Invisible Scourge

In the past three years, the rate of gang homicides in Phoenix has skyrocketed by nearly 90 percent. In 1996, street gang members killed nine people. In 1997, 11 people were murdered by gangs. In 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, 17 people died at the hands of gangs in Phoenix.

That's 37 gangland murders in three years.

These numbers were not noted in the media.

In the wake of eight months of relentless media coverage of the shootings at Columbine High School, the nation's top state prosecutors gathered in Phoenix earlier this month for a conference.

The National Association of Attorneys General wanted to let everyone know that they, too, were committed to ending the "outbreak" of school shootings.

So they enlisted the help of MTV.

On December 2, the prosecutors sponsored a "forum" at Horizon High School in northeast Phoenix. The purpose: to discuss "options" to fend off future Columbine-like school shootings in Arizona.

Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano announced to the audience of students, parents, politicos and, of course, attorneys general, that preventing violence against youths is a "national priority."

Then she turned over the microphone to Ananda Lewis, the star MTV emcee. Teens concurred with Lewis that it is preferable to "talk things out" than to ice each other in the library.

"It's amazing what can be accomplished if we could only talk things out more often," Lewis said.

Under a headline that read, "Looking for options to stop the violence in schools, Arizona students fight back," a December 3 Arizona Republic article about the forum failed to note that not a single public school student died in a hail of gunfire in an Arizona classroom this year.

Or last year.

Or the year before that.

Or, our research indicates, ever.

And if gangs were mentioned during the AG-MTV talk fest, the Arizona Republic did not report it, nor did it note that gang-related incidents were documented in at least 25 percent of the state's schools last year.

But in fact, gangs pose a far greater threat across America to juveniles and adults alike than psychotic teenage marksmen like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

From October 1997 to April 1999, a total of 29 people -- students and teachers -- were killed in school shootings in the United States, according to Time magazine.

In contrast to the 29 people who died in school shootings in the past two years, 4,251 gang-related murders took place in this country's major cities during the same time frame. The data come from the Tallahassee-based National Youth Gang Center, a division of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is the only agency that collects national numbers on gang-related crime.

Most cities in the country have experienced decreases in gang-related homicides since 1996, the last year for which statistics are available.

At the very time gang homicides have decreased in most communities, Phoenix is one of the few cities where gang-related homicides increased, says David Curry, a University of Missouri criminology professor who has pulled homicide numbers from the database of the center in Tallahassee. In fact, Phoenix was the only city among the nation's 10 largest that experienced a steady increase in its gang-homicide rate.

Los Angeles and Chicago, two cities known for their gang problems, saw 44 percent and 19 percent decreases in gang homicides, respectively, during the very same years that Phoenix suffered a 90 percent increase in gang murders.

"Whatever caused crime in general and gang homicides in particular to begin declining is not happening . . ." in Phoenix, says Curry.

Gang homicides rose in Phoenix even as overall crime rates decreased in Arizona, following a national trend.

And today, there are more gang members in Phoenix than ever before, according to Phoenix police records. In 1996, Phoenix police documented 4,136 gang members. By the end of 1998, the number of documented gang members had risen to 6,776.

A rise in gang membership generally signifies a rise in gang crimes. Researchers have discovered that gang members commit three to four times as many crimes as non-gang members, including juvenile delinquents and regular criminals.

In a 1998 city-sponsored "Community Attitude Survey," Phoenix residents listed the need to "combat" gang crime as the top priority. In fact, 73 percent of Phoenicians reported in the survey that they would be willing to pay more money to fund "programs to counter gang activities" within the city limits.

If ordinary citizens are distressed by current gang violence, the media are generally loath to cover it meaningfully or consistently. The three-year surge in gang-related murders in Phoenix, for instance, has been all but invisible because it has not been reported in the state's press.

This year, in the state's largest newspaper, Columbine took up the ink with approximately 600 stories mentioning the Colorado shooting. Last month, for example, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix, inevitably, would have its own Columbine.

On November 24, the Republic reported the arrests of two white 16-year-olds, Christopher Ciulla and Matthew Russ, who were charged with attempted murder in connection with an alleged plot to kill fellow students at Moon Valley High School. The Moon Valley case was "eerily reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado," the Republic said.

In fact, the Moon Valley case was eerily reminiscent of gang violence.

According to a police report obtained by New Times, several teens told police that Ciulla, a member of a "tagging crew" called "Destructive Children," or DC, was upset because a fellow DC member had been shot at (drive-by style) by members of another "tagging crew" -- Ditching Cop Krew, or DCK. Fortunately for the intended victim, the shooter missed.

To avenge the alleged drive-by, Ciulla tagged DCK's on-campus meeting place -- a park bench -- with the letters DC.

And then to avenge the tagging, DCK members reportedly threatened to kill Ciulla.

So Ciulla, police say, plotted to burglarize a house known to have weapons, then planned to shoot DCK kids during lunch.

For one year, New Times has written about gangs in Phoenix and other parts of the Valley. To report the "Hard Core" series, staff writers covered every aspect of gang life -- from the gangs themselves, their neighborhoods, their culture, their commerce, their victims and their crimes to prevention programs and intervention programs and pilot programs and even programs designed to monitor programs. New Times writers talked to gang members, their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, their pastors. The newspaper interviewed nationally known criminologists, as well as police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and social workers. Staff writers covered court trials involving gang-related crimes and also analyzed special laws that pertain to gangs. New Times reviewed numerous gang-related databases and conducted computer-assisted searches of 10 years of gang coverage in the state's largest daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic.

We learned:

• Media coverage of gangs is uneven and often police-driven. Following police recommendations, the press itself frequently withholds information on gangs from readers. "You [the press] give them notoriety, that's what they want," says Sergeant Paul Ferrero, of the Phoenix Police anti-gang unit. Police believe glorymongering gang members get off on seeing their names in print, and are prompted to commit more crimes when they read about themselves. Arizona Republic "Reader Advocate" Richard De Uriarte says the newspaper tries to cooperate with police and does not name gangs unless they are "integral" to the story. But those stories are rare. In most articles published in 1999, readers were not informed of gang affiliations.

Although some gang stories in the Republic were well-researched and informative, especially in 1993 and 1994, when law enforcement agencies were seeking more money for anti-gang initiatives, the newspaper has not published a single in-depth, project-level series on gangs in 10 years.

• In comparison to the dearth of gang stories, the media devote considerable time to stories about child drownings and people who lost their lives to domestic violence or random gunfire. Yet in 1998, 12 people were killed by domestic violence while 17 were killed by gangs. And a total of 28 children drowned in Phoenix in 1996, 1997 and 1998, compared to 37 people who died at the hands of gangs in those same three years.

• The media often balk at airing anti-gang public-service announcements, or PSAs. The reason: By depicting minority gang members, the PSA messages could be construed as racist or politically incorrect. Those PSAs that include gangs into a more general anti-violence message get more air time ("Is It Time to Pull the Thug?" Michael Kiefer, November 11).

• At both the national and state levels, gang-related homicides and other crimes are underreported. The FBI, which gathers crime statistics nationwide, does not require reporting police agencies to single out gang crimes.

And police departments disagree over what, exactly, constitutes a gang-related homicide. In Los Angeles, police say any murder committed by a gang member counts as a gang-related killing. In Phoenix, police use a more conservative method. They count a murder as gang-related only when a gang member kills a person while doing official gang business. Cities that follow the Los Angeles method would log twice as many gang-related homicides.

• There is no law enforcement agency in Arizona that meaningfully monitors statewide gang crime statistics.

• State commissions set up by the Legislature to oversee programs and gang-related crime are all but paralyzed by neglect, incompetence and lack of funding.

• Gangs themselves use intimidation and retaliation to further shroud gang activity in Arizona. Far from being the glorymongering chatterboxes portrayed by police, gang members were reluctant to talk to New Times, and actually threatened to kill sources who cooperated with the newspaper. After New Times interviewed Larry Jack, for example, about a crackhouse killing ("Larry Jack's Last Shot," Michael Lacey, March 25), Jack received a death threat from the Broadway Gangsters. In another case, the West Side City Crips ordered a hit on fellow member David Roland, a.k.a. Wink Dawg, after he granted an interview for a New Times story on a police crackdown of a Maryvale apartment building that had been taken over by the gang ("Crackdown," Chris Farnsworth, June 24).

• Gangs terrorize trial witnesses routinely, and this year went so far as to threaten prosecutor Laura Reckart as she prepared to prosecute 10 members of the Park South Crips for raping a mentally retarded girl ("The Gang's All Fear," Paul Rubin, September 30). When an attorney asked accused rapist TaRon "T-Bone" Auzenne if he knew what the word "intimidation" meant, T-Bone answered: "To put fear in people's hearts."

All of these factors contribute to the invisibility of gang murders in Arizona.

There is not a single agency or police department within Arizona that tracks statewide gang crime, and policymaking groups charged with monitoring gangs in Arizona are in a state of disarray. Absent meaningful statewide gang crime data, Arizona's gang problem cannot be realistically assessed. The Arizona Department of Public Safety gathers crime statistics from all police agencies. But the type of reporting conforms to the FBI system and does not separate gang-related crimes from other crimes. A sub-unit of DPS, the Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission, or GITEM, has never collected gang-related crime data. GITEM counts gang members, gathers intelligence on gangs and assists local police on occasion but cannot tell you whether gang-related homicides have increased.

The Arizona Drug and Gang Policy Council was legislatively mandated to monitor state programs dealing with substance abuse and gangs. (Gangs were added in 1996.) In 1998, the state spent $87 million for 824 substance abuse and gang prevention programs.

The council is charged with the very serious responsibility of determining whether taxpayer-funded gang programs are working.

But there's a problem: The council doesn't have a penny to spend on assessing gang programs.

Because the Legislature refused to fund the council, it has been forced to rely on federal grants that deal only with substance abuse programs. Such funds, according to an April 1999 audit by the Arizona auditor general, cannot be spent on anything to do with gangs. An impoverished subsidiary of the council, the Drug and Gang Prevention Resource Center, a clearinghouse for gang program information, hobbles along with a small share of Superior Court fees. In 1999, its total budget was $207,400.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission is legislatively mandated to assess "the status of street gangs and related crime" and has the statutory authority to demand gang crime statistics from all police agencies. But it has neither requested such numbers nor tracked gang crime. The commission languished without a director or key statistician for the past six months, and has been neglected by Governor Jane Hull, who has failed for months to fill five vacancies on the commission itself. Rex Holgerson, the commission's former executive director who "resigned" last summer, was not replaced until early December. Of Holgerson, Commission Chairwoman Barbara LaWall will only say: "We hadn't taken a look at what he was doing and given him guidance as a commission. . . . The commission did not oversee him; he had been doing things the way they had always been done."

Which was poorly.

The auditor general noted the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission representative attended only two Drug and Gang Council meetings since 1995.

The commission even failed to put out its annual report on street gangs this year.

Without the necessary oversight from state agencies, without responsible media coverage, without accurate police data, media-driven public officials engage in acts of denial, neglect or foolishness.

There is an astounding gang problem in Guadalupe, where, according to police records, 350 hard-core gang members intimidate the town's 5,000 residents, who are mostly Yaqui Indians and Latinos. Yet town leaders, who vigorously promote tourism, deny any gang problem exists. When New Times asked former Guadalupe mayor and current town council member Anna Hernandez to comment on the gang plague, she replied: "I hang out with my prayer group; does that mean we're a gang? . . . It is safer in Guadalupe than almost anyplace in Arizona" ("Loco Motive," Terry Greene Sterling, August 26).

In February, four people were executed in a crackhouse on East Chipman Street in south Phoenix ("Life and Death in a Crackhouse," Michael Lacey, March 18). Within 48 hours, a second crackhouse shooting just a few blocks away, on Pueblo Street, produced another corpse and wounded four others, including a toddler.

One survivor of the Pueblo blood bath, 26-year-old Larry Jack, told New Times the second round of shootings was meant to silence anyone who would talk to police about the first massacre, which stemmed from a simmering hatred between the Broadway Gangsters and the Park South Crips.

Reacting to the carnage in the 24th Street and Broadway neighborhood, Mayor Skip Rimsza sensed a photo op and vowed to tear down a market where crack dealers hung out. He announced to the press that he would raze "Key's Market," to take care of the problem of gangs.

But the mayor was misguided. Key's Market had been torn down 10 years before in an earlier vain attempt to eradicate gangs and drug dealing. Mayor Rimsza meant to say that the city would tear down Rainbow Market, as if the neighborhood's malaise -- the gangs, the drugs, the poverty -- was somehow linked to a grocery store. The mayor promised problems would vanish with the wrecking ball.

Rainbow Market was leveled.

But of course the gangs stayed. The drug dealers stayed. The people were still poor.

Last month, long after Rainbow Market was replaced by a dusty lot, two undercover Phoenix police officers were lured to an apartment on Pueblo Street. The officers were trying to buy crack cocaine, which is controlled by local gangs. When the cops blew their cover, they tried to escape but were blocked from leaving the apartment complex. They were assaulted by the drug dealers.

The next day, Stephanie Jack was arrested and charged with kidnaping for her role in confining the officers to the Pueblo complex.

She is Larry Jack's sister.

Nothing changes in the neighborhood.

State Senator Chris Cummiskey is widely viewed as a rising star in Arizona's rudderless Democratic party. He prides himself on responding to his constituents.

And judging from two recent initiatives he's sponsored, Cummiskey and his constituents are media-driven. If it's on the front page, it's on Cummiskey's legislative agenda.

In the wake of the Columbine massacre, Cummiskey and Republican Senator Tom Freestone established the SAFE (Safety Answers for Education) Commission, which hosted well-publicized hearings around the state. Views expressed at those hearings will lead to proposals in the upcoming legislative session.

"The worst thing that we could do in light of the tragic events in Littleton is pretend that these horrific acts can't happen in Arizona," Cummiskey wrote in a September op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic.

Cummiskey also is the driving force behind "Shannon's Law," inspired by the death of a north Phoenix girl who was struck by random fire. Cummiskey says he spends two to three hours a day working on "Shannon's Law."

Yet New Times found no record of anyone being killed in an Arizona public-school classroom. And the numbers of people killed or hurt by random gunfire is minuscule compared to the number felled by gang crime.

Cummiskey replies to these points by explaining that he must respond to the concerns of constituents.

"Most legislators don't come in contact with the violence that's occurring when it comes to gangs," Cummiskey tells New Times.

In his north central Phoenix District 25, Cummiskey says, "the things that I'm responsive to in terms of the constituency are usually not gang-related. I haven't received a call in probably three years that says we have to do something about gangs."

He says the Legislature has not been farsighted when it comes to gang prevention and intervention programs, and suggests that it's up to Arizonans and lawmakers from heavily affected districts to make an issue of gang violence.

"In order to make this issue a legislative priority, you need broad-based community hearings, spearheaded by legislators from those districts," Cummiskey says -- apparently oblivious to the fact that his district is one of "those districts."

Three zip codes inside Cummiskey's district are ranked in the county's top 10 for youth violence.

Although Governor Jane Hull has failed to appoint members to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission for months, she took time to unveil her very own "Arizona's Compact to Improve Our Neighborhoods" on December 6. The governor proposes to assemble $6 million from state agencies, then turn around and pass out grants to combat neighborhood blight throughout Arizona. That includes fighting gangs. Or getting a job. Or sobering up. Or combating any other number of social maladies. Only a fraction of the $6 million will actually address gangs.

While the governor could only amass $6 million to combat statewide social problems that included gangs, the Arizona Humane Society managed to raise $6 million for the care of dogs and cats in Maricopa County in 1999.

If Arizona is going to address growing gang membership as well as the increase in gang homicides, the state will need a more informed understanding of the problem and a better sense of priorities.

Norma Gomez, Lauren Cooper, Jordan Sterling and Sheila DeBenedetto assisted with research for this story.

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437 or at her online address:


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