By Gabrielle Banks
ALLEGHENY COUNTY — A crudely typed list of 126 names began circulating hand-to-hand last week in several city neighborhoods.
"THESE INDIVIDUALS ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED BY NO ONE ON THE STREETS AT ALL," it says above a sketch of a rat nibbling on a hunk of cheese. "THESE INDIVIDUALS HAVE SNITCHED ON SOMEONE IN THEIR LIFES."
Police and Allegheny County Jail administrators believe a jail inmate compiled the list of purported "snitches" — people who have cooperated with authorities by reporting crimes, giving information on others, or testifying — which they say is the most comprehensive they have ever seen.
The writer's apparent purpose was to spread the list around, sending out copies with inmates headed to state correctional facilities and getting other county jail inmates to mail them to friends on the outside.
Named on the list are confidential police informants, crime victims who have testified or planned to testify, and prison inmates who have testified or planned to testify against co-conspirators or former cellmates. Also listed are a veteran criminal defense attorney, two outreach workers in a county program and six people who are dead, five of those the victims of homicide.
The anonymous author does not suggest what readers should do, only what they shouldn't do: "PLEASE DON'T TRUST NOBODY. THESE FOLKS ARE OUT TO GET PEOPLE LOCKED UP!!" The warning taps into language that's become increasingly prevalent in crime-ridden neighborhoods: "STOP DA KILL'N, STOP DA SNITCH'N, STOP EVERYTHING."
Local law enforcement officials said they recognized the names of a number of people who have testified or given information to authorities and the names of inmates serving state or federal sentences who might share information in return for a lighter sentence.
Whether it's accurate or not, the snitch list is troubling to police, prosecutors and jail officials and terrifying to many people who have discovered friends, neighbors and relatives listed on it.
"That's staggering to me. Of all the people sitting in Allegheny County, why put me in there? This is very, very disturbing," said the attorney whose name was on the list. "I consider it to be rather serious. This puts in jeopardy 126 people for a random whack-job going through the list and deciding what they can do" about it.
The list contains the names of 93 people with criminal records, 20 have been incarcerated as well as 16 police informants, 14 prosecution witnesses with criminal backgrounds and three civilian witnesses.
Nearly all of the purported snitches are black, and at least 85 percent are male. They come from a variety of city neighborhoods and a few suburbs.
Copies of the list first turned up at the jail about three weeks ago, and guards issued contraband citations to inmates who had them. When a few more copies turned up in subsequent cell searches, guards followed the same procedure. This week, residents of Homewood, Garfield, Braddock, North Side, Oakland and St. Clair Village said they saw copies of the list with the little rat circulating in their neighborhoods.
Copies of a bootleg DVD, "Pittsburgh Hood 2 Hood," which was on sale in at least one city store, have also increased the "Stop Snitching" hype. Individuals in the documentary are shown wearing T-shirts that read, "Never rat" and "Nobody likes a rat, and that means you". The shirts name some of the individuals on the jail snitch list.
Tracing list's origins
Deputy Warden Lance Bohn said the document looked as if it could have been produced on a typewriter in the jail's law library. He said the jail is investigating its origins and taking the matter "very seriously."
"I've never seen a list like it ever. It's crazy. It's pretty sophisticated to get all this intelligence together," the deputy warden said.
Detective Steve Hitchings, of the city's homicide unit, said he believed more than one person was involved in making up the list. "No one person could have known all those names," he said.
"In prison culture, inmates don't like snitches," said Deputy Warden Bohn. "These kinds of things, I consider them hit lists. I have a responsibility to ensure safety and preserve inmates' health and welfare." He said the fact that inmates' names were on the list "could change the dynamics on the pod," the areas where inmates live in the jail.
Acting Sheriff William P. Mullen, a former deputy chief for the city police, said a so-called "snitch list" could be dangerous because it could include anyone "even if they aren't giving information; they could just be people someone doesn't like. ... If anybody gets upset and puts someone on there, they're liable to get shot or beat up," he said.
"If you don't like your neighbor, you put their name on there and it's a good way to get even," said J. Richard Narvin, who defends criminal clients and directs the Office of Conflict Counsel.
Law enforcement investigators have recovered shorter snitch lists over the last few years, but the latest document breaks the mold. Talk, rumors or threats of hit lists began during the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s and 1990s, said Frank E. Reilly, a veteran defense attorney who still represents clients at the county courthouse.
"I don't know what the list is, but guys say all of the time, 'If I talk to the police, I'll be on the list.' Guys say they can't rat on someone, even if they're in jail, because someone will hurt their families on the outside," he said.
However, he said, "There are not a lot of homicides for snitching or it rarely comes out in trial" as a motive, he said. Employees throughout the criminal justice system said few residents in high crime neighborhoods would even need a list, because most people know who's giving information to police.
Prosecutors have said the street definition of "snitch" has changed in the past decade. Years ago, a "snitch" or a "rat" was used to refer to an inmate who had information and was turning it over to get a good deal in court. Now some people consider someone a snitch or rat if he provides information to police regardless of whether it's in his own self-interest to do so. A convenience store clerk or a kid on a bike or a grandma on her front porch who witnesses a crime can be tagged as a snitch.
Secret informants are no longer secret if they testify, and, amid the "stop snitching" culture, police and prosecutors do what they can to avoid putting confidential informants on the witness stand.
Lt. Kevin Kraus, of the city homicide unit, declined to comment on the list but said, "it's frustrating when people in crime-ridden communities want to weed out the crime and something like this comes about. Even if every name on a list such as this is incorrect, that's what they're up against. It could further discourage people from getting involved or cooperating with police."
Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., had a somewhat different take.
"The worst attitude that any community can have about violent crime is one of indifference. We know that is not the case in this community. People care deeply about what happens to them and their neighborhoods and because of that, we will always have the resources and the ability to bring to justice those who choose to use violence to disrupt and destroy lives," he said.
After listing 126 names and aliases, the snitch list author offers a message about violating the street code of silence. "YOU CAN'T CONDONE WHAT THESE PEOPLE HAVE DONE TO MAKE THEIR LIFE," it says.
"WAKE UP THE STREETS ARE BEING SWALLOW ALIVE BY THE CRIMINAL SYSTEM," it says.
Paradise Gray, of the One Hood coalition, an organization of men working against violence in black communities, said, "Any individual who has their name on that list should be conscious that you have to watch your back, because you don't know how these things will be taken on the street level."
He cautioned against assuming the list was accurate and said he was worried because a lot of the names are so common. "Just because somebody makes up a list of names, we don't know what the origin of them is," he said.
Detective Hitchings, of the homicide squad, said that while the list itself is disturbing, it's proof that the system is working, criminals are cooperating and "there's no honor among thieves." He said police work and strict sentencing laws have convinced criminals that "if they don't snitch" on their co-conspirators or cellmates "they're going to spend a whole lot of time in jail."
One individual whose name appeared on the list said, "They're trying to bully people. You all probably want to know why there's so many murders. This is why they don't have people testifying. You have to watch over your shoulder every day, seeing if people are going to believe what these people are saying."
The attorney on the list said: "My read on this after 35 years is that the level of brutality and inhumanity to man has escalated to the point where dropping the hammer [pulling the trigger] is no big deal; it's almost routine. I had old clients that had standards. It seems like today the freelancers, the free traders, I'm not so sure they put any thought into shooting somebody."
Witness protection is essential if police want witnesses to come forward, one person on the list said, but the threats and retaliation must be stopped: "Are you going to move everybody on that list? What are you going to do with us all? After they chase us away, somebody else is going to be their victim."
Copyright 2007 P.G. Publishing Co.
'Snitch list' worries Pa. police