in LA they would know what real gang life is. For the most part I bet have of these cats work a 9 to 5 or have a steady job. These Suburban thugs thats what I call them here in Augusta. If they want to know what real gang like if visit LA or Chicago or Little Rock Ark.

Raindance 05/14/07 - 09:05 am
Sounds like SUCH a promising

Sounds like SUCH a promising life. Put me on the next plane. Where do we get our guns? Idiots R us?

What morons. And "wanna-be" gang members are just as stupid as someone in a "real gang" It makes no difference what city you live in or how "experienced" you are. These cruel, lost people represent a lifestyle that hurts others - now isn't THAT something to be proud of. They're from the same mold as a terrorist. No conscience and weak. Cowards with self esteem so low they have to hurt others to make themselves appear all powerful. What a waste.

thugskin 05/14/07 - 09:21 am
The soultion is easy. Id the

The soultion is easy. Id the gang members and arrest them all.
Pass legislation and make it a feloney to be a member of a gang. Place special police units right smake in front of their houses. Let them know that they have no where to run baby, no where to hide.

Yung Legend
Yung Legend 05/14/07 - 09:41 am
these guys are right...some

these guys are right...some of these cats reppin their "hoods" so to speak and some are actually in gangs there are Bloodz, Crips,and all in between throughout Georgia, I got friends that bang blue, red, and black, I was almost a Crip this stuff is out there so long story short: Theres Gang Bangers and Theres Hood Reppers Know the difference i rep my city and everyone should be proud of where u from

KingJames 05/14/07 - 12:58 pm
This article shines a light

This article shines a light so that those of us who may be unsuspecting parents can know some things to look for in our neighborhoods and with our kids. It is refreshing to know that Sherrif Strength doesn't categorize all kids as gang members. He does recognize that some of them dress and behave a certain way. This is important because not all kids are in gangs. I don't approve of the behavior nor the appearance of many of the kids, but it is important to note that by labeling them all as gang members and just rounding them all up to be put in jail will only hurt those who are innocent and are merely going through an identity crisis. Adults should still be on the lookout for any signs of gang activity. I must also say that if Augusta's gang problem doesn't seem bad in comparison to other larger cities it is because we don't want it to ever get that way. We don't want a gang problem, and we certainly don't want any transplants from other cities to come in and glorify gangs so that they can establish themselves here. NOT IN MY CITY!

will see again
will see again 05/15/07 - 09:19 pm
Get ready as the move is on

Get ready as the move is on to eliminate the thugs and gangs. These thugs are real and cause huge amounts of manpower to be taken from other law enforcement efforts throughout the city. The thugs are truly no use to us as a whole, and can be taken out without lose to anyone except themselves. Neighbors, I urge you to be diligent in your watch and report any of the gang activities you see. Put them out, as they are history!

shepster 05/16/07 - 10:41 am
THUG SKIN.., I am SO with you

THUG SKIN.., I am SO with you on the gang legislation & ID system. PLEASE run for office.., we need you in Augusta. YUNG LEGEND.., Dude, reppin' the hood is good, but you have to understand that when a GANG MEMBER gets busted, that's the defense they use "I'm just reppin my hood, dawg". They purposely vasilate between crime & misunderstood youth to escape conviction. I'm my opinion, GANG MEMBERS are nothing more than home-grown community TERRORISTS comprised of kids that couldn't/wouldn't pay attention in school because bucking the system is COOL. I'm a teacher. I see it everyday. Kids with the pants falling down, SEVERE slang speech & an overall DISRESPECT for self late manifests itself in DISRESPECT & HATRED FOR OTHERS. They don't have the accepted survival schools of society, so they just TAKE WHAT THEY WANT. BARBARIANISM. Modern day SAVAGES.

NEWSBOY123 01/12/08 - 11:54 pm
there are over 500 folks in

there are over 500 folks in augusta&north augusta and over 400crips&bloods thats just what ive been hearing but are situaition is not as bad as it looks look at california...

FallingLeaves 03/09/08 - 03:46 pm
will see again thanks for the

will see again thanks for the encouragement, but good citizens be careful, I am still paying a high price for reporting crime, so be careful about it. Do NOT give your name, do NOT call from a traceable phone, do NOT have the officer come to your home. Whether it is called gang or "group" activity, doesn't really matter, when you end up targeted for theft, harassment, vandalization, intimidation and plain ol' target practice, because someone was tipped off that you reported the suspicious activity, and/or the 2am or 4am noise complaint, or the code/ordinance violations, which are symptomatic of neighborhoods with substance abuse problems, including buying, using, or trafficking illegal drugs and the other vices that go with those activities. Don't underestimate what one drugged up juvenile delinquent can do, never mind 10 to 20 of them. You can't necessarily go to their parents, because some of the parents are the ones directing the traffic so to speak, knowing that if a juvenile gets caught with the goods its a lesser sentence than if their parent does.

FallingLeaves 03/09/08 - 03:49 pm
By the way, at the mall

By the way, at the mall today, each time I had to walk out of my way to get around a group of youngsters, (and it wasn't just one race or another), my ears were assaulted with more foul language than English. It's no wonder tempers flare in there. Good people are going to start losing their tempers over their spouses and children being exposed to things they don't want to be.

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