ST. PETERSBURG — They began as neighborhood bullies who beat up other kids, loitered in parks and crashed parties for beer. Pretty soon, they had a name: the Haines Road Cru.
But in recent years, authorities say, this group of friends who grew up in the Haines Road area gradually branched out into more serious crimes: They beat people with metal chains, many carried firearms and they started robbing businesses.
The gang is blamed for a string of terrifying pharmacy robberies that culminated last week in the shooting of a St. Petersburg police detective.
Police say that the 36-year-old detective was shot and seriously wounded when he confronted two men who had just robbed a Blockbuster at 5100 66th St. N April 30.
Four of the five people arrested in connection with the shooting and pharmacy robberies are members of the Haines Road Cru, according to police and prosecutors. They are Joseph Hollings, 18; Danielle Karlau, 19; Danny Knight, 17; and William Jaeger, 18.
Velislav Matzov, the 19-year-old accused of shooting the detective, is not a documented member of the Haines Road Cru, but has been hanging out with the gang in recent months, police and prosecutors said. Hollings is accused of robbing the Blockbuster with Matzov, and Karlau is accused of driving the getaway car.
"They began as a group that was more interested in power and respect than making money," said Aaron Slavin, a prosecutor with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office who specializes in gang prosecutions. "It appears that they've escalated into more serious crimes of violence."
Slavin said there have been several successful prosecutions of leaders in the Haines Road Cru — it also goes by Haines Road Crue — but the gang has not disintegrated.
Although police and prosecutors say the Haines Road Cru meets the legal definition of a gang under Florida law, it doesn't exactly resemble well-known, traditional street gangs such as the Bloods or the Crips.
Detective Peter Yarbrough, who works in gang intelligence for St. Petersburg police, said the Haines Road Cru doesn't appear to be bound together by initiation rituals like beat-ins. The main bond holding them together is that many grew up in the same neighborhoods in the Haines Road area.
Police estimate about 25-30 people belong to the Haines Road Cru; many went to Northeast High. They include men and women, and members come from different racial backgrounds. Police started paying attention to them in 2005, when they began seeing the same names over and over in arrest reports.
"With these commercial armed robberies, they've taken that next step," Yarbrough said. "Before, it was fist fights, broken noses. … It really does show how they've progressed from when they're 15 or 16 years old to now."
Police say the string of pharmacy robberies began March 13 at a CVS at 294 37th Ave. N. Police say four people entered the store with guns. Two of them went to the counter, getting $300. Two others went to the pharmacy for prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Xanax.
On April 15, the robbers struck again, this time at a CVS pharmacy in Pinellas Park. Police said the three men wearing black clothing and face coverings held up two clerks at gunpoint while stealing cash and narcotics from the pharmacy. Hollings, Jaeger and Matzov each face a count of armed robbery in that case.
And on April 28, police say, the robbers hit a Walgreens at 3077 54th Ave. S. In that robbery, Matzov and others took cash and narcotics, forcing employees to open the drug cabinet. They took prescription drugs such as hydrocodone, OxyContin and methadone, police said.
In the Walgreens robbery, police say, Karlau walked into the store and let her fellow culprits know when the business was empty of customers so they could move in.
"When they're going to the pharmacy, they're taking money and drugs," said Slavin, who is prosecuting the gang members.
Addicts generally just go for the drugs, Slavin said. The tendency to go for money suggests that the Haines Road Cru was interested in selling the stolen drugs.
Kelly Jaeger, 37, acknowledged that her son was a member of the Haines Road Cru. But she said they were just a group of friends, not a gang. She also said her son was innocent of the charges he faces, including two counts of armed robbery and one count of commercial armed burglary.
"They've all just been friends their whole lives," she said. "They called themselves the Haines Road Cru, but we've got 6-year-olds in the neighborhood who call themselves that. … They're not a gang or anything."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.