Gangs change street culture
Police face wall of silence because witnesses fear reprisals if they report crimes
By Joe Anuta, Howard Koplowitz, Ivan Pereira and Christina Santucci
December 28, 2011
Last year 43 lives were lost to murder in southeast Queens.
It is difficult to determine how many of the 43 homicides were gang-related, but gang violence and easy access to guns coupled with an unwillingness of witnesses to come forward have made it hard for police and prosecutors to do their jobs.
Law enforcement officers have yet to make arrests in 25 of those 43 murders, which occurred in three police precincts yet accounted for nearly half of the 100 murders throughout the borough last year. Those precincts -- the 103rd, 105th and 113th --cover the neighborhoods of Jamaica, St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Laurelton, Brookville, Springfield Gardens, Rochdale Village, Hollis, New Hyde Park, Bellerose and Rosedale.
Tracking the role of gangs in the murders is a formidable task. Officials say even if a gang member commits a murder, the killing is not necessarily gang-related. But community leaders contend the presence of gangs in southeast Queens has contributed to a growing culture of violence in which disputes are too often settled with bullets.
Of the 43 murders, at least one was allegedly committed by a gang member, according to Long Island prosecutors.
Luis Cherry, who the Suffolk County district attorney's office believes is a member of the Crips, is charged with the Oct. 11, 2010 killing of 26-year-old Tony McFadden, Jr. II. McFadden was not a member of any gang and led a non-violent lifestyle, including singing during Sunday services at his father's Jamaica church, in Queens.
Cherry, who is also accused of being one of two shooters in a Suffolk County murder, allegedly rang the doorbell to the South Jamaica home where McFadden was living, asked for him by name and then fatally shot him, according to police.
Out of the 43 murders in southeast Queens last year, 35 involved guns, according to police records analyzed by TimesLedger Newspapers. In 16 of those gun-related murders, the victim was shot in the head -- the most common cause of death.
This third part of an investigative series by TimesLedger Newspapers on the 43 murders explores the uneasy relationship between the authorities and the community, the changing nature of gangs in the borough, the availability of guns and how two brothers who formerly ran a high-profile Queens gang now use that experience on the streets to lead youngsters away from a life of crime.
There is no easy solution to ending the unforgiving cycle of murders in southeast Queens.
According to police statistics through Dec. 11, the number of homicides in 2011 fell to 32 as compared to 48 in the same time-frame of 2010. A spokesman for the NYPD said its homicide rate last year was higher than the 43 tracked by TimesLedger because police included victims who died in 2010 from injuries sustained in crimes in earlier years.
However, southeast Queens leaders say the frequency of killings, which has taken many lives of young nameless, faceless black men, is still far too high in the three precincts.
"The biggest obstacle is witness cooperation. The missing piece is the community. How do we make cases? How do we stop shootings?" said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to what is commonly known as the no-snitch culture. "Our hands are tied. We have to prove our cases."
The source said that witnesses are primarily afraid of retaliation, while another factor is the upheaval that sometimes comes with cooperating with investigators.
"How many people want to be relocated?" the source said.
City Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton) witnesses the no-snitch culture firsthand in his district.
He sees the lack of cooperation with authorities as a widespread problem, but looking through the eyes of many of his constituents, he said officers are not making it easy on themselves, especially when they engage in the controversial policy of "stop and frisk."
"It is leading to a community disinvestment," Sanders said. "Police are not seen as friendly Officer Joe on the corner, but the force that pulls up suddenly, throws you up against the wall and goes through your pockets."
The NYPD declined to comment about the councilman's claim.
Sanders hopes that more training could lead to a better relationship between police and the community, which in turn could help law enforcement crack more cases.
But despite the barrier of silence that is often erected between the NYPD and residents, authorities have put a lot of resources into tracking the growth of gangs in Queens.
GANGS IN QUEENS
Gangs started appearing in the borough in the early 1990s, when the Hispanic gang Latin Kings was dominant.
Around that time, predominant black gangs that originated in Los Angeles - the Bloods and the Crips - established themselves in the city.
"We never thought we'd see the Bloods and the Crips because that was so California," the law enforcement source said. But fighting between Bloods and Crips members, who were bitter rivals, was detected by law enforcement in Queens around 1999.
"The breeding ground was schools," the source said. "Now we've seen gangs in elementary school."
Gangs are becoming more sophisticated in the way they communicate with one another - oftentimes through social media and texting - and in showing their affiliations, authorities said.
"That's the way [gang members] communicate with your children -- what gang they are in," said a member of the DOE's Gang Intelligence Unit during a presentation in November describing small graffiti tags on book bags and different colors in the lining of clothes.
On display for parents at that presentation were items like belt buckles that hid knives and box cutters. Even a comb pulled apart to reveal a shank.
Large gangs such as the Bloods and Crips have seen their influence wane in favor of smaller gangs, according to Michael Rourke, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Manhattan office.
"What we're seeing is a rise of these localized, neighborhood gangs," he said. "They're fighting over turf as opposed to an ethos or an ideology."
These pocket gangs, sources said, are adept at using technology and communicate with each other over Facebook and Twitter, making it easier for crews to gather a group of people together to settle a beef quickly.
Due to their smaller size, these gangs are harder for law enforcement to identify.
"We are looking for that structure sometimes and we don't see it as clearly as with the larger gangs," Rourke said.
FBI officials said that these localized gangs may be as violent or even more so than larger groups.
And that increase in violence reflects a shift away from traditional gang enterprise, according to Sanders.
The bigger gangs certainly engage in violent behavior, but one of their main functions is selling drugs, the councilman said. And in the business of pushing drugs, violence is bad for profits.
"They don't want any crime taking place. Crime brings the police," he said. "They want nice, passive, they want everything quiet. So when you take away the businessmen, now you have the rivals, the next group."
KING OF KINGS
Todd and Lance Feurtado are two brothers who made millions running a notorious drug gang in the borough but now work to steer young people away from violence. They once headed the Seven Crowns outfit in southeast Queens in the 1970s and 1980s. They, too, have noticed a shift in how conflicts are dealt with on the streets, where today's youth are more prone to settling scores with guns than earlier gangs were.
After being released from prison in 2003, the Feurtados started the King of Kings Foundation, designed to prevent youth in Queens and other parts of the city from turning to drugs and violence. It was a remarkable change in priorities for the brothers, who said at one time their gang made $30 million a week and they became millionaires before their 20th birthdays.
"We were trendsetters, but we weren't violent," Todd Feurtado said. "And that's not to say that if someone thought we might've wanted a foot to trip Johnny, Johnny didn't get tripped, but we don't condone stuff like that and if there was ever a time where Richie and Harold were getting ready to clash with each other, back then we were even mediators back then, so we were anti-violence."
Lance Feurtado said the streets of southeast Queens during his heyday "had rules. There were laws. There were rules, codes and there was a level of respect.
"Today's youth ... they're just running reckless. They have no sense of direction at all and they have this whole, 'I don't care,' attitude," he said.
The Seven Crowns, the brothers said, was strictly about making money and not about instilling fear or violence while today's gangs might even target those with no gang affiliation.
"If you were a civilian, then you were a civilian," Lance Feurtado said. "There was no going out and taking down a civilian. We were respecters of life and we respected our neighborhood and our communities. We believed in the preservation of life. We didn't take lives or nothing like that."
Lance Feurtado said today's youth have more opportunities to get into trouble, especially drug dealers who distribute their wares outside corner stores.
"Back in our day and time, stores didn't stay open 24 hours, so you couldn't hang out in front of a store at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning. Now you got cats hanging out at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning in front of stores. You could just be going in the store to grab knick-knacks and they look at you like you're prey."
In some areas of southeast Queens, all it takes is a knock on your neighbor's door to get a gun.
State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) said he believes a third of the killings in southeast Queens in 2010 could be attributed to so-called "social guns."
Smith said a gun owner will bury the firearm in bushes or another secret spot and share it with the community, renting it out for hours or a day at a time.
A law enforcement source attributed the use of social guns to the economics of an area - residents of southeast Queens may not be able to afford their own gun.
"It's called a neighborhood gun," Smith said. "Forty years ago, kids were fighting with their hands."
About 90 percent of guns used in crimes come from out of state and of those, 90 percent are illegal, according to the state attorney general's office.
Smith said he believes most of the murders last year were due to retaliation, but it was unclear why the arguments started in the first place.
"Why the murders have gone up? That's anybody's guess," Smith said. "People are concerned, there's no question about it."