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Police monitor social networking to fight gangs

Cortez Little, 18, a member of 8-Hype, was arrested in December 2010 by St. Petersburg police. Little is accused of electronically transmitting gang information, and is seen in a screen grab from his YouTube video. He has pleaded not guilty.

YouTube.com

Cortez Little, 18, a member of 8-Hype, was arrested in December 2010 by St. Petersburg police. Little is accused of electronically transmitting gang information, and is seen in a screen grab from his YouTube video. He has pleaded not guilty.

The young man in the black T-shirt smiles as he loads the magazine into the semiautomatic pistol.

"Ajax," he warns, "got a bullet with your name on it."

Cortez Little belongs to the neighborhood gang known as 8-Hype, according to police. "Ajax" is a member of their rival, the Auburn Park Boys.

Little's expletive-laced threats promise to bring death "with a couple of these hollows" — hollow-point bullets. The police, he says, won't know who did it.

"No evidence, none of that, man," Little says. "We'll leave the scene clean, my n----. Crackers don't know what time it is."

Not quite. The police knew exactly where to look.

They saw Little's video on YouTube.

• • •

As the world has gone digital, so have gangs. The Internet has given all sorts of gangs — large and small, old and new — new ways to recruit, threaten and intimidate.

It also has provided law enforcement with another tool to use against them. Police can gather intelligence on the gangs, find out who's a member and who might be bragging about a recent crime. In rare instances, what gang members do online can even land them in jail.

"It's not hidden. It's right there," said Detective Rob Mateo, who investigates gangs for the Polk County Sheriff's Office. "I can Google it right now and pull up hundreds and hundreds of sites."

Anyone can search for the history of the Bloods and Crips or become a fan of Folk Nation on Facebook or befriend the Ku Klux Klan on MySpace. Gang members use their own social networking sites to proclaim their allegiances and taunt their enemies.

"I can't think of a time when we weren't able to find them online," said Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John, the top gang prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Marc Wilder calls it "online graffiti."

"They used to do it on walls. Now they do it online," he said. "They love to brag about it."

By glamorizing themselves and their lifestyle, Mateo said, gangs are doing more online than just boosting their reputations: They're recruiting.

"There is no other purpose for putting the gang material out on there on the Internet other than as a marketing tool," the Polk detective said.

Law enforcement agencies across the country monitor what gangs are doing on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, MocoSpace, etc.

"I don't want to give too much of our tactics away," said Norm Miller, an investigator for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. "But there is a significant amount of information on the Internet."

Investigators can't and don't monitor everything. But they can discover who's in a gang, keep tabs on them and identify their associates. Gang members' Web pages show photos of them flashing signs and messages written in the coded language of the gang.

Sometimes a gang member might reveal something incriminating online. Sometimes online photos can be used just to confirm someone belongs to a gang. Under Florida law, that can lead to harsher sentences.

While the Internet has helped law enforcement gather gang intelligence, it also has made it more difficult to discern who is actually in a criminal gang and who's just living a dangerous delusion. That's because gang culture has seeped into popular culture.

"Everyone gives the gangster pose, the two fingers up, the head cocked," Mateo said. "You can see that in every Facebook page, especially anyone under 25."

Gang investigators still hit the streets for information and rely on tips from parents, schools or even rival gangs.

Investigators worry gangs will start to realize they're being watched online. But then again, gang members aren't exactly shy, either.

"Part of being in a gang is letting people know you're in a gang," Mateo said.

• • •

Cortez Little posted the video of himself and an unidentified man threatening rival gang members in St. Petersburg on YouTube on Aug. 30, 2010, police said. The black T-shirt he wore is part of his gang's uniform.

Five days later, the feud between 8-Hype and Auburn Park erupted in gunfire. The gangs fired gunshots a few hundred feet from a football game at Lakewood High School. Hundreds, including players, coaches and cheerleaders, had to hit the deck.

It was just the start of the violence.

The groups exchanged gunfire on Sept. 17. A 16-year-old member was paralyzed. Then on Sept. 25, shots were fired into a crowd. Latedra Everett, 18, was killed. Police blamed the feud.

Little was arrested Dec. 9 for posting the YouTube video. Police won't say how they found it. The other man in the video was not charged with a crime.

Little never carried out his threat. But he was charged under a rarely used statute that makes it illegal to electronically transmit gang information. He pleaded not guilty but also faces three counts of robbery.

Everett's death remains unsolved. The feud waned, police said, after a crackdown on both gangs.

"What you see in that video is indicative of the mentality that comes through in the cases we file," said St. John, the gang prosecutor. "It's part for show, but it's very much the reality they live in as well."

• • •

Polk deputies arrested seven men Oct. 12 on the same electronic charge Little faces.

They were accused of promoting gang activity and dogfighting in homemade rap videos they posted on YouTube and MySpace.

The videos show one member walking out of the Polk County Jail, deputies said. Another was sitting on top of the Polk County Courthouse sign.

Nicholas Lindsey, the 16-year-old accused of the Feb. 22 killing of St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford, was seen flashing gang signs on Facebook.

Another photo showed him clutching a wad of cash between his teeth. He also wrote online of his allegiance to a neighborhood group called Bethel Heights.

After his arrest, a "Free Nick Lindsey" page appeared on Facebook. It has since disappeared, replaced by pages calling for his death.

Bradley Bolden, 20, is accused of killing security officer Mathew Little while he patrolled the Mariner's Pointe apartment complex May 16.

Bolden's Facebook page showed him holding up five fingers on one hand and four in the other. It's the sign for another St. Petersburg gang, the 54 Boys.

If parents paid more attention online, said Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor Chris LaBruzzo, maybe they could stop the violence before it starts.

"Parents come to court and say my kid is a good kid," he said. "But the reality is, if the parents were really concerned about their kids, they would be more active monitoring them online.

"Then they would have known about this 10 months before we got involved."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

See the video

See Cortez Little's YouTube video at links.tampabay.com.

Police monitor social networking to fight gangs 09/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:57am]

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