Gangs of St. Paul
ST. PAUL POLICE OFFICER TIM BOHN un-holsters his squad microphone. The eight-year veteran cop is idling in the parking lot of the BP gas station on Lexington Parkway just north of Interstate 94. It's a sleepy night in St. Paul, just two days into the new year. The police radio is largely silent.
"Rap for me," Bohn instructs over the squad intercom. "Rap for me, Wilber." The young black man to whom this plea is addressed, also known by his rap moniker Dubb J., appears to be uninterested in participating in this conversation. Slouching on the sidewalk outside the convenience store, dressed in baggy jeans and a black coat, he ignores the officer's request.
"He's not in a very good mood," Bohn observes, replacing the microphone and pulling up closer to the young man's sidewalk perch. The gang investigator then queries Dubb J. about a recent traffic stop in which officers allegedly pulled a bag of marijuana from a car that he was riding in.
Tim Bohn: A little birdie told me it was yours.
Dubb J.: Who?
TB: A little bird.
DJ: Who that?
TB: I can't tell you that.
DJ: A little bird?
TB: Like if you told me something I wouldn't be telling other people you told me. I hope that wasn't yours.
DJ: Oh no, man. I don't do that stuff.
TB: I know you don't do it, but you might have to sell it.
DJ: Man, I don't sell it either. I got a regular job like you.
The topic then turns to Dubb J.'s fledgling rap career. Bohn, who worked patrol in the western district for eight years before recently joining the gang unit, professes to be offended that Dubb J. has so far failed to name-check him in a song.
DJ: I ain't gonna put you in no song. I don't want no ass whuppin'.
TB: C'mon, it's an honor to be in there.
DJ: I don't want no ass whuppin', man.
TB: When have I ever given you one?
Dubb J. has no response to this last query. "All right," Bohn finally says. "You be careful. Don't go getting shot now." The officer then pulls away from the curb and out of the BP parking lot. "There he is in the flesh," Bohn laughs. "Dubb J."
According to Bohn and other officers, the fledgling rapper hanging out at the BP gas station is also a prominent member of the Selby Siders street gang. In recent months, gang investigators say, the Selby Siders have been feuding with various other St. Paul-based gangs, most notably the East Side Boys. The gang landscape in St. Paul cuts across all races—from white supremacist groups to Latin Kings to Asian youth gangs—but the shootings and violence have been most intense recently among predominantly black gangs. Over the last 18 months, police have documented more than 20 shooting incidents involving members of the Selby Siders and the East Side Boys alone, although few of these have resulted in homicides. "Luckily, these guys aren't very good shots," notes Tim Flynn, commander of St. Paul's gang unit.
While gang investigators believe that these two groups are currently the most active and violent of the predominantly black gangs operating in St. Paul, they are hardly the only players. In fact, the landscape is always shifting, with new subsets and permutations of gangs popping up on a continual basis. The Lowertown Gangsters, Get Money Boys, Lawson Boys, Grown Man Click, Get Money Girls, and 5th and Minnesota Boys are among the other groups operating in the city. The gangs are also younger, less organized, and more volatile than in years past. "It takes nothing for these guys to get pissed at each other and a war is starting," notes St. Paul gang investigator Daniel Zebro.
Some of these gangs are loosely affiliated with better known, national criminal operations such as the Gangster Disciples or the Crips, but the connection is often symbolic more than substantive. "How affiliated are these local kids with some of those guys?" asks John Pyka, a St. Paul sergeant assigned to the Metro Gang Strike Force. "I don't know. They've gotten a lot of influence from them. They've picked up the monikers. They've picked up the philosophy of the gang."
While these gang disputes are often juvenile and seemingly pointless, the presence of guns means that the results are frequently bloody. Last year St. Paul police officers pulled 665 guns off the streets. In addition, they collected ammunition from 461 crime scenes and recorded 838 incidents involving shots fired. "Are we just targeting the black gangs?" asks Sandy Kennedy, a St. Paul investigator assigned to the Metro Gang Strike Force. "No. It's just that right now they're the most active with the guns and shootings. The [amount of] guns that we're recovering off these kids is just incredible. They're just blatantly going down the street shooting. You have a target, but you don't know what you're going to hit."
ON JANUARY 10 OF LAST YEAR, at approximately 7:00 p.m., St. Paul police officers were dispatched to Johnson High School on reports of a fight. Officers arriving at the East Side school found a chaotic scene. The fight, which broke out during a basketball game between Johnson and Arlington High School, had dispersed and moved outside the building, where dozens of students, parents, and school officials were milling about.
Just a few minutes later, another 911 call came in, this time reporting a shooting just a few blocks from the high school. By the time the fracas subsided, 17-year-old Carlos Rogers had been shot and 21-year-old Kevin Anthony had been cut with a bottle.
When officers reviewed videotape from the school's security cameras, it immediately became clear that the fight was gang-related. Outside the school's gymnasium, young men can be seen throwing up gang signs, while witnesses reported hearing people yell out "East Side" and "LTG" to indicate their gang allegiances. Investigators eventually concluded that the fight primarily involved members of the Lowertown Gangsters and the East Side Boys. The former had shown up on enemy turf looking for trouble. "The LTGs were all gang members," says investigator Kennedy. "They were up there with a cause. They went up there knowing that the East Side Boys were going to be up there."
While the Lowertown Gangsters were well known to the cops from years of mischief, the East Side Boys were relatively unfamiliar. But in the months following the melee, the police would become well acquainted with the outfit. "An event like that spurred violence for the next nine, ten months," says Tim Flynn, of St. Paul's gang unit. "We had these pockets of four, five, six, ten kids driving around shooting at each other."
In February, gang investigators executed nine search warrants related to the Johnson fight and shooting. "Members of the Lowertown Gangsters have become some of the most violent gang members within the City of St. Paul," one warrant states. "LTGs have had an ongoing battle with the Selby Siders. These incidents have included shootings at Wendy's, in downtown St. Paul, the Taste of Minnesota, White Castle, and the homicide of Jennadya Davis. LTGs will attack gang members entering into their territory." (Davis was shot in March 2005 at a home in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood.)
The scuffle at Johnson High presaged a year of violent confrontations between predominantly black gangs in St. Paul. On April 26, just two days after being released from prison on a robbery conviction, 21-year-old Deon Duffy was killed in a drive-by shooting near Central High School. A reputed Selby Sider gang member, Duffy was gunned down while riding in a van in the middle of the afternoon. Although police strongly believe the shooting was gang-related, the specific dispute that touched it off was over a pair of vehicle rims. Nobody has been arrested for the murder.
On July 14 at approximately 1:45 a.m., 24-year-old Julian Roland was shot and killed during a dispute inside Diva's Overtime Lounge on Rice Street. "During this incident witnesses, as well as Julian's family, stated that he was shot by a rival gang member whom he had been feuding with for the past several months," reads a search warrant executed in the wake of the shooting. Roland was a reputed Gangster Disciple and Lowertown Gangster. Shortly after his murder, according to the same search warrant, friends and family members of Roland showed up at the Rondo Days festival wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Let the body count begin."
Maurise Lovell Anderson, a 26-year-old Brooklyn Park resident, faces second-degree murder charges stemming from the shooting. Subsequent investigation has brought into question whether the shooting was explicitly over a gang dispute, but Kennedy argues that it was a factor. "He was murdered and he was a gang member," she notes, "and his murder precipitated more violence because of his gang affiliation."
In many of these shootings, officers believe that they know who pulled the trigger, but are waiting on DNA evidence to bolster their case. A backlog at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's lab means that it can take upward of nine months to obtain test results on a handgun. Sgt. Pyka says that they've arrested one suspect in connection to three different shootings, but have had to release him pending DNA results. "He thinks he's coated in Teflon," Pyka notes. "You arrest me three times for three different shootings and nothing happens."
In May, while executing a search warrant on the city's East Side, St. Paul police officers noticed a young man filming their activities. The cops confiscated the camera and discovered a profane, often incoherent insider account of St. Paul's gang landscape.
The videotape opens with a young black man, sporting a headband pulled down over his ears, freestyle rapping. "I hear you talking loud about shit," he spits, face bobbing in time. "You ain't shit, nigger/I still got your clip/I got your gun, nigger/I'm gonna make you numb." The boastful narrative continues for several minutes, featuring seemingly every possible combination of the words "bitch," "ass," "shit," and, most frequently, "nigger."
The profane rapper is a professed member of the 5th and Minnesota boys, named after a popular bus stop—and therefore drug corridor—in downtown St. Paul. He is apparently feuding with a member of the Get Money Boys over a handgun. "What the fuck is GMB?" he queries derisively at one point in his monologue. "Get money bitches."
Later in the videotape, the rapper's antagonist, who goes by the moniker Mo Man, gets to have his say on camera. "What the fuck you talking about, nigger?" Mo Man asks. "I ain't never once said I was part of 5th and Minnesota. Shit nigger, 'cause I rise with GMB. I'm gonna die with GMB."
While the dispute between the two young men is ostensibly over a handgun, St. Paul gang investigator Daniel Zebro says it's also about drug turf. "The downtown area is huge for these guys," he says. "They were all vying for that downtown area because there's girls hanging out and they think there's drugs to be sold."
The highlight (of sorts) of the video comes when a member of the 5th and Minnesota Boys, displaying his contempt for a rival gang, drops his pants and defecates on the sidewalk of an East Side street in broad daylight. "Damn daddy, what the fuck is you doing, G?" someone says off camera as the young man deposits his load on enemy territory. "Damn, G....you gonna wipe your ass, G?"w
THE REV. DARRYL SPENCE OPENED THE Hut in an empty storefront on Rice Street at the end of November. The humble space—a former flower shop that was once the scene of a double homicide—is a drop-in center for local kids. Spence is the founder of the God Squad, a group of African American St. Paul religious leaders who have been working for years to combat crime in the city. His normal turf is the Selby-Dale neighborhood, but Spence set up shop on the North End at the behest of the District Six Planning Council. In recent months the neighborhood group has become increasingly concerned about crime.
"Being the God Squad coordinator, my phone rings all hours of the night," Spence says on a recent weekday afternoon while seated at a table in The Hut. "If it's not the police telling me somebody's dead, it's probably a gang-banger telling me he's about to kill somebody. I get both calls. There comes a time when what we have to do as far as gangs is recognize and realize that it's real. So often you hear we don't have a gang problem. We've got a gang problem."
Spence says that just the previous afternoon, a 13-year-old boy stopped by the center to report that he'd recently been "beat out of a gang." "He wants to change his lifestyle," Spence says, "because he realizes this is getting deadly."
Spence has drafted Johnny Howard, a veteran organizer from the Frogtown neighborhood, to help with the effort on the North End. Howard says that they have to find a way to contend with the lure of being in a gang and with the economic incentives for dealing drugs. "We compete with that," he notes. "We're going to have to figure out how. I think just talking about peace is one of the ways we can compete with that. If you can't walk down or ride down the street and feel like you're going to be all right, there's something wrong."
While The Hut's efforts are proactive, St. Paul authorities are also using punitive measures to deal with gang members who repeatedly run afoul of the law. Ramsey County probation officer Joseph Arvidson works exclusively with adults who have been convicted of gang-related crimes. Under the terms of their probation, these offenders are prohibited from associating with known gang members. "That's sort of our secret weapon that we use," says Arvidson. "Because by the time they get to me they're well known to law enforcement. They're known to the gang unit. They're known to the gang strike force."
Over the past decade, according to Arvidson, 67 offenders have had their parole revoked for socializing with known gang members. Combined, they've received 946 months of jail or prison time, an average sentence of more than 14 months. He says that the tool has been particularly effective in defusing the Lowertown Gangsters. "We were able to disassemble that hierarchy just by utilizing this probation tool," he says. "It's the same thing we're doing now with the Selby Siders."
Gang investigators also believe that search warrants executed in recent months—26 in October alone—have helped stanch gang activities lately. "Even if you don't recover something on a search warrant and you can't take someone to jail, it has an impact," says Zebro. "With a lot of these guys, it just takes a little bit of the police getting on their back. There's obviously the hardcore gangsters who are going to keep doing what they're doing. But a lot of these guys, you kind of put the scare into them and they're gone. Quite a few of these guys that were causing problems, we haven't seen them in a while."
Zebro and others realize, however, that the winter months may simply be a temporary lull in the problems. Darryl Spence says that he and others in the God Squad are already gearing up for the warm weather. "Between now and the summer, we need to build relationships, let people know who we are, why we are, what we are," he says. "Because come summer we have work to do."
The cops are blanketing the East Side of St. Paul tonight. The previous morning a 13-year-old girl was dragged into an alley along Payne Avenue and raped on her way to school. It was the second such attack in the area this month, and police fear that a serial rapist might be on the prowl. Roughly a dozen investigators from the Metro Gang Strike Force are helping with the neighborhood saturation effort.
Sgt. John Pyka and investigator Sandy Kennedy, both veteran St. Paul officers assigned to the gang strike force, are heading for a problem property on Forest Street shortly after 8:00 p.m. The temperature is in the teens, but Pyka keeps his window cracked. "I just want it down in case a gunshot goes off," he says. Their destination is the residence of a reputed member of the East Side Boys. "He just got out of prison," explains Kennedy. "They had some Selby Siders go over there and try to shoot it out with them."
But before they can locate the house, another member of the gang strike force calls for backup in the area. When Pyka and Kennedy arrive at the scene, they find three Hispanic teenagers handcuffed beside a gray Lincoln Town Car. A small amount of marijuana has been found on the driver of the vehicle. From the inside of the car officers also retrieve a baseball bat and a wooden two-by-four.
Pyka takes the lead in talking with the young men. "Hey guys, what's with the baseball bat?" he asks. "My mom keeps it for protection," the driver responds. Meanwhile Kennedy's dog, a rambunctious Labrador named Buck, sniffs around the vehicle for additional drugs, but comes up dry. Some 10 cops mill about the scene. The officers confiscate the bat and the two-by-four, and ticket the driver for possession of marijuana. The trio is released after about 10 minutes of interrogation.
By the time Pyka and Kennedy climb back into their vehicle, another squad is requesting assistance. When they arrive at the scene just a couple of blocks away, four young black men are handcuffed and seated shivering on the curb. They all sport baggy jeans and white 'do rags, but lack coats.
As officers search a maroon Chevrolet Impala that the group was stopped in, a crowd gathers at an adjacent property. A middle-aged black woman, apparently a relative of one of the suspects, confronts an officer. "He doesn't sell dope," she tells the cop. "He works every day." A McDonald's bag located inside the vehicle, however, is discovered to contain several baggies of marijuana.
Pyka again takes charge of the interviews. "Who you hang with? The Selbys or the LTGs?" he asks one of the young men, who range in age from 19 to 25. "I don't hang with nobody," the young man insists. It turns out that the driver has an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He's transported to jail and the car is impounded. The other three men are released. However, one of them wants his pack of Black and Mild cigars returned. Apparently the smokes have disappeared during the interrogation. As the owner of the cigars grows increasingly upset, Pyka advises him to forget about the missing smokes. "Time to hit the road," he says. "Or I'm gonna take you to jail."
As Pyka and Kennedy leave the scene, a report comes in that three shots have been fired near Central High School. "Apparently a younger kid got grazed," reports Kennedy. The pair is now cruising down Payne Avenue, which is largely quiet as 9:30 approaches, save for the occasional drunk stumbling down the sidewalk.
Another call for backup comes in, this time on Wheelock Parkway. Officers have pulled over a Honda Civic with a punched ignition, which generally indicates that a car's been stolen. At the scene two young men—an Asian with a bowl cut and an African American with braids—are again handcuffed and seated on the curb. Apparently they were pulled over for failing to use a turn signal. The Asian kid insists that the car belongs to his uncle, who owns an automotive repair shop. A check of the tags backs up his statement. The teenagers are quickly released.
The gang investigators are about ready to call it a night. Pyka and Kennedy take one last spin down Payne Avenue. They pull over to speak with two young black men who are walking down the sidewalk. Both profess to be from north Minneapolis. One of them wears a baseball cap emblazoned with "612." He's also sporting a wristband that provides evidence of a recent stint in jail. Kennedy inspects a digital camera that one of the men is carrying. It contains numerous photos of people displaying what appear to be gang signs. In one of them a guy has his hands shaped into a W. When Kennedy asks one of the young men what the W stands for, he answers "welfare." Despite her repeated expressions of disbelief, he sticks by this explanation. Kennedy eventually grows exasperated. "You're a fool," she tells him. "I'll run into you again."
As Pyka and Kennedy head back to the gang strike force office in New Brighton, more information has come in about the shooting near Central High School. Apparently a 16-year-old kid was leaving a basketball game at the school. He was approached by four black males and shot in the kneecap. The victim is being treated at Regions Hospital. He claims not to know his attackers. But early evidence indicates that he's another casualty of the ongoing feud between the Selby Siders and the East Side Boys.
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