MARIETTA — Some of the 129 gangs found in Cobb County have familiar names: Bloods, Crips, Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples and MS-13.
Spend some time behind
stores and gas stations in the right part of town and you’ll see their calling cards: graffiti tags meant to glorify their gang and intimidate others. A series of excursions around Cobb by the MDJ revealed tags for several gangs, including the Rolling 100 Crips out of Los Angeles, Tango Blast out of Texas and MS-13, the international gang invoked by President Donald Trump during his State of the Union Address in January.
“The statistics are overwhelming and depressing,” said FBI special agent Jim Hurley. “Nationally, gang membership is growing, as it is in Atlanta, and they’re becoming more violent and more organized.”
Hurley heads the Atlanta division of the FBI’s Safe Streets program, which aims to get violent gang members off the streets.
He cited recent big arrests of large, organized groups of national gang members, including 35 members of the Nine Trey Gangsters, a subset of the Bloods, originally from New York, and 50 members of the Gangster Disciples, originally from Chicago.
“Most of these national gangs have a presence in Cobb County, committing crimes in Cobb County.” Hurley said.
Hurley said the FBI partners with local agencies, including Cobb Police, to bring them down.
“Largely we depend on the local agencies to help us find out which are the most violent and organized gangs in your cities, in your counties, and then we’ll bring the federal resources in and try to do wiretaps, undercover operations — whatever we can do.”
GANG CRIME RUNS THE GAMUT
Agent Chris Tompkins, with the Cobb Anti-Gang Enforcement Unit, or CAGE, said well-known national gangs are a part of the problem, but smaller street gangs with as few as three members make up the bigger portion of Cobb’s 129 gangs.
“You have traditional and nontraditional gangs,” he said. “You have the ones that have nationwide ties, and then you have the ones that are local. Breaking that down, more than half are going to be the localized, nontraditional, non-national gangs that just popped up ... The majority is going to be the smaller, hybrid, nontraditional, non-national gangs.”
Tompkins also cautioned that keeping a precise count of all the gangs and gang members in an area is not an exact science.
“You have to understand, you have groups that, when we say we’ve documented that many gangs, they may have already gone away,” he said. “We keep tabs on them for a certain period of time. So we may have documented them a year ago, and they may have just been kind of a pop-up and left, so you have that aspect of it, and then you have obviously the larger ones that are still here.”
Tompkins said the crimes these groups commit are varied.
“It runs the gamut from anything from graffiti to breaking into autos, to aggravated assaults, simple assaults, battery, on up to murder,” he said.
Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds agreed.
“We see it all,” he said. “We’ve had murder cases which were gang-related. We’ve had entering autos down in the Cumberland area and all over Cobb which were gang-related. We’ve had aggravated assault up in Legacy Park in Kennesaw, which was gang-related. We’ve had shootings in
Cobb where a Surano 13 member would get in a car and because Sur 13 colors were blue, he decided to shoot any car that was red. We’ve seen drugs, theft, violent crime, murder, sexual crimes. The underlying crime under gang activity runs the gamut.”
One thing Cobb gangs do not tend to do is fight over territory, unlike gangs in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
“In a suburban setting — at least what we’re seeing here, what the gang officers and my gang prosecutors and investigators are telling me in Cobb — it isn’t so much of a territorial beef with gangs,” Reynolds said. “It isn’t so much that you go to this place and you’re in Rolling 20s territory, you go this particular point, you’re in Norteno 15 area, you go to this point, you’re in Ghostface Gangster territory. It’s not so much that way in this county. Most of the time, they’re just motivated by general criminal activity. They may be selling drugs, they may be breaking into vehicles, they may be committing some type of assault, but it’s not as much a turf battle in Cobb County.”
PROSECUTING GANG CRIMES
Because gangs do not fight for territory in Cobb as they do in other places, it can be easier to overlook them. Reynolds said when he became DA in 2013, gangs were not high on his list of priorities. “What really opened my eyes was in ’14, we had a police officer shot over on Powers Ferry Road, Officer Vill, Chuck Vill, 26 years old, Cobb County officer,” Reynolds said. “The investigation revealed he was shot by a validated Ghostface gangster, a gang member who was released from prison in late 2013, had close to 800 grams of methamphetamine with him on that morning.”
Vill survived the shooting and went on to receive the Blue Star award, which is given to an officer who was severely wounded in the line of duty. The Ghostface Gangsters are a white supremacist gang that was formed in Georgia prisons. Reynolds said after that incident, he began putting more resources into prosecuting gangs, bringing in two full-time gang prosecutors. The man convicted of shooting Vill was sentenced to 105 years in prison.
When it comes to prosecuting gang members, Reynolds said there is one important factor that most people outside the legal profession may not realize.
“It’s not against the law to be in a gang,” he said. “It’s against the law to be in a gang and commit criminal offenses in furtherance of or in relation to that gang. We spend a great deal of time up here in the gang unit deciding what’s appropriate gang cases, who really ought to be prosecuted as gang members. Once we make that decision and go forward on it, we generally feel pretty good about those cases.”
That means a gang member cannot be charged simply for being in a gang, nor can he necessarily be charged with gang activity if he committed some other crime.
“The proof doesn’t stop by proving somebody is in a gang,” Reynolds said. “Say for example somebody’s selling drugs and we prove that they sold drugs by the standard required and we charge them with doing it in furtherance of a criminal street gang. Our proof doesn’t stop by proving they’re a member
of the Rolling 20 Crips. We have to prove that as a member of the Rolling 20 Crips, they sold the drugs they’re accused of selling in furtherance of that gang, they’re doing it to enhance their position in the gang, they’re doing it to further enhance their authority as a gang member. All of those elements have to be proven ...
“If a Bloods member shoots ... a member of the Rolling 60s Crips, if the evidence shows it was over a girlfriend or that it had nothing to do with the gangs, then we would not proceed on that gang charge because it had nothing to do with the gangs,” Reynolds said. “Although they’re gang members, the murder wasn’t done in furtherance of or relation to that gang.”
REYNOLDS: COUNTY AS A WHOLE NEEDED TO SOLVE GANG ISSUE
Rebecca Petersen, a criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University, said determining who is a gang member and who is a juvenile delinquent can be difficult for law enforcement.
“You know that group of kids that always got in trouble in high school?” she said. “What’s the difference between them and a gang? ... Or how about you and your friends when y’all did the same thing? You’re out drinking, you’re smoking, you’re having sex, you’re partying, you might steal something. Technically, there’s not a lot of difference, so a lot of it is public perception, their socioeconomic status, what they quote-unquote look like, whether that’s dress or ethnicity.”
Once the DA’s office has a good case that a crime was committed in furtherance of a gang, Reynolds said they work hard to make sure the charge sticks.
“This isn’t a crime we’re going to plea bargain away,” he said. “It’s not going to be used as a negotiating tool. If we believe we can prove the crime was committed in furtherance of a street gang and we indict on the gang charges, then we’re going forward on the gang charges ... If we can prove it, either the individual is going to plead guilty, or we’re going to go to trial.”
Reynolds said it is not fun watching young people ruin their own lives and the lives of others by getting involved in gangs, and he wants to do more about it.
“The level it’s affected me by seeing this, and I don’t mean to get into anything personal, I have decided to become a mentor,” he said. “I’m going to reach out to the Cobb school system and do more than just be DA and prosecute people who need to be prosecuted, but hopefully do something on the front end, at least for some young person where they will decide to go another way.”
The DA said he does not want to go easy on people who commit crimes, but he said it is important to reach young people before they join gangs.
“Law enforcement needs to arrest these people, prosecutors need to prosecute them and judges need to sentence them, but the longrange goal should be to have less and less people to do that to,” he said. “The only way that’s going to happen is not looking for the criminal justice system to cure it, but to look at the county as a whole to cure it.”