Gangs infiltrating Pa. mountains region to avoid police
The Associated Press
TOBYHANNA, Pa.- When New Yorkers and Philadelphians want to get away from the noise and crowds, they often come to the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.
A place where a Crip or a Blood would seem ... out of place.
Yet, jarringly, they are here: gang members from New York City and its suburbs who authorities say have quietly taken up residence in some of the private, gated communities of the Poconos, where they can stake out new drug turf with little interference from municipal or state police.
Many of these gang members are teenagers and young adults, brought here by their parents to escape big-city crime but instead bringing crime with them - creating fear and resentment among long-established residents.
"We're trying to stop the problem before it becomes overwhelming," said state police Maj. Joseph T. Marut, whose command includes much of the Poconos.
While the crime rate is still relatively low and gang violence has flared only sporadically, gang members have already made their presence felt in ways that frustrate and frighten the law-abiding majority.
Early on Jan. 14, police sirens awakened Susan Yanni and her neighbors in A Pocono Country Place, one of the region's largest private communities. Down the street, in a white Colonial, a wild melee had erupted between Crips and Bloods, and a reputed Blood was stabbed in the abdomen and forearm, authorities say.
Months later, Yanni shakes her head at the violence.
"It's getting too close to my backyard," said Yanni, 54, a school bus driver who has lived in the development for nearly two decades. "If I really want to deal with this, I can go back to New York."
New Yorkers and Philadelphians first sought out the cool breezes of the Pocono Mountains after the Civil War, discovering that a short train ride could deliver them from the heat, humidity and summer stench of the city.
Soon after, grand Victorian resorts catered to the emerging middle class. Later, there were summer camps for the kids and quiet retreats for labor unions and religious denominations; then, after World War II, ski lodges and resorts for singles, newlyweds and budget-minded families. The Poconos claimed the mantle of "Honeymoon Capital of the World," becoming a capital of kitsch in the 1960s and '70s with the introduction of the heart-shaped bathtub.
Many city folk liked the Poconos so much they built vacation homes, which gave rise to gated communities with their own pools and clubhouses and private security. In recent years, these same communities in northeastern Pennsylvania have lured year-round residents from New York and New Jersey - thousands of them - who found good schools, cheap housing, low taxes and safer neighborhoods. The population of Monroe County, at the heart of the Poconos, has more than tripled since 1970.
So, while tourism remains a lifeblood of the region's economy, the Poconos have also emerged as a bedroom community for New York. And that has created its own unique set of challenges — including one that threatens to undermine the very reason city dwellers want to move here.
With so many commuting to jobs in New Jersey and New York, teenage children are left unsupervised for hours at a time after school. Bored teens who have little to keep them occupied can be easy pickings for gang recruiters, experts say.
"People who moved from New York and New Jersey into the gated communities, some of the youngsters decided they were going to get together and try to imitate the gangs," said Marut, the state police commander. "From there, it kind of mushroomed, with outside people coming in from New York City who were actual gang members trying to organize people."
Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and MS13, a Latino gang, all have a presence here, authorities say. As of early August, 61 confirmed or suspected gang members were locked up in Monroe County Prison — up from just 25 at the end of last year.
Gang members know that gated communities are not patrolled by state troopers or municipal police, but by private contractors. Because these communities are private property, police may enter only under specific circumstances, such as pursuit of a fleeing suspect.
The limited police presence has made some private communities "almost safe havens for gangs," said Stephen Washington, chief of staff to state Rep. John Siptroth, D-Monroe. "Because of the efforts of urban areas to stamp down on gangs, (gang members) are leaving to come to the Poconos, where life is much easier for them."
Determining how many of them are here is a nearly impossible task. Gang members do not typically inform on one another and experts say there is a large transient population that shuttles back and forth between New York and the Poconos.
And because the region is so big, encompassing 2,400 square miles in four counties, gangs are spread out and there are few battles over turf.
But occasionally, disputes among gang members turn violent:
-In the Pine Ridge development last summer, a suspected teenage member of the Crips fired three shots at a 16-year-old suspected Blood, hitting him once, according to state police.
-The owners of a Pike County riding stable say they were attacked by Crips last August in a dispute over a parking space at a local deli. The victims were an elderly couple and their adult daughter. The daughter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears another attack, said she suffered a fractured jaw and numerous lacerations, her father's cheek was split open, and her mother was roughed up.
-Ambulance driver Debbie Kulick responded to a large gang melee in which a teenager was severely beaten. With state police a 20-minute drive away, she said she feared for her safety.
"When I'm stuck in the middle with 25 people on one side, 30 people on the other side, that doesn't sit well with me," said Kulick, a township supervisor.
At A Pocono Country Place, a mini-metropolis of more than 10,000 residents, some longtime residents complain that investors are buying up homes and renting them out, paying little attention to tenants' backgrounds. Homeowners complain that some renters allow their children to run wild and generally have little regard for the community.
Jerry and Debbie Kelly, who moved to A Pocono Country Place from Brooklyn 16 years ago in search of better public schools for their children, say neighborhood toughs wearing red bandannas — red is the color of the Bloods - beat up their then-teenage son a few years ago because he was wearing a red jacket.
Fed up with what was happening, they put their house up for sale, and their teenage daughter isn't allowed to roam the neighborhood by herself.
Jerry Kelly said he is not just worried about her safety. "I don't want my daughter to come home one night with a red bandanna hanging out of her pocket," he said.
The manager of A Pocono Country Place - the setting of another gang riot last fall in which one person was stabbed - did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Down the street from the Kellys is the white Colonial where police say reputed Crip Allah Johnson stabbed a reputed Blood, Anthony Richbow, on Jan. 14. Johnson, 20, was initially charged with attempted homicide; he pleaded guilty in June to aggravated assault and awaits sentencing.
Some residents say that however menacing the young thugs who roam the neighborhood may be, they are not inducted gang members.
"They're a bunch of people who got bullied in New York and they are trying to come here and make a name for themselves," said Robert Ryales, 16, a former Jersey City, N.J., resident who lives a few doors down from the Kellys.
Ryales, who said he witnessed the Richbow stabbing, said he's been asked to join gangs "but it's so dumb. They don't really know the truth about gangs."
Alex Kuna, 19, of Bushkill, said he knew plenty of teenage thugs in high school who were rumored to be gang members. But he derides them as "fake" and "wannabes." They might have worn gang colors, Kuna said, but "if they were real, they wouldn't be here."
But law enforcement officials insist that gangs are a growing menace — especially in private communities, of which there are dozens in the Poconos.
"You have a lot of denial: 'Oh, not here, they're wannabes,'" said Pike County Sheriff Philip Bueki. "That's not the way to go about it."
Authorities are looking at ways to halt the growth of gangs.
State police, who provide most of the police coverage in the Poconos, have assigned undercover and vice officers to work the gang beat, opened a substation in western Monroe County to improve response times, and perform saturation patrols of municipalities where gang members are known to be concentrated.
Siptroth, the state lawmaker, wants Gov. Ed Rendell to add even more state troopers to the Poconos. He's also considering introducing legislation that would empower state police to enforce the state Vehicle Code in private communities, something they are not currently permitted to do.
However, legislation is tricky because a number of laws already on the books, including the Uniform Planned Community Act and the Vehicle Code, would have to be amended, said Washington, Siptroth's chief of staff.
Private developments themselves have taken steps to reduce crime. At The Hideout, a sprawling development in Wayne County, guests who violate the development's rules and regulations aren't allowed back; renters convicted of committing a crime in the development are evicted; and homeowners who break the rules face stiff fines. The development also works closely with state police.
"The problem that some of the communities have is they don't embrace the Pennsylvania State Police as they should," said Hideout manager Ralph Graf, a retired New York City police detective. "It's a property value issue. You don't want to have the state police respond on a regular basis and have Realtors steer buyers away from that community."
Graf said crime has plummeted in The Hideout from a few years ago, when, in one highly publicized case, nearly 20 people were arrested on drug charges. Drug-dealing is attractive because criminals can fetch higher prices in the Poconos than in New York City, where there is a more plentiful supply, authorities say.
"They felt that once they came inside the gates (of The Hideout) it was a protected environment for whatever they wanted to be involved with," Graf said.
Law enforcement officials agree with Graf that many image-conscious homeowners associations are anxious to keep the problem out of the public eye.
"The biggest problem we have is denial and ignorance," said Pocono Mountain Regional Police Officer Eric Uhler, a gang specialist. "Private communities don't want the word out that there are gangs because it scares prospective buyers away."
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