Petersburg officials team up with FBI to crack down on alleged gang members
BY OSITA IROEGBU
PETERSBURG, VA - The city is not afraid to say it has a gang problem.
To Petersburg officials, the admission is part of the solution.
Petersburg police and prosecutors partnered with the FBI to crack down on what they said were members of a gang known to terrorize the city for about five years with drug-selling and violent criminal activities.
Twenty-three people - all of them said to be members of a group called the Third Ward gang because it operated primarily in the Third Ward of Petersburg - were indicted yesterday on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute cocaine base.
Commonwealth's Attorney Cassandra Burns praised the collaboration between the city and federal government, noting that some communities are reluctant to acknowledge the presence of gangs.
Burns said Petersburg officials consider it a bigger problem "anytime people are afraid to go outside" their homes.
"We're not afraid to pick up the phone to call the U.S. attorney," she said at an afternoon news conference. "This is an ongoing partnership."
Federal authorities arrested 12 people in Petersburg yesterday morning and one in Hopewell. Three others were already in custody, and authorities were searching for the remaining seven, said Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
"This was a drug gang that has plagued parts of Petersburg for many years," McNulty said. "This is a major crackdown."
Petersburg Police Chief Morris Jones praised the efforts made by his department and federal authorities in addressing the string of drug-related activities in the city, mainly on Harding Street.
"We recognize the benefit of the partnership . . . through the combination of their resources and our resources, we can address the serious crime problems."
Officials called the gang a "criminal enterprise" with members based in three areas of the Third Ward to distribute drugs.
Members wear tattoos of monikers, such as "3rd Ward" or "Hill Top Posse," to identify gang members and a particular faction of the Third Ward gang, McNulty said. The Third Ward gang was involved in violence against outside gangs in an effort to protect and expand its drug territory and criminal operations, he said.
White T-shirts worn by the gang's members, another form of identification, made it difficult at first for law-enforcement officers and witnesses to identify suspects.
The apprehension of the gang members will reduce the city's crime rate, said Mayor Rosalyn R. Dance, "thanks to the awesome team that has gotten us to the point we're at now."
"We're sending a very clear message to the youth of this region that the decisions they make have a tremendous impact on their entire future," said Donald W. Thompson Jr., FBI special agent in charge of the Richmond Division.
The arrests represented the first phase of a long-term commitment to rid Petersburg streets of drugs and violence, Jones said.
The police chief said the partnership and arrests give a critical message to gangs: "You can't come to Petersburg because we're not going to have it."
Those arrested yesterday were being held at Northern Neck and Orange County jails. If convicted, they could receive 10 years to life in prison.