By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Atkinson was killed in an ambush on March 26. While pursuing three drug suspects in his squad car, he rounded a corner only to find he was looking down the barrel of a .357. Two bullets struck Atkinson in the head.
Atkinson's murder ripped through the city. The first shooting of a Phoenix police officer since 1991 blared from the evening news and headlines for weeks. Complete strangers left flowers and thank-you notes at the grimy street corner where Atkinson was killed. For days, people kept a vigil over the spot as if awaiting a visitation.
Masino had worked with Atkinson to take down one of Phoenix's most violent street gangs, the West Side City Crips, without injury. Now brazen drug peddlers had murdered Atkinson.
Masino and another officer were the first on the shooting scene at 30th Avenue and Thomas Road. Masino talks about the details of Atkinson's death for the first time to New Times.
Masino is usually calm on calls, he says. He kept his voice steady even as he described the bullet hole in the windshield of Atkinson's cruiser. But when he looked inside the squad car and saw Atkinson, he screamed for the fire department's paramedics to hurry to the scene.
The dispatcher's voice came to Masino then, asking him how Atkinson was. Masino recalls how he wrestled with a proper response.
"You can't say he's dead," Masino says. "You can't say he doesn't look good. You can't say he was shot twice in the head. There are officers on the way, you don't want them to hear it, they're already pumped up with adrenaline from an officer-needs-assistance call. The media are on the way, they've got their scanners on. Overhead, there was a media chopper, you know they're broadcasting live, and you just think, he's got a family, and you don't want them to hear it this way. So I just said, 'We need fire here now.'
"It's one of those moments you never want to go through again," he says after a beat.
But gang and drug-related violence are not uncommon events in Phoenix anymore. Masino has confronted this reality firsthand.
A month before Atkinson's death, the Maryvale cop had faced the newest evolution in gang tactics: Instead of occupying street corners in their neighborhood, the West Side City Crips took over an entire condominium complex and nearby apartment units; more alarming than the gang's unusual turf claim was West Side City's willingness to openly challenge and physically threaten law enforcement.
Gang violence, once reserved for rivals or those unlucky enough to get caught in a drive-by, now targeted the police themselves.
Although Atkinson's death was not gang-related, his shooting forced Masino to acknowledge the danger both officers confronted when they went after the West Side City Crips.
"This [gang violence] has been going on a long time," Masino says. "People don't realize it, but this isn't new. It's just reached the point where the bad guys are hurting the good guys now."
Twenty days after Atkinson's death, Masino's viewpoint on gang violence was underscored when Officer James Snedigar, a member of Chandler's SWAT team, was killed. Snedigar had charged a room where the suspects in a heist of a jewelry store had holed up; two were documented members of the New Mexican Mafia, a powerful and violent gang. Police say it was one of the gangsters who fired the SKS rifle that ended Snedigar's life. People from all over the Valley mourned again.
There are civilian casualties as well. In February, the media spotlight blazed on south Phoenix, near 24th Street and Broadway, where five neighbors left their homes in body bags in less than 72 hours. Three others, including a 2-year-old girl, were wounded in the two shootings, which New Times ("Life and Death in a Crackhouse," March 18, and "Larry Jack's Second Shot," March 25) linked to gangs.
Although the most grisly episodes like the killing of the police officers and the carnage in south Phoenix are trumpeted in the press, gang-related violence has proliferated in the Valley in the dark. Gang activity goes largely unreported. Following police recommendations, the press fails to accurately identify gangs.
A community has to identify its problems before it can fix them, and in the absence of civic attention, gangs have become an epidemic.
State and municipal authorities say they have documented about 600 street gangs in the Valley, more than 300 of them in Phoenix alone. They say the majority of these gangs do not pose immediate threats, but that anywhere from two to four dozen of them are "hard core" and dangerous.
While gang violence is down from its peak in 1992 and 1993, the police say gang membership is on the rise. The most dangerous of these gangs deal drugs, run protection rackets and enforce their will with intimidation, assault and murder.
In interviews with New Times, police officers and residents of the city's most battered neighborhoods have stepped forward to name the struggle they face on a daily basis. Today in metropolitan Phoenix, gangs control entire neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Alleys and courtyards have been turned into open-air drug markets, operating around the clock. Market share is protected with 9 mms and shotguns. Mothers instruct their children to sleep on the floor for fear of flying bullets.
"The violence knows no boundaries. It's not any section of town. It's everywhere now," Masino says.
Gangs even occupy the sedate suburbs of Scottsdale and Mesa. Gang-related violence has erupted in such unlikely places as the upscale Paradise Valley Mall.
Not all gangs are dangerous crack dealers. Not all gangs are homicidal. Some, it could be said, are part of the neighborhood social fabric.
And obviously, gangs are less prevalent in the places where the median income rises and private security guards patrol.
The worst of the gangs are largely the problem of the poor.
The neighborhoods least equipped to confront the power of these thugs endure the worst of it. And in the silence from the city's leaders and the press, the poor, and the street cops who protect them, are left on their own.
Certain gangs have grown so arrogant that they have ordered the police off their turf--and some police officers have ceded the territory as behind enemy lines.
That was the case in the Woodmar condominium complex, the Maryvale neighborhood in the grip of the West Side City Crips, listed by the police as one of the three most dangerous criminal street gangs in the city.
Then Scott Masino joined with the residents and owners in Woodmar and decided it was time to draw a line of their own. After an intense community effort, the police made nearly 30 arrests in February, smashing the Crips' control of the place and ending years of violence.
Masino served as the police point man in the Woodmar reclamation. He spent many hours alone with the gang-bangers at a time when there was a standing order for cops to enter the complex only in groups. He documented the behavior and made the IDs that would allow the February arrests to stand up in court.
But Marc Atkinson's murder was devastating for Masino. It made him reflect on his own actions at Woodmar. Would he do it again?
"After what happened to Marc, I'd have to seriously consider whether I'd do it again," he says. "My wife wouldn't want to hear this, but I don't know if I'd take the chances I did. After Marc, I don't think I'd do it that way again."
Still, there weren't many other options.
"We didn't have any other ideas, because we'd tried everything else," Masino says. "We tried sweeps, we tried arrests, we tried coming in groups--none of it worked."
This time was different. This time, the raid worked.
Admittedly, Woodmar still isn't perfect, but for the first time in years, kids can play outside without fear of getting shot. Families congregate on the lawns. In Woodmar, the residents have taken back their homes. They won a battle in a war most people don't even realize is being waged.
Lieutenant Chris Gentis watched for several years as the Woodmar IV townhomes at 43rd Avenue and Thomas sank further and further into the gutter. An affable, 26-year veteran of the force, he'd worked his way up the departmental food chain from the street. He can remember when Maryvale was a nice place to live.
Woodmar, a cluster of 150 condos, is adjacent to the Pine Ridge Apartments, which number about 300.
About 500 families make their homes here--including roughly 1,000 school-age children.
But the kids didn't play outside at Woodmar. People stayed indoors and kept their heads down and their mouths shut.
Woodmar belonged to the West Side City Crips. Their names weren't on any titles, but for years, there was no question who really owned the place. They bullied residents, utility workers, handymen, the sheriff's posse and the cops.
The West Side City Crips is a loose affiliation of street gangs in west Phoenix that sells drugs--mainly crack. Named one of the three most powerful gangs in Phoenix by the police, the Crips have been around for years, in one incarnation or another.
Police estimate their numbers at 300 to 400 members. There is no single leader of West Side and little in the way of organization. The gang-banger with the most status commands respect from other gang-bangers, but the hierarchy shifts constantly, as West Siders go to jail, drop out and get killed.
"Even if we took the 'leaders' down, somebody there would step up to take his place," says Detective David Mendoza, an officer with Phoenix's gang unit. Mendoza, along with his partner, Terry Boe, was one of the officers recruited by Gentis and Masino to help out with the Woodmar investigation. "It's just a part of life. You take one out, another one takes his place."
The West Siders are what the police call a "profit-based" gang as opposed to a "boundary-based" gang--they will go wherever the drug sales take them, and they will use violence and murder to protect their business. They moved north to Woodmar about four years ago when police began cracking down on their traditional haunts around Buckeye Road. Like pushing on a balloon, the pressure caused them to emerge elsewhere.
"Over the years, we've targeted West Side City mainly down on Buckeye. As a result, they decided to leave. They took the path of least resistance and came up here," Mendoza says.
Woodmar was the perfect new home for them.
"The gangs have learned that the best way to sell drugs is to take over one of these condominium complexes," Gentis says.
The police have been seeing this tactic more and more, Gentis says. Condo complexes are especially vulnerable to gang control, he explains, because they have a lot of what the gangs want: cover from the street, lots of places to stash drugs and money, and lots of nooks and crannies to elude the cops.
Many complexes on the west side of Phoenix also lack organization, Gentis adds. There are about 100 owners of the 150 condos at Woodmar. Only 5 percent of them live on the property. The remaining residences were rented out to whoever would take them. Most owners were unaware of what was happening at Woodmar, or they just didn't care.
Unlike an apartment complex, there was no central control. And the gangs capitalized on that. West Side City moved into the vacuum and became the authority.
Crack Alley was the center of their enterprise: a blocklong, full-time recreational pharmacy, helping addicts from all over the Valley drain the life from their bodies one hit at a time. The Crips took over the alley, which runs between Woodmar and the Pine Ridge Apartments, as a kind of drive-through for drugs. The alley was a clear shot from 43rd Avenue; traffic easily slid in and out. The alley was also their gambling parlor; there was always at least one craps game going.
The dealers did their walk-up business on the main sidewalk in the complex. The kids at Woodmar named it Crack Walk.
There was serious money to be made at Woodmar. A dealer at the townhomes could take in $200 to $700 a night.
"Dookie [the gang name of Andrew Blake] couldn't read or write, but he could count real well," Mendoza says. "He was saving up to buy a HUD home, he told us."
(Blake was in custody at the time of this writing and could not be reached for comment.)
At any hour of the day or night, there was someone waiting to feed the need: 30 to 50 dealers worked the area at a time. Residents remember not being able to pass by sidewalks clogged by pushers and their clients during the day; at night, they were kept awake by the constant sound of blaring stereos and traffic from the alley.
"There was a lot of competition; whoever got there first would get the sale. You'd have guys running up to buyers," Mendoza says. One dealer even pulled a gun on an undercover agent when he bought from another dealer, he remembers.
West Side City didn't like anyone else working their territory, and they staked their claims with violence.
Residents learned to live with the sound of nightly gunfire. The police answered repeated calls for help every day--2,670 total for the year, all in a half-mile square.
Last year's police stats in the Woodmar area qualify as a crime wave: three homicides, one sexual assault, 35 aggravated assaults, 22 robberies, 269 property crimes and 63 drug crimes.
The West Side City Crips didn't like the police any more than competition. They threatened any cops who came on the property. The message was clear: Keep out.
"They loved pushing the blues," Mendoza explains. "They don't respect the guy in the blue uniform. They would surround a patrol car to see if they could get the guys to leave. It was like a game to them, to see how far they could push the blues."
The harassment was constant. When police officers would go into the complex on a call, 15 to 20 Crips would surround them, sometimes heckling and jeering, other times just staring them down. And every cop who went to Woodmar knew the Crips were armed.
As a result of the threats and intimidation, there was a standing order at the Maryvale precinct that no cop was to go into Woodmar without at least two other officers.
The three-officer policy in Woodmar and Pine Ridge was standard practice off and on for the past decade, Gentis says. For the past three years, he says, it was in effect all the time.
About a year ago, Gentis faced the troubles at Woodmar firsthand. While driving through the complex in an unmarked car, he ran the plate of a drug buyer in Crack Alley. The car was stolen. Gentis took off down the alley after him. The dealers, who resented a cop scaring off a customer, began throwing rocks at Gentis as he drove past.
After that, Gentis went to his commander, and made his case for a full-time officer to fix Woodmar. "Our doors were being stormed, and I told my boss, if we just had enough time, we can get this done," he says.
So Gentis pulled Masino off the Maryvale bike squad, juggled his budget a bit, and made Masino the Special Assignment Officer for Woodmar.
In the phrasing of the police reports, Masino was "tasked with attempting to solve the problem at hand."
"The patrol guys didn't have the time to do this," Masino says. "Gentis gave me the time. They said, 'You stay out there all night if you have to. Don't worry about the patrol, don't worry about the calls.'"
In October of last year, Masino went into Woodmar alone.
Linda Tye had already seen too much brutality when she moved to Woodmar three years ago.
Tye, a mother and grandmother, moved from Avondale to care for her sister's children after her sister died in a gang drive-by in south Phoenix. "She had a last chance to straighten up, and God took her because she wasn't going to use that chance," Tye recalls. "She was so deep into the drugs, she was selling food stamps to buy drugs."
Tye's first indication that something was different at her new home came when her sister's kids told her not to turn on the porch light, Tye recalls. "They said, 'The men don't want [any] lights because that's the Crack Walk,'" she recalls.
"I was so scared. You couldn't walk down the sidewalks because of all the people standing around selling drugs," Tye remembers, sitting on a chair outside her unit. A small child watches her through the wrought iron of the screen door. "Every time you'd go by, it'd be, 'Whatcha need? You need? Whatcha got?'"
Tye soon learned the rules of survival at Woodmar.
Kids weren't allowed outside. Families stayed indoors, with the blinds drawn and the doors locked. People kept their heads down and their mouths shut.
The gang members weren't shy about keeping the residents informed when they needed to shoot down a rival dealer. "They'd tell you when they was about to start shooting," Tye says. "They'd come by and say, 'Get your kids in the house.'"
Woodmar was the Crips' place of business more than their home. Most of the dealers did not live there--they commuted to work like a lawyer to a downtown firm.
"They came in cabs, the dealers, just like they were coming to work. They'd drive up in nice suits," Tye says.
Tye knew them all by their street names: Melly Mel, Big D, Dookie, 10th Avenue, Red Dog.
She could handle the guys who just smoked weed, she remarks. What she couldn't stomach were the guys who smoked crack and sherm--cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid. "The kids would always pick the vials up off the ground," Tye says.
Linda Tye saw the butchery from her front door. She witnessed two shootings in 1998--one fatal.
"Last summer was the worst," she says, shaking her head sadly. "They really ran the place then."
The first shooting victim was a dealer, the leading occupation in Woodmar.
As night began to fall one evening last summer, Tye's daughter came in the house. "Mama, [someone] got shot," she said.
Tye looked out her front door and saw the familiar scattering of police and paramedics, milling around the door of a nearby unit. Then she saw the body, not 30 feet from her condo.
The dealer was lying on his back, his feet propped against the wall. "It was like he just had his feet up, so he could take a nap," Tye says. "I stayed out there until 2 or 3 in the morning, watching the paramedics take him away."
The second time, Tye remembers the blood. That was when "Lil' Larry"--Larry McBeth, a competitor of the Crips--pushed his luck a little too far.
At the center of Crack Walk was what the cops called the Million-Dollar Spot. That's where McBeth got shot.
McBeth was allowed to operate inside Woodmar even though he wasn't in the gang. In fact, he was a member of the Bloods, the Crips' longtime rivals. But he had family on the West Side, and that was close enough.
For a while, anyway. In a dispute with West Side City last August, McBeth was shot seven times with a semiautomatic handgun.
McBeth told the police who investigated that his name was Larry Jones, and that he'd been shot during a craps game for no apparent reason. The police arrested a West Side City member identified by witnesses at the scene.
Tye heard the shots, but wouldn't look outside until after it was over.
"[H]e got shot right under my stairwell," Tye recalls. "I heard shots, and I wasn't going to come out. I heard shots all the time. But then I looked around outside, and I saw his shoes and his pager on the ground, and a trail of blood."
She followed the trail to the door of Larry's apartment, which is where the paramedics found him. They took him to the hospital.
"So much blood," Tye says.
McBeth left the hospital before the police could pick him up, Lieutenant Gentis recalls. Gentis adds that they found him just a few days later, wearing a bulletproof vest over his bandages, carrying a pistol and 50 rocks of crack cocaine.
(McBeth is now in prison, serving a five-year sentence for drug sales.)
Linda Lloyd is one of the few Woodmar residents who's been around longer than Linda Tye. A disabled full-time mom, she's been at Woodmar for seven years. When she came back to Phoenix from Oakland, she thought she was leaving the gang wars behind.
She didn't. Lloyd's unit is directly across the common area from Crack Walk. Her rental turned out to be on the front row for the Crips' activity.
"I've seen them come and go, either walking out or being carried out. . . . I would tell them, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you shooting and killing each other?' I saw enough of that in Oakland."
For years, Lloyd made her son Jeremiah sleep on the living-room floor.
"They would be shooting out by his window," she says. "I tell you, the Lord's been watching over us, because a bullet doesn't have any name on it."
Two years ago, Lloyd saw a girl shot and killed right outside her condo.
"I was just back from the store, and I walked right by her," she says in a matter-of-fact tone. The girl was leaning up against her house, and Lloyd could see her shadow from a window inside.
"Then I saw the shadow of a man and saw him pull out a gun and shoot her. Just bang-bang, shot her twice," she says.
She never went to the police. She's not sure if the shooter was ever caught.
Patti Hussey was trying to do the right thing. She worked hard to make Woodmar a decent place to live. But her job put her at odds with West Side City, which liked Woodmar just the way it was.
Hussey was brought in as complex manager in 1995. Her company specializes in turning around what she politely refers to as "distressed property." But she'd never seen anything as bad as Woodmar.
On a recent tour of the place, Hussey talks about the gang problems in the manner of an aggrieved schoolmarm. She still sounds shocked at some of what she saw.
There were beer bottles strewn around the common areas every morning. In the winter, the gangs would tear the plywood off boarded-up units and build bonfires. The smell of urine was so strong you couldn't bear to walk through some stairwells, Hussey says. Here and there, piles of human feces littered the sidewalks. The gang members set palm trees on fire, shot guns into the air, "stupid stuff like that," Hussey says.
"I'd ask what was going on, and they said they were having a party for one of their homies," Hussey says in disbelief. "Excuse me, that is just not acceptable."
Hussey couldn't keep the pool open. "They would have urinating contests," she says. "They would just circle around the pool and pee into it and throw beer bottles into it. We couldn't buy enough chemicals to keep it clean."
Near the main courtyard, the gangs claimed a vacant unit for their own. They filled its patio with trash, broke the door in and slept there when the weather turned cold. When Hussey did find a tenant, nothing changed. They would still come in as if they owned the place. "They just intimidated her to the point where she moved out."
Most tenants couldn't live with the problems.
"As it got worse, it just got more and more abandoned," Hussey says--which was the way the gang preferred it.
"All of these places were vacant," she says, indicating condos at key points around the common areas. "No one was here. Who was going to bug them?"
Hussey even tried scolding the gang members and druggies, with predictable results. "I'd tell them to go away, and they'd say, 'Oh sure, Ms. Patti.'"
Last Christmas, Hussey came as close as she wanted to a confrontation with the gangs. She was dropping off a paycheck to one of the complex's maintenance workers, who rented a second-floor apartment in Woodmar. "I usually looked before I went into one of the stairwells, but I just started down the stairs before I realized I was walking right in the middle of a drug deal."
Six men surrounded her and would not let her pass. Hussey kept her eyes fixed straight forward and said, "Excuse me." Still, nobody moved. She reached up and tentatively tapped the man in front of her on the shoulder. "Then he nodded--someone must have nodded to him--and he let me by," she says.
Hussey got in her car and drove away. She stopped down the street and took a moment. "I just kept thinking, I'm a single mom, I have two kids, I need to go home tonight. I just said, 'Thank you, God, I owe you one.' I've looked at people, and if they have even the slight spark of life in their eyes, I'm not afraid to talk to them. But there are people whose eyes are just dead, you know? And these guys were like that. It just shakes you, because there are people like that out there."
To most people at Woodmar, the West Side City Crips were like a rabid beast parked right outside the door; residents shied away, tried to walk around it.
But to David Roland--a.k.a. Wink Dawg, as it reads in his court file and police reports--the Crips were his family.
Roland was a dealer at Woodmar. According to police reports, Roland's been a suspect in assaults, car theft and burglary. Snared for his first felony as an adult in February, he went to jail for the first time for selling crack at Woodmar.
Now 20, he was "born into" the Crips. Roland wasn't initiated with a physical beating, like the members who are "jumped in." The Crips already knew him. He grew up in the West Side neighborhood of 60th Avenue and Encanto Boulevard, and was around members of the Crips every day of his life. The first time anyone asked where he was from, what colors did he "represent," he proudly said he was West Side City.
Roland is short and slight, with soft, almost baby-faced features. His sister and friend joke about his modeling career. But his attitude compensates. He doesn't brag or try to come off harder than he is; he is matter-of-fact about his life in the gang.
Roland started gang-banging hard when he was about 12 years old. His grandmother died, and without her, the family fell apart. He says his parents got into drugs.
"My parents started smoking rock, weed, everything. They couldn't take care of themselves or us. We started to take care of them," he says.
"That's where the gangs come in," Roland adds. "They showed us how to make a little money, showed love for us."
The 12-year-old Roland believed it was the best possible path. He moved into a circle that wanted him, respected him, kept him entertained and put money in his pocket--and most of all, loved him.
He showed his love back. Nobody could insult his colors. He wouldn't allow anyone to talk "crazy shit" about his neighborhood.
"By doing crimes, fighting, you prove you're down for your neighborhood," he says. "If people were talking crazy, saying you weren't down, you don't represent, you got to show them."
He didn't have much else. His family's orbit was disintegrating. His church tried to help, he says, "but the church can't do it forever. The church can't keep a whole family together." School was nothing to him; he mainly went there to mingle, he says.
He got into his first gang fight in seventh grade "with this Mexican dude, Wetback Power [a Hispanic gang]," he says. Roland doesn't even remember what started it. "He said something, I said something, he kicked me, we got into it."
Watching from the sidelines were his homies, as always. "They back me. We got love for each other. If you go somewhere, someone gets on you, they'd be there for you," Roland says.
Roland was first shot at before he turned 15--it became so much a part of his life, he isn't certain when it was. It was sparked by the same thing as the fistfights, only this time, the other gang-bangers came back with guns. A group of Bloods drove by while he was hanging out, looking for vengeance for a fight a few days before. They missed. Roland never took any bullets, although he admits he did some shooting of his own.
Roland was kicked out every semester he was in high school, for offenses ranging from fighting to skipping class. "They'd throw me out for a week or two," he remembers. "Then I'd go back and they'd throw me out again."
He finally dropped out in the 11th grade. He played a little football and basketball on school teams, but that ended when his education did. The gang filled the rest of his life; partying and fighting were his only extracurricular activities.
He began selling in Woodmar two or three years ago. Another West Side City Crip brought him in, and soon he was making up to $400 a night. He bought the cocaine--usually in rock form, but sometimes in powder he'd cook himself--from a small group of suppliers. He'd double the price he paid and sell it; 100 bucks worth of rock was $200 to him.
His customers came from all over the Valley. "I didn't look down on them," he insists. "They was like my boss; they were paying my money. I looked for them."
Roland's buyers weren't limited to the usual stereotypes, either. "Sure, there was people on government checks and stuff," he says. "But I sold to everybody. Sold to doctors, lawyers, white, black, you name it, people from all over town."
It was almost like a regular job. Roland would get up in the morning, get dressed, go to Woodmar, sell some crack, and then party on the proceeds.
Roland was at the center of his own universe: He had money; did what he wanted, when he wanted; he carried cool weapons and was respected and feared; there were always girls hanging around him; and he wore the colors of a group that would kill on his behalf.
"It's addictive," he says. "You got easy, fast money, you get to kick it with your friends all day and all night, you never have to go to work, you can just sit around getting high and getting drunk. Everyone I knew was over there."
Woodmar was their kingdom, Roland says. The cops were a joke. He never tossed rocks at the Phoenix police himself, but he watched as his friends did. Roland joined them in their catcalls and insults when the police would venture out of their cruisers.
"We'd talk crazy shit to them all the time, harass them, call them pigs, po-po [police], motherfucker, all that shit," he says, laughing. "Some of them, they just wouldn't say anything. Some of them would look scared. . . . They'd be going around asking, 'What's your name?' Trying to book us when we hadn't done anything. 'What's your name?' Fuck you, what's your name?"
The Crips had no fear of the police, Roland boasts, because they had the guns and the numbers.
"They was just another gang to us, basically. . . . They had guns, well, we had guns, too," Roland says. "Especially when there was 50 of us and two of them. What were they going to do? Two of them, two guns, and between us we'd have 15 or 20. They can't shoot all of us."
The gang members would even pull their guns and point them at the police after the officers turned their backs, Roland says.
"They was scared, basically. They didn't do anything," he says.
And if there was a raid, the Crips would usually be able to take off. "The way the place was set up, we could always see the cops coming. I ain't going to say we were organized, but we knew what we were doing."
The worst areas of Woodmar were around Crack Walk, toward the back of the property. At the lowest point, about 45 units were vacant. About 20 of those had been abandoned by the owners.
When Hussey came in as manager, the townhomes' board of directors was fractured and bickering over what to do. Some owners of the property were sick and tired of watching their investment turn into a slum.
Paul and Joyce Hamby were two of those owners. They nicknamed Woodmar the War Zone.
The Hambys moved to Phoenix from Irving, Texas, in 1982. Paul switched from contracting to real estate, and they began selling and renting property in the city. They got tangled up in Woodmar in 1993, when Paul began managing a condo for an owner in Montana. "People just wanted out," Paul says, and he picked up their property cheap. Pretty soon, he and his wife owned five units in Woodmar.
They bought into more trouble than they realized. The Crips didn't like outsiders on their turf.
Word got back to Hamby from his tenants: Stay off the property. When Hamby began doing maintenance work on his investments, he started to get threats. Hamby, a minister on the weekends at Black Canyon City First Assembly of God, was told that the "preacher man" should stay clear of Woodmar.
The nickname stuck. One day, a group of kids told him, "Preacher man, preacher man, someone's messing with your van."
Hamby--who is 64--took off running after the guy. He didn't catch him, but he didn't get shot, either.
The Hambys also put themselves in the crosshairs by swearing out trespassing warrants against gang members at Maryvale Justice Court. This gave the police the power to arrest any of the bangers found on the property.
Hamby even tried to stop the traffic through Crack Alley. He put up four different gates to block the exit. The gang-bangers tore them down by ramming stolen cars into them. Once while he was installing the second or third gate, a crackhead walked up to him, he says. "I don't know why you keep coming over here," the addict told Hamby. "We're just going to tear it down tonight."
Joyce believes respect for the clergy kept her husband from getting hurt. Hamby thinks it was the three-iron he carried with him while on the grounds. "Early on, I let them know I wasn't afraid of them," Hamby says.
Joyce's theory is probably closer to the truth. At any rate, someone must have been looking out for Hamby, because a golf club is no match for an automatic weapon.
The Crips didn't threaten just Hamby. They told the Hambys' maintenance workers to stay out. The Salt River Project's utilities workers were afraid to go into Woodmar, Hussey says. City of Phoenix housing inspectors were afraid to go into Woodmar, officials at the housing department say. Even armed guards were afraid to go into the complex.
About two years ago, Hussey recalls, the manager of the private security firm Hussey had hired to patrol called her to his office. He said, "We have a problem," she recalls, and he slid the clip of an automatic handgun, loaded with hollowpoint bullets, across the desk to her. He'd gotten it at Woodmar. While patrolling the grounds, he'd seen a gang-banger firing a pistol in the air. When the kid took off running, he jammed the gun into his pocket, and he must have hit the clip release, the manager said. We quit, he told Hussey.
"We can't handle this," he said.
When Officer Scott Masino started patrolling Woodmar, he had to face the fact that many residents found the real cops to be as little help as the rent-a-cops.
In January 1998, Hussey hired Sheriff Joe Arpaio's citizen posse and some of his deputies to work security at Woodmar.
The gang members threw rocks at posse members and their horses and chased other deputies off the grounds.
After a month of this, the posse members and the deputies quit. On February 5, Hussey says she got a fax from the sheriff's office that said the posse wouldn't be riding in to save Woodmar.
Sheriff's spokesman Dave Trombi maintains that the sheriff's patrols ended because the condo association cut their hours--a claim Hussey laughs at.
"We begged them to stay," she says.
Woodmar residents and owners weren't happy with the Phoenix police, either.
To Linda Tye and Linda Lloyd, it seemed the police didn't want to do anything.
Until last year, police rarely came into the complex, and then they wouldn't spend much time.
Tye was calling Crime Stoppers constantly about the dealers. "They should know my name by now," she jokes. "I got tired of the gunshots, I got tired of them dealing dope."
But nothing happened.
"[The dealers] would just look at me, after they'd talk to the police," Tye says. "They'd look at me like nothing could touch them. They just couldn't be touched.
"[The police] would come in and walk around, and then the drug dealers would just come back."
The Crips would chase off the police, just like they did the posse members. If a cruiser came into the complex, gang members would surround it. More often than not, the patrolmen would hit reverse and leave the area.
The owners of Woodmar were also frustrated in their attempts to get the police's attention.
The Hambys burned up the phone lines to the mayor, the chief of police and even the governor. At one community meeting last year, Joyce Hamby recalls, a cop from the Maryvale precinct offered to give out his number for anyone to call--then added, "Well, maybe I better wait until Joyce leaves the room."
Last year, Paul Hamby saw three patrol cars sitting in the parking lot of a nearby day-care center while he was at Woodmar. He then heard a barrage of gunfire. Not one of the police officers even got out of their cars, he says.
Part of the problem was the fractured ownership of Woodmar itself. The police seemed to find little reason to care about the place if the owners didn't.
"Everyone was pointing fingers," Ken Broyles, the president of the homeowners association at Woodmar, says. "Everyone was blaming everyone else, instead of taking responsibility for themselves. We'd blame the police, they'd come back at us, well, why don't you take better care of the place? We'd go round and round."
Broyles started writing letters. In a 1997 letter, Broyles says that an officer who responded to a tenant's complaint of a break-in asked her why she lived at Woodmar.
Broyles wrote, "[The police] said [they] clean up Woodmar IV, but it doesn't last. We feel the reason it doesn't last, the police want to keep the gangs at Woodmar IV so they know where they are. . . . We are paying our taxes and your wages, but you don't want to help."
He got a letter back from then-chief Dennis Garrett, which, in the time-honored tradition of bureaucracy, said nothing: "The purpose of this letter is to serve as notice and to provide you with knowledge of the criminal activity that is taking place on and around your property. . . . [I]t is to your advantage to come to the board meetings and become actively involved in the future of Woodmar IV townhomes."
Patti Hussey recalls one angry conversation with the former Maryvale precinct commander. He'd told her that some of his officers didn't want to go into Woodmar.
"I told him, 'You have officers that are scared to go in there? Shouldn't that be a red flag?'" she says. "I said, 'I know you have redneck officers on the force; this would be like bonus time for them. Maybe we should call out the National Guard.'
"He said, 'You have a bad attitude.'"
Maryvale Precinct Commander Manny Davila says the police were never scared to enter Woodmar, but he can understand why some people there might say that.
"People get frustrated when their problems aren't being solved, and part of their frustration involves lashing out at the police," he says. "I've been on the force 26 years now, and it's just part of the flak you have to deal with as an officer."
Davila agrees that Woodmar "had been a sore spot for years," but says the owners and residents have to take some responsibility for the conditions there.
"There were numerous reasons why we couldn't work there effectively. Part of the reason was the owners themselves were not unified in their efforts," Davila says.
Still, before Gentis sent Masino into Woodmar, there were a lot of people ready to give up hope.
Scott Masino is a second-generation Phoenix cop. His father was a detective for 20 years; he's wanted to be a cop since he was 5 years old. Masino says his father, in all that time on the force, was never shot at, was never involved in a shooting. In Masino's first nine months on the force, he'd already pulled his gun three times.
"That was when I had to decide, 'Do I really want to do this for 20 more years?'" he says.
In the seven years since, he's been shot at twice, worked 12 homicides, arrested three homicide suspects and seen one friend die. He's also been honored at the White House as a Top Cop by the National Association of Police Organizations for his actions in the Tent City riots in November 1996. With six other Phoenix police officers, Masino stormed the barricades of the inmates rampaging in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tent jail and rescued trapped jail guards.
Lieutenant Chris Gentis tapped Masino to enter hostile territory again--this time in their own backyard.
At Woodmar, Masino had to win the trust of not only the residents at Woodmar, but the gang-bangers as well.
Masino disagrees with the residents who think the cops gave up on Woodmar.
"There was never really a full investigation before," Masino says. "You've got 150 units with 100 owners here. Dealing with so many different people makes it almost impossible to get things done."
All of the different owners presented legal obstacles for the police as well. "You can't tie the problems to one specific apartment and get an abatement order," Mendoza says.
But even other cops confronted Masino and Gentis and told them they were wasting their time, that Woodmar was a lost cause.
"Nothing was working," Masino says. "The attitude was, 'What are you going to do that's different?' The other officers would say, 'Look, we've already done everything we can there, there's nothing else we can do.' We just said, 'That's wrong. We can do this.'"
Masino felt a responsibility to make a change. He believed the people at Woodmar shouldn't have to live as if under siege.
"If it were my neighborhood, I wouldn't want to live like this. I live in a part of town where if shots were fired, everybody would be shouting for the police to do something. It should be the same here," he explains. "There are a lot of kids here. There are a lot of good people in this place. You can't leave them stranded."
Masino's job was to "find out who the good guys and bad guys were," as he puts it. Undercover officers could make drug buys in Woodmar every day, but it was useless unless they knew who they were buying from. In order to make a case, the police had to learn the names of the dealers and gang members. That meant getting close.
It seems unlikely that Masino--who is white--would be able to win over a group of predominantly black drug dealers while patrolling alone, on foot, in an area other cops didn't want to drive through.
The gang-bangers seemed stunned by the thought themselves.
He would walk through the complex and watch drug deals go down without doing anything but nodding and saying, "Hi."
But more than anything else, Gentis chose Masino for the job because Masino gets along with anybody, it seems, without losing his authority as a cop. If he were a politician, you'd call it charisma. Since he's a police officer, you just think of him as a regular guy--who happens to carry a Glock and a badge.
"It took a very special officer who can speak the lingo and convince them to open up and talk to him," Gentis says.
Masino wasn't supposed to make arrests. He was supposed to watch and pay attention.
"The way it usually works, two cops come in and they ask for back-up, they pull their guns and they hook 'em up [stop and search the suspects], then they leave," Masino explains. "I came in, and I played dumb. They'd do deals right in front of me and I didn't do anything. They thought I was fat, stupid and happy."
It must have worked, because the Crips didn't shoot him. They were curious about "Officer Scott," as everyone called him, though. They began developing theories about him: Competing schools of thought held that he was covered by SWAT, or he was RoboCop, or just congenitally stupid.
"They couldn't believe it when I came in alone," Masino recalls. "First, they told me that I must have snipers watching me--nobody would have come in alone. Then there was this rumor that I was a quick-draw artist. Then they decided I must be on the take. Then a lot of them just figured I was dumb old Officer Scott. They couldn't understand it. They came up with all kinds of stories."
The Crips got so comfortable with Masino they let him videotape them--he turned the tapes over to the drug enforcement bureau.
One suspect he had a hard time photographing was Shane Watson, who would turn away whenever Masino brought out the video camera.
But the lure of new technology drew Watson in. Masino was showing off the digital camera he'd just been issued by the department, which takes instant electronic photos and stores them in its memory.
"He's like, 'That's really cool,'" Masino says. "So I say, 'Stand over there, I'll take your picture.' I even got him to pose twice. The first time he was hamming it up, so the second time, I said, 'Come on, Shane, be serious.'"
(Watson's attorney did not return repeated calls for comment.)
David Roland was the one Crip who didn't trust Officer Scott.
"He's a rat," Roland says. "The other guys, they thought he was cool. He wasn't cool."
With a laugh and a smile, he recounts trying to get the other dealers to be more careful. "I knew the whole time, he doesn't want to get you for weed," Roland says. "He wants to get you for crack so he can send you to prison. I told them. I told them all. They called him Officer Friendly. I just said, he ain't friendly. He's a snake."
Masino slowly won the trust of the Woodmar residents as well.
Residents were scared to talk. They knew there would be repercussions from the Crips. One man was beaten and dragged out in front of his neighbors for calling the police to complain about the noise from a gang member's stereo. Other witnesses to crimes just disappeared or refused to talk.
Then the Crips cut Linda Tye's phone lines because of her repeated calls to the police.
Masino told the gangsters, in front of Tye: "If anything happens to Miss Linda over there, I'm going to have this place under so many cops you'll think it was martial law."
He also got her a cell phone that dialed 911. The Crips didn't bother her again. It wasn't out of the goodness of their hearts, Masino believes. They just didn't want anything interrupting their business.
Even though he was well-liked by the gang-bangers, Masino still faced the threats. West Side City tolerated his presence, but the dealers wouldn't miss a chance to let him know who was boss.
"There would be times when I was surrounded by 15 or 20 guys, and they'd start saying, 'Hey, let's jump Officer Scott.' Fifteen or 20 guys and just me," Masino says.
At other times, Masino would find the laser sight from a gun pointed at his chest. "Just their way of trying to intimidate us," he says.
Occasionally, the intimidation went all the way up to gunfire.
Masino also worked at Woodmar on his nights off. He'd hand-picked a group of cops to work off-duty at the townhomes--"guys who wouldn't just put in their time and leave," he says. One of those was Tad Bowers, Masino's partner, a young guy with the vault-door build of a longtime gym rat.
While working off-duty last December, they had to arrest a suspect on a warrant. "Fifteen members were standing there while we were wrestling with this guy," Masino says, "and then we heard two gunshots. We couldn't even tell who fired them. I think they were just trying to get us to let him go."
Bowers adds, "They were all shouting, 'Take it easy on my cuz, man, take it easy on my cuz.' Then there was this POP-POP sound. We called 907 [Officer Needs Assistance]. Then all of these [squad] cars pull up, we hear sirens, we hear shotguns racking . . . we had officers everywhere."
The closest Masino came to a gunfight was when he approached a suspect in a dark alley, behind the Pine Ridge Apartments.
"He had a gun, and I had to draw down on him," Masino says. "I was alone, no back-up, and if he'd seen me just a second earlier, he would've been able to get the drop on me. I was lucky."
Based on Masino's information, the police prepared search warrants and fell on Woodmar like a bomb on February 5.
The weather was bad, Linda Tye remembers. "That rainy day," she says. "I've never seen it so bad, and I watch Cops every day. I had one foot out the door with my gandson, and I saw all these cops, and I said, 'Oh, Lord, it's a raid.' All of them were in that gear, the guns, the hoods, so you can't even see them except for their eyes."
The police locked down the entire area. Drug and gang officers worked with tactical officers to overwhelm the Crips.
Patti Hussey was on hand to watch the end of a long nightmare.
"There were just a phenomenal amount of people. There were copters, police cars, police officers everywhere. Oh, it was great," she says gleefully.
David Roland's memories of the bust aren't so fond.
Roland was cautious about his dealing. He only worked with a select group of customers who had his pager number. He wouldn't often sell to strangers.
Roland admits he screwed up. He can remember the exact sale to the undercover officer. The cop wasn't one of his regulars, "but this other guy vouched for him, so I thought that guy was cool. Made me mad."
Altogether, the police arrested 29 people and served half a dozen search warrants. Because of the weather, several members of West Side City weren't around, and had to be arrested at other locations.
Eight people have been charged so far. Roland, who was charged with possession of a narcotic, pleaded to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 89 days in jail (time served) and four years' probation. Two others have also copped pleas, but because of a computer switchover, the County Attorney's Office could not provide data on the resolution of those cases.
The five who have been arraigned face charges ranging from sale of narcotic drugs to conspiracy/assisting in a criminal syndicate to weapons charges.
Scott Masino was on hand for the bust, but no one saw him. His superiors wouldn't let him out of the van, fearing that someone would try to take revenge on dumb old Officer Scott.
Masino is quick to downplay his role.
"I ID'd these guys, yeah, but the drug enforcement and gang guys did this," he maintains. "It wasn't just Lieutenant Gentis and me. We'd know who they were, sure, but they'd still be here if somebody hadn't come in and arrested them."
And it wasn't just the arrests, Masino says. City of Phoenix Neighborhood Services stepped up its presence in the Woodmar area and gave grant money for improvements. Gentis worked with Paul Hamby and the fire department and the city to build a gate that would close down Crack Alley and meet zoning and fire regulations. The residents cooperated with the police despite the risk that the West Side City Crips would retaliate against them.
Gentis gives Masino much of the credit, however.
"Scott just refused to give up. He had it in his heart," Gentis says, tapping his Kevlar vest above the sternum.
The Woodmar IV complex at 43rd Avenue and Thomas really only comes alive at night: Kids run around the playground and battered lawns, families gather outside the doors of their apartments and the sound of guitars competes with the heavy thump of bass from stereos.
The shotgun blasts in the walls are filled in with putty. White paint covers the graffiti. In one condo, kids hide their stuffed animals in a floor safe where dealers used to stash drugs and money. A police office has been established in what used to be a vacant apartment. Residents can even use the pool.
"There are people swimming here now," Linda Tye says. "I didn't even know people swam around here before."
Patti Hussey and the owners of Woodmar have all written letters thanking and commending the Phoenix police.
"One of the police officers called me a while ago," Hussey says. "He said, 'Patti, you're not going to believe it: There are kids playing ball in Crack Alley!'"
The place is not yet perfect, not by a long shot. The police are still wary when they patrol the grounds. Hussey still takes her valuables out of her car and locks up the steering wheel with The Club. Cockroaches roam the alleys. There are still 911 calls.
There are some unexpected problems, too. People have embraced community policing "so much that they think we can do anything, and we can't," Gentis says. "We'll get calls from people who want us to go in and kick their neighbor's door down because he's playing his stereo too loud." Gentis has also heard complaints about "Block Watch Nazis" always carping about the rules.
Gentis is still wary. "It's tough, and I'm just as nervous today as I was six months ago because I don't want it to go back that way," he says.
But nobody deals drugs in Crack Alley anymore. The craps games are gone. The number of calls has dropped dramatically.
Most people are elated at how Woodmar has changed.
"Credit the Phoenix Police Department. Whatever they [the police] did, it worked," says Glen Woods, Linda Lloyd's boyfriend. "You couldn't walk through here without all these people coming up to you buying or selling. They are on the job this time. It is just amazing."
Lloyd adds, "There was one time we were really considering leaving. We were getting tired of laying on the floor. . . . We thought the police were just going to make an appearance and they wouldn't do anything, but they did. They really did."
Joyce Hamby: "I was ready to believe there were no good policemen left anymore. We called and called and called for someone to do something, and nothing got done. And then we met Scott and Lieutenant Gentis."
"Scott took it like a personal crusade," her husband adds. "This was something he was going to get done."
Other people at Woodmar sound a similar note: They call "Officer Scott" and "Officer Chris" their heroes.
Woodmar "has been successful because the people feel more secure," says Jim Rizer, the chief of the County Attorney's Repeat Offender and Gang Bureau. "We've made an impact on the population that lives there. That's why the police do these things--to show the law-abiding citizens we're out there and doing something for them."
Not everyone is overjoyed, though. Some younger residents feel like they've given up some of their freedom because of the police presence.
Andrea Portee, a 24-year-old resident of Pine Ridge for the past nine months, says she gets tired, sometimes, of being treated like a suspect.
"You get harassed a lot more," she says. "I'm over 21. I live here. I should be able to walk to Circle K past midnight without anyone asking me where I'm going."
Her boyfriend, Eric Davis, also worries that the new rules might have gone too far. He keeps a gun in his apartment for protection, he says, and he's not a gang-banger. But if management finds a gun in his apartment, he'll be evicted. "When I moved here, it was crazy. People would bust into your house, they wouldn't even care," he says.
Another young resident, who did not want his name used because he fears retaliation by the police, says it's just a lot duller than it used to be.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I've been in trouble before," he concedes. "And they're always looking at me funny now, like they're trying to get something on me when I haven't done anything."
But all three say that--"for the kids," especially--life is better now.
"The kids can play now," Portee says, hoisting a toddler into her arms. "I like that."
The prosecutions of people arrested in the Woodmar raid are ongoing. Some members of West Side City are still at large; the police believe they've left the state.
As for David Roland, he learned to hate jail quickly.
"I don't like doing time," he says vehemently. "I like being free. That was a hard three months. Pink drawers, pink socks, nasty food, nasty jail, no women."
He had no problems with other gangs while inside. "West Side is deep in jail," he says. Conflicts are more about race than gang colors. "In jail, you got to be with your race. Blacks click up, whites click up, Mexicans click up. It's just the way it is."
Jail turned Roland around, he says. He has a 1-year-old daughter, Tatianna, to provide for, and he can't do that behind bars. He pleaded to a lesser charge of possession, and since it was his first offense, the judge gave him probation and time served. He swears he wants to stay out of the life. He's trying to find a trade, he says. He thinks he'd be good at construction or carpentry.
"I never want to go back," he says. "There ain't no future there."
He adds that his homies' love for him seemed to evaporate at the jailhouse door. "Seems all cool and fun, but when you go to jail, they don't come to visit you," he says. "Only my family came and visited me."
But Roland isn't out of the gang completely--because you cannot amputate those connections easily.
"It's for life. You can leave away from it, but it never leaves you. You leave the neighborhood, but the neighborhood never leaves you," he says.
Scott Masino still patrols off-duty at Woodmar, recently with Tad Bowers, David Mendoza and another cop from the gang unit, Donny Corey.
Masino is more like an armed dorm counselor than a cop on this night: First, he and the other officers stop a kid who appeared to hide something in a carport. They detain a carload of trespassers who are drinking beer. None of them speaks English, so Mendoza is stuck doing double duty, translating.
"I don't think you even speak Spanish, Dave," Masino says after a while. "I think you just nod and then you make it up."
Then, on the other side of the complex, Masino has to chew out two teenage girls who are playing on a neighbor's roof. After that, he gets lip from a group of teens out after curfew.
Masino sighs heavily and runs his hands over his face. He's "about ready to pull his hair out tonight," he says as he walks back to the police office.
Then he grins. "Not that I'm complaining," he says. "I'd much rather deal with this than what used to go on here. If this is as bad as it gets, that's fine by me."
Contact Chris Farnsworth at 602-229-8430 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org