Mo. town breaks street gang, becomes model for restoring order

Task force uses new legal tool to nab gang members:

By Robert Patrick
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
JENNINGS, Mo.  In the summer and fall of 2005, Jennings had a big problem: Street gangs were terrorizing the city.

"The gangs almost ballooned overnight," said Dave Joyce, a detective with the increasingly outflanked Jennings police. "There was just shooting after shooting after shooting."

Of the 12 murders from 2004 to early 2007, each involved an illegal gun. Seven were gang or drug-related, as were all 31 nonfatal shootings, Joyce said. Residents were becoming afraid to step outside.

Much of the violence came from the turf of a gang that called itself the "10-20 Murderville Crips."

When its members saw something they liked, they took it, police said. When they wanted to do something, they did it. They bought or stole pistols, assault rifles and bulletproof vests.

The gang was even dealing with a broker offering a military land mine and perhaps hand grenades, upping the ante as local officers and federal agents already knew of a plan to ambush police.

Inside information and even graffiti listing targeted officers' names drove home the point and added urgency to fight back.

A joint city-federal effort would restore peace to the streets of Jennings, a north St. Louis County city of about 15,500 people. And the effort stands as a model, participants say, for how a small community with limited resources can regain control from thugs with violence in their hearts and firepower in their hands.

On the offensive

Using the informer, plus the usual run of gun seizures, officials raked in assault rifles, sniper rifles, combat shotguns, hunting rifles and pistols.
As with many small departments, Jennings police often worked with federal law enforcement case by case. Street cops would find a gun on a convicted felon, call in the feds and get an easy conviction on one of the workhorse charges of the federal system: felon in possession of a firearm.

In early 2006, police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives set up a deal to buy guns from a parolee. He fled, and officers chased him into a nearby basement where a gang was holding a going-away party for a member being sentenced the next day for shooting someone in the head with a shotgun.

Officials detained everybody, interviewed them and made several arrests, Joyce said.

Joyce said ATF Special Agents Kurt Franzi and Ryan Zornes felt "their heads spin" when they realized that almost everyone present was "involved in one fashion or the other with every violent crime you can imagine."

"This is a free-fire zone. We could make cases here all day long," agents told Joyce before the natural follow-up: "How can we deal with this?"

With the Jennings problem acute and growing. Joyce and ATF agents had to get creative.

Finding a new tool

"Just about every gun we bought was a crime gun," said detective Dave Joyce. 

Unlike traditional street gangs, the 10-20 Murderville Crips was loosely organized, said Carlos Canino, the agent in charge of the St. Louis ATF office. With no set hierarchy, the gang wouldn't be disrupted much by the arrest of a leader.

Using informers and jailhouse and street interviews, investigators developed a top 10 list of the most dangerous members. But some had no felony convictions. That meant the usual tool - felon in possession of a firearm - would not work.

So agents pored over federal statutes, Canino said, on a belief that, "There's something in here that these guys are violating."

What they noticed was that the maximum penalty for selling a firearm to a convicted felon was the same as that for being a felon in possession, 10 years in prison. So they enlisted a confidential informer with a felony record to start buying guns from gang members.

Using the informer, plus the usual run of gun seizures, officials raked in assault rifles, sniper rifles, combat shotguns, hunting rifles and pistols. And they realized something. "Just about every gun we bought was a crime gun," Joyce said.

Three were linked to murders in St. Louis, one matched an armed robbery and one was used in the 2006 shooting of a St. Louis police officer. Police also recovered assault rifles used in four drive-by shootings in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

As early as 2003, police had found a hit list on the wall of an abandoned building, naming four Jennings officers. Police have since found other such lists.

In interviews before and during the collaboration with ATF, gang members told Jennings officers about specific plans to assassinate police. The plans included sniper rifles, assault weapons and a home-made tire spike strip.

Investigators worried that grenades or a Claymore anti-personnel mine might complete the gang's arsenal.

Joyce said some gang members had told officials, "We have plotted out ways to set up ambushes and murders of police officers. And we have discussed specific officers that we would like to do this to."

The investigators also learned that gang members were as interested in the cops as the cops were in the gangsters - gathering information about who did what in the department, and calling the station to find out who was on duty, Joyce said.

The gang even had the name, vehicle description and workplace of one officer's girlfriend.

Ambush on the police

There were five firearm assaults on police officers from January 2006 to July 2007, Joyce said. (Nobody was hurt in any of them.) There had been none from 2001-05.

Joyce said that Darnell Thornton, a weapons dealer for the gang, had told him, "The next time I see you, I'll be laying in wait with a sniper rifle."

The level of concern heightened when investigators determined that Thornton had a Claymore mine for sale. (Inert and wired with a secret tracking device, it had been put on the street by FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents working another case.)

Joyce and ATF agents worried that the mine might be the final piece of a plan to lure an officer somewhere, set it off and then use assault or sniper rifles to ambush police arriving to help.

Even if the mine didn't explode, investigators feared, the gang would still be armed and ready.

High explosives represented a "huge jump" in the magnitude of potential gang violence, Joyce said.

"If they had the ability to buy explosives, absolutely they would buy them," he said. "These are guys who are perfectly willing to firebomb vehicles."

It never came to that. No officers were attacked, and gang members began falling into the legal traps set for them. In all, Joyce said, the Jennings-ATF partnership resulted in more than 30 federal prosecutions since early 2005.

There has been a 60 percent drop, citywide, in shots fired, since the cases wrapped up in March. Until recently, there had not been a single murder this year. And the southeast section of town, which includes the turf of the Murderville Crips, is now the slowest patrol area.

"It's changed the face of that neighborhood," Joyce said. Families and children aren't afraid to be in the front yards. "This is the first time in ages," he said.

Said Canino: "To us, that's like gold."

He credited Joyce's encyclopedic knowledge of gang members. Joyce lauded the federal help and the support of Police Chief Robert Orr and Mayor Benjamin Sutphin.

After seeing an ATF presentation about the Jennings effort, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jeff Fulton said, the North County Municipal Police Chiefs Association is looking at trying some of the strategies.

Soon, Joyce said, departments may be able to approach the ATF and say, -"'I got this guy and he's tearing up my town.' They will sit down and say, 'What can we do with this?'"  
Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

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