Crime Spree on the Reservation

Teen-gangster Crips on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community got high on crystal meth and cheap beer and terrorized the reservation with drive-by shootings, murder, beatings, fire-bombings and robberies for two years--until the feds busted them fo

Traditional Pimas believe they should not draw attention to themselves, especially in a way that hurts others--like joining a street gang.

Several community members interviewed for this story say they know how the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties took hold of their urban reservation. They say it's because Pimas frequently intermarry with Anglos and Mexicans, because youngsters don't learn their traditional culture, because alcoholic parents teach their kids to party instead of to behave.

Whatever the reasons, in 1993, gang graffiti started appearing on the reservation--a strong indication that some kids were at the very least taking an interest in gang culture.

The Subway murder and other violent crimes on the reservation jolted tribal leaders into action. A no-nonsense gang task force was formed, and the tribal police set up a gang unit. Antigang programs were introduced in schools. A silent-witness hot line was set up in the police station so that community members could inform on the gangsters without fear of reprisal. (To this day, police refuse to reveal the identity of the Subway-murder tipster who called in.) The effort to rid the reservation of gangs got national attention--Karl Auerbach and Juan Arvizu, the tribal detectives who worked on the Subway murder, won a national law enforcement award for their antigang work.

But by the time the tribal authorities started to take strong action, the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties were well-established on the reservation and committing crimes. Their activities made the Salt River reservation one of the most violent in Arizona.

No one knows how many kids joined the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties; the gang itself boasted of 150 members on four Arizona reservations--San Carlos, White River, Gila River and Salt River. But those numbers are probably exaggerated.

Although there were other gangs on the Salt River reservation, none seemed as sophisticated or as brutal as the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties.

Tribal police took the lead in investigating the Subway murder and other gang-related crimes, but several federal and state agencies assisted--including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the FBI and the ATF. And because federal law says all felonies committed on Indian reservations must be prosecuted in federal, instead of tribal, courts, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix devised a strategy for prosecuting the gangsters once tribal police caught them.

That strategy, devised by assistant U.S. attorney Pat Schneider, was to charge several members of the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties with racketeering under federal RICO statutes. Schneider successfully argued that because the gangsters conspired in the same criminal enterprise--the gang--they should be tried together in one courtroom. During that trial, which ended in May, the gangsters were also tried for their individual gang-related crimes. The strategy allowed Schneider to present a detailed, shocking picture of the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties to the jury--a picture that might not have been allowed if the gangsters had been tried separately.

That trial ended with multiple convictions and is considered significant in legal circles because it marks the first time an Indian gang was ever successfully prosecuted using RICO statutes.

And tribal police say that since core members of the gang have been either jailed or prosecuted, the number of violent crimes on the Salt River reservation has been reduced by about 20 percent.

In all, nine members of the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties have been arrested. One is currently serving a life sentence in prison for the Subway murder. Two more have been found guilty of the Subway murder, but await sentencing. Others are in jail awaiting sentencing or other court proceedings. Two are hiding in a federal witness-protection program after testifying against their friends.

Among the East Side Crips Rolling Thirties who were arrested are:
* Arlo Eschief: In 1996, found guilty of one count of first-degree murder. Serving a life term in an out-of-state federal prison.

* Philbert Antone: One count each first-degree murder, robbery and racketeering. Faces a life sentence. Sentencing July 28, U.S. District Court, Phoenix.

* Riley Briones Jr.: In May, found guilty of one count each: first-degree murder, robbery, possession of an unregistered destructive device, witness tampering and racketeering. Also found guilty of: arson (four counts) and conspiracy to commit arson (four counts). Faces a life sentence. Sentencing July 28, U.S. District Court, Phoenix.

* Riley Briones Sr.: In May, found guilty of one count each: witness tampering and racketeering. Faces a maximum 30-year term. Sentencing July 28, U.S. District Court, Phoenix.

* Ricardo Briones: In May, found guilty of one count each: witness tampering and racketeering; two counts assault with a deadly weapon. Faces a maximum 30-year term. Sentencing July 28, U.S. District Court, Phoenix.

* John Webster: Originally charged with first-degree murder, racketeering, conspiracy to commit arson, arson, use of a destructive device in a crime of violence and assault with a dangerous weapon, Webster pleaded guilty to the racketeering charge in exchange for testifying against fellow gangsters. The other charges were dropped. Faces a maximum 20-year prison term. Sentencing October 20, U.S. District Court, Phoenix.

* Mark Case: In jail, implicated in the stomping death of Johnny James, a 14-year-old boy, in December 1995. Has not been charged. Case still under investigation.

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