SPRING HILL — The boys had two ways to join the gang, and neither option would be a cakewalk.
A 14-year-old Spring Hill boy approached at least three other teens at Fox Chapel Middle School earlier this month, told them he was member of the Bloods and that if they wanted to join, they could either be "beat in" or commit a crime, according to a Hernando County arrest affidavit released Tuesday.
A "beat in" is just what it sounds like: Take some lickings, and you're a member.
At least one of the teens accepted the offer, opting to do the crime instead of taking a beating, affidavits show.
The boy who offered and the boy who accepted were both arrested Monday on charges of burglary after admitting to breaking into a vacant home on Treehaven Drive in Spring Hill and causing about $1,000 worth of damage by painting the word "BLOOD" on the carpet, affidavits show. The St. Petersburg Times is not naming the boys because they're juveniles and because of the nonviolent nature of the alleged crime.
The teen who sought to recruit got slapped with another charge: soliciting street gang members.
It is a third-degree felony in Florida to "intentionally cause, encourage, solicit, or recruit another person to join a criminal street gang that requires as a condition of membership … the commission of any crime," according to the statute. The felony is classified under the state's Criminal Street Gang Prevention Act of 1996.
Three students signed sworn written statements stating that the 14-year-old tried to recruit them to the gang, and the teen admitted his recruiting efforts when interviewed by Detective David Kortman, a gang specialist at the Hernando Sheriff's Office. He was booked at Hernando County Jail on Monday and released to his parents.
But the investigation continued, and on Tuesday the boy was arrested again on another burglary charge, this time for painting gang graffiti in a vacant home on Piper Avenue.
Kortman said the teen arrested this week is not considered a serious player in the often violent gang scene.
"Basically we have a 14-year-old who thought it would be cool to be a member and start a Blood set at his school," he said.
But the Sheriff's Office still takes the boy's case seriously, Kortman said. Teens who show an affinity for gangs today can be prime targets tomorrow.
"That's one of our concerns," Kortman said. "The young kids think it's cool and then run into some hard-core gang members."
"This is for real," said Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Hernando Sheriff's Office. "If parents see symbols or signs their children are involved in gang activity, they need to contact law enforcement or at least talk to their kids."
Soliciting gang membership is a rare charge in Hernando County, Kortman said. Same for Pasco County, where a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office said officials there couldn't recall ever charging someone under the statute.
The only other time it has been used in Hernando was in the case of Kevin Demkowski, a Spring Hill resident arrested in 2005 for trying to recruit teens to the Folk Nation alliance and encouraging them to burglarize a home. Demkowski, who was 28 at the time, was sentenced to 45 months in state prison.
Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee prosecuted the case.
"All of his friends were 17 or 18 years old," Barbee said. "He would have them steal and break into sheds, and they would use those things for drugs and to keep the continuity of the gang."
The charge is so rare because it's hard to prove, he said. Witnesses are often too scared or too loyal to cooperate. The juveniles in Demkowski's case were facing charges themselves and talked, Barbee recalled.
A Florida gang census released last week by the Attorney General Bill McCollum shows the state has 1,403 documented gangs with 56,200 members, associates and suspected members.
For the first time, it includes gang statistics from across the state. The goal, McCollum said, is to have a baseline to measure the results of efforts to fight gang activity.
The Bloods came in at No. 2 among the top 20 gang names most frequently listed by local law enforcement agencies. The top name: the Crips, the archenemies of the Bloods.
There is not a very strong gang presence in Hernando, but they are here, Kortman said.
"It's not widespread like in big cities, but there are elements of different gangs," including the Bloods, Kortman said.
The teen arrested Monday said he'd had some contact with gang members at previous residences in and outside of Hernando County, Kortman said.
The boy was arrested for fighting at school recently and laughed it off, he said.
"This last arrest, he was a lot more somber," Kortman said. "I think he's starting to get the picture."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.