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Generations of gang rivalries play out in St. Petersburg and leave bloody trails

ST. PETERSBURG — They crept slowly along the street, fingers on the trigger, revenge on their minds.

Shell casings rained down — but their bullets found the wrong target.

If it sounds familiar, it should.

The victim in this case was not the 8-year-old girl killed April 5, shot three times as gunfire pierced her bedroom walls from the street.

This victim was a 20-year-old struck in the chest 17 years ago as he lay on the ground, taking cover from drive-by shooters attacking a basketball court.

The city has never lacked for innocent bystanders — collateral damage in the endless feuds between sparring neighborhood gangs in St. Petersburg.

It was a rift between the Bethel Heights Boys and an associate of rival 8-Hype that police say led to the murder of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton last month.

In 1992, it was a feud between the Jamestown Boys and a Bethel Heights acolyte that led to the murder of a young father named Byron Clinton Dorsey.

For decades, young men in the city have banded together. Sometimes, it's just to hang out. Too often, it's to go to war with one another.

David Milchan, 71, spent much of his 42 years in Pinellas law enforcement dealing with them.

"Get a copy of West Side Story — it's the same thing."

• • •

They're not the Bloods or the Crips. They have no hierarchy, no structure, few, if any, symbols or colors. But they grew up together. They share an identity, an allegiance — and, all too often, a grievance.

They range from just a few friends to a small platoon. They can get involved in everything from schoolyard brawls to guns and drugs.

The worst, the bullies, the criminals, are what the St. Petersburg Police Department calls "neighborhood groups."

Law enforcement is loath to publicly identify them, for fear of glorifying them. Police won't even name the four or five most active groups in the city.

But the names heard most often these days include Bethel Heights, Childs Park, 8-Hype or Harbordale, Jordan Park and the 54th Avenue Boys.

Police won't even call them gangs, which is defined by Florida law as a criminal enterprise that shares common symbols or colors. There are four gangs in the city that meet that legal definition. But police would not identity them either.

Whatever they're called, police say they're responsible for a lot of crime — but they can't quantify it. However, in 2006 police offered this snapshot:

• There were fewer than 300 members — neighborhood groups and gangs, total — in a city of about 250,000.

• About 70 percent of members were ages 15 to 17. Ages 18-21 made up 15 percent.

• Blacks made up about 40 percent; Asians accounted for 28 percent; whites were 12 percent. But racially mixed gangs exist, too.

"I've been here close to 28 years now," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, "and we've always had groups from various neighborhoods fighting."

Groups like the Haines Road Cru, which started out beating up kids and crashing parties.

Last year, its members were accused of trying to kill an undercover detective in a shootout.

• • •

Rivalries come and go. Often, no one knows what started them — including those doing the fighting.

"Some of these feuds have been going on for decades," said Sgt. Jim Nolin, who heads the city's gang intelligence team. "The exact history of it, I can't tell you. It's been going on for so long that people in the neighborhoods just don't know, either."

But city history is rife with them.

In the 1990s, the Lynch Mob warred with the splinter group Original Gangsters in northeast St. Petersburg.

Bethel Heights has been around for three decades; Childs Park goes back even further.

In the 1960s, there was the Bear County Boys, named for a rural swath of the city.

"I've seen maybe three generations," said Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger, who prosecuted Bethel Heights members in the 1992 murder of Byron Dorsey. "It's all the same names involved. The first group will end up in prison or grow out of it.

"Then a new wave comes from behind."

In 2005, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement brokered a truce between longtime rivals Bethel Heights and Childs Park.

"I got the sense that a lot of these Africans felt trapped," said president Chimurenga Waller. "But we wanted to show them the way out of that trap."

His son, Larry Waller, died at age 20, an innocent bystander killed in 1990 when a fistfight turned into a gunfight at Bartlett Park.

When both sides met, Waller said, "nobody was especially clear on what the fight was about and who started it."

But the truce was short-lived.

The three suspects arrested in Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's murder have been identified as Bethel Heights Boys. They would have been in middle school when the treaty was signed.

Waller wonders if Paris might still be alive if the Uhurus had kept working with these groups.

"That's what makes us self-critical," he said. "We would have had an impact on those same young men."

• • •

Neighborhood groups can be even more dangerous than street gangs because financial interests dominate street gangs. They have an incentive to stay off law enforcement's radar.

But neighborhood "cliques" don't. They imitate the gang culture they get from TV, music and the Internet. They want to avenge every insult.

"An organized gang with a hierarchy has colors and meetings and stuff," said Pinellas sheriff's Detective Anthony Gentile. "But what we see in these neighborhood cliques is they just get out of control, they go crazy."

Some of it is age, said former gang prosecutor Aaron Slavin. There's a word for neighborhood teens who imagine themselves in a gang: "wanna-bes."

"That's the kid that has the problems, who wants the attention, who wants the glorification," Slavin said. "I'd be more scared of that person doing something stupid than the actual true gang member."

• • •

Ever since Paris' death, Chief Harmon said his officers have been putting pressure on the worst neighborhood groups.

The five officers of the gang intelligence team have been on the streets constantly since Paris' death, backing up the street crimes and narcotics units.

Police try to suppress these groups by educating the public, investigating the members, making their presence known.

But the first line of defense, officers say, is parents.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, St. Petersburg Detective Pete Yarbrough met with the Cabretti Wheeler-Fortner Foundation to talk about neighborhood groups and gangs.

The foundation is named for the slain 21-year-old son of Lisa Wheeler-Brown. Cabretti Jalil's death in Lealman last year remains unsolved.

When officers identify a teen sliding toward that lifestyle, the detective said, they sit down with the usually clueless parents or guardians.

"I'll say does he ever do laundry? And they'll laugh," Yarbrough told the group. "They'll say he doesn't even know how to turn on an iron.

"I'll say 'Yes he does. Look at his blue bandanna. It looks like it's neatly pressed and folded.' "

Everyone nods in recognition.

"That bandanna, that's your flag," the detective said. "You don't disrespect that."

Lisa Wheeler-Brown complained about the code of silence that scares residents, hampering investigations like the one into Paris' death and her son's.

Their attitude, she said: "We run St. Pete now."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


Violence associated with neighborhood feuds

February 1992: Byron Dorsey was on his way to a Lakewood High School basketball game when he stopped to pick up a friend at the courts off 11th Avenue S. As he crossed the street, a car and van passing by sprayed the neighborhood with bullets. It was a Jamestown faction, police said, seeking revenge on a Bethel Heights associate who had robbed them. It was the end of a week's worth of gang-related ripoffs and shootings. Seven men were arrested in Dorsey's death.

May 1997: A teen trying to leave Satan's Disciples was severely beaten by members of his own gang in Fossil Park. Seven members, ages 15 to 19, were arrested by police.

April 1998: A dispute over a girl led two Asian gangs to fight it out on Meadowlawn Drive. Tuan Anh Do, then 19, was accused of donning body armor and wounding three rival gang members with an AK-47.

April 2002: An escalating feud between Melrose and Bethel Heights factions, authorities say, led to the murder of Jacobie Spradley, 24, an ex-con and father of seven killed by a barrage from an AK-47. Hours later, three bullets hit an undercover police cruiser, narrowly missing the head of an officer inside.

April 2003: Authorities say "gang warfare" led to the death of innocent bystander Cynthia Bethune, a 41-year-old mother of four killed by a stray bullet while buying bread. Officer Tim Virden chased four suspects as they shot his cruiser with SKS rifles and grazed his forehead with a bullet. He rammed their vehicle off the road and captured all four.

May 2006: The Bethel Heights-Childs Park rivalry was blamed for the shootings deaths of three young men: Antonio Roberts, 20, killed in a Pinellas Point parking lot; Forbes Swisher, 18, killed when shots rang out during a teen brawl; and Michael Smith, 18, fatally shot in the parking lot of Citrus Grove Apartments, formerly Bethel Heights Apartments.

June 2007: An out-of-control teen party results in a brawl. Amid the chaos, 17-year-old Javon Dawson fires a gun into a crowd of teens and then aims at a police officer, who fatally shoots him. The brawl was the result of a feud between Dawson's Third Avenue Boyz and another group.

April 2008: Associates of the Haines Road Cru rob a Blockbuster video store at 5100 66th St. Five are arrested after a shootout with undercover detectives. Police say they had been on their trail after the gang escalated from neighborhood bullying to a string of violent pharmacy robberies.

April 2009: A fight led to a drive-by that ended with the shooting death of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. She was hit three times in the back as AR-15 rounds pierced her home. Police say the shooters were Bethel Heights Boys, aiming for an associate of 8-Hype inside. Three members were arrested in connection with her death; two are captured with a member of Asian Pride.

Generations of gang rivalries play out in St. Petersburg and leave bloody trails 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 11:50pm]
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