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Gang task force keeps a high profile
City-county unit works to keep gang presence down, head off crimes
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Street gang SUR-13 “tagged” this shed outside a house on Forest Brook Crossing near Gillsville Highway. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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"Baby P-Nut" Gomez' sister reads a letter he wrote the day before he died.
Targeting Gangs
Spurred by a recent fatal shootout between rival gangs, The Times takes a look at the status of gangs in Hall County in a two-day series in print and online

Online
Sense of belonging: Ex-gang member working for a better life

In print
What is the extent of the gang problem in Hall County?
A closer look at the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force.
While shootings get the most media attention, what other crimes are gang members committing?

Coming Monday
A look at how schools are working to thwart gang activity.
Are local gang members citizens or illegal immigrants?
Some community members live in fear of gang violence, but others are fighting back.

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The baby blue shirt is a dead giveaway.

Whenever a member of the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force spots a young Hispanic man wearing the Carolina Tar Heel colors, they can be fairly certain he’s a member of either BOE or La Onda, two Gainesville street gangs aligned together.

“You see the colors?” Sgt. Jason Smith says as he cruises down a side street in a low-income, predominately Hispanic neighborhood off Atlanta Highway. A teenager standing outside a house in a powder blue shirt glowers at the unmarked SUV.

Later, two other officers pull a marked Gang Task Force vehicle up to a house in the Catalina subdivision off Memorial Park Drive and approach two young men standing in a driveway. Their unannounced arrival is not surprising or unexpected to the teens.

Investigators Paul House and Don Scalia chat up the two teens, one of whom sports a fresh tattoo on his shoulder reading “R.I.P. Juan,” a tribute to 16-year-old Juan Gomez, the La Onda member who officials say was slain Aug. 9 by SUR-13 members.

The conversation is casual, but it serves an important purpose. It’s these kind of stop-and-talks that help task force members gather intelligence and get a picture of the gang scene in Hall County.

When House asks one of the teens about a rumor that BOE and La Onda were merging, the teen shakes his head.

“Nah, it’s the same, though,” he says. “We got their back and they got ours.”

Intelligence is key

The Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force is a partnership between the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice. The unit is an attachment of the Safe Streets Task Force, which employs 20 officers from Hall County, Gainesville, the FBI and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency for drug, gang and vice investigations.

A spate of gang-related shootings that culminated in the February 1997 daytime drive-by killing of 19-year-old Rigo Verduzco in the parking lot of the Athens Street Burger King prompted the creation of the task force.

Back then, there were an estimated 900 gang members in as many as 25 different gangs in Hall County. Today, task force officers say there are about 370 documented gang members, mostly in their teens, in five major gangs.

Task force agents document each new face they encounter on the streets and collect as much information on each person as they can, including names and nicknames, gang affiliations, family, schools or employers, cars they drive, phone numbers and residences. Most are photographed regardless of whether they are arrested.

Surveillance, use of confidential informants, information passed on from detention officers at the county jail and increasingly, information from school resource officers, also play into the intelligence-gathering.

The information goes into a gang task force database that is regularly purged of former gang members who are deemed inactive. Since 2006, more than 250 documented gang members have been taken off the rolls after they no longer were encountered on the streets.

Officials say the information played a big part in the quick arrests of suspects in this month’s fatal shooting. Within four hours of the killing, all suspects and most relevant witnesses were being interviewed at Hall County Sheriff’s headquarters.

“As swiftly as these guys were picked up off the street, it probably decreased the chance of retaliation,” House said.

“If not for the intelligence we had, it would have taken a whole lot longer,” Smith said.

Intelligence is the key to task force’s effectiveness, he said. “The only way we survive over here is from the information we get.”

Preventing “free reign”

The task force also works to prevent gang confrontations by patrolling known gang areas and gatherings such as football games on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We try to eliminate all the loitering on the streets, hanging out by flagpoles or sitting on telephone boxes,” Smith said.

Without the task force’s regular patrols, “I think it would be free reign,” Smith said. Once a known gang area is targeted with extra patrols, “a high crime area becomes a low-crime area,” Smith said.

Sheriff’s deputies in the unit also paint over gang graffiti in public places once a week and cut down tennis shoes thrown over telephone wires. It’s police work that follows the “broken window” theory that a neighborhood allowed to slide into disrepair becomes a breeding place for crime.

The graffiti problem isn’t as bad as it once was, Smith said.

“Four years ago, we were using 30 to 40 gallons a month,” he said. “Now we’re down to 8 to 10 gallons a month.”

By all the benchmarks, the task force appears to be making a difference. Graffiti is down, gang membership has been higher, and this month’s murder was the first fatal gang-related shooting in seven years. But task force members say they have to stay on top of the problem as long as there is at least one gang in Hall County.

Said gang task force commander Lt. Scott Ware, “I don’t think we’ll ever work ourselves out of a job.”

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