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Task force keeps eye on gang members at Strawberry Festival

PLANT CITY — A short kid with a baseball cap, blue shorts and a rosary around his neck walked up to the Strawberry Festival on Friday night.

He was almost to the ticket window when two gang investigators pulled him aside.

"What's this?" Detective Marc Wilder asked, pointing to a blue bandanna hanging from the kid's back pocket.

Before long, he was patted down, checked for tattoos, handcuffed and led away.

This, said members of the gang task force, is business as usual at the festival. Like the Florida State Fair, the Strawberry Festival attracts scores of young local gang members.

Yes, at the same place you go for fried butter.

"It's an entirely different world," said Doug Bieniek, an investigator for the State Attorney's Office in Tampa.

He was one of about 30 multiagency gang task force members at the Strawberry Festival on Friday and Saturday nights scouting for kids wearing gang paraphernalia or starting trouble.

The task force, created 15 years ago, has members from 52 law enforcement agencies in and around Tampa Bay, including police, sheriff's deputies, highway patrol troopers and immigration officials.

Patrolling the fair and Strawberry Festival offers a chance to gather intelligence, as well as to keep the events safe.

Detective Wilder said Hills-borough County is home to more than 100 gangs and at least 4,000 gang members, some of whom mark their territory at the festival grounds. Bieniek pointed out a spot where a gang sign was faintly visible.

"It's like they're saying, 'This is my fair,' " he said.

Most of the kids who show up wearing gang gear are not taken into custody. None of the dozen or so arrests made at the fair or festival this year has been gang-related, sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

Sometimes, like in the case of the kid with the blue bandana, they're taken away for other reasons, such as immigration status.

The boy — who said he didn't speak English, had a fake Mexican immigration identification and gave authorities a false name — turned out to have tattoos on his hand and arm that identified him as a Sur 13 gang member.

He was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who said they will fingerprint him and possibly deport him Monday.

In the majority of cases, kids are told to take off gang paraphernalia, searched, documented, questioned and let go.

"What did you have to do to get into this gang? Why did you want to join?" Wilder said investigators ask.

Often, he said, gang members admit they wanted friends, got bored after school or were born into it.

"Everyone wants to belong," Wilder said.

Sometimes kids are just dressing like rappers they see on TV. But at a gang-saturated event like the fair or festival, a fashion statement could lead to trouble, Wilder said, pointing out a boy's red shoelaces.

The boy also was wearing a red striped polo — enough red to suggest he was part of Norte 14, a Sur 13 rival, Wilder said.

After a few minutes, Wilder discovered the boy was the brother of Jonathan Homesley, a notorious Norte 14 member. Homesley, 18, was charged in 2008 with shooting a Polk County teen who police say he mistook for a gang member, according to the Ledger in Lakeland.

"There's a lot of Sur in here tonight, and a lot of people know your brother and what he did," Wilder said to the boy. "You're already decked out in colors. Be careful."

He nodded and went through the gates.

A few nights ago, Wilder confiscated a nearly 4-inch blade from someone with a red bandana hanging from his pocket. From someone else, he took a hat with a gang sign airbrushed on by a vendor on the midway.

In years past, task force members have knocked loaded guns out of gang members' hands and broken up massive brawls.

Festival worker Dave Campbell, who mans the balloon-dart board game, said he has seen much worse.

Campbell said gang members seem to flock to fairs in every city. He said he has seen kids get shot over turf wars and drug deals. He has watched game tents get mowed over by people trying to flee.

"The carnival — that's where the bad people go for some reason," Campbell said. "They like to show off."

He quit talking when a woman with a baby in a stroller walked by. He smiled and nodded.

Then came a group of guys dressed in all black with guns on their hips: the task force members. Campbell nodded to them, too.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Task force keeps eye on gang members at Strawberry Festival 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 9:53pm]
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