Potential for gang violence anywhere in city, says top prosecutor protecting Jacksonville


http://jacksonville.com/news/crime/2015-05-24/story/potential-gang-violence-anywhere-city-says-top-prosecutor-protecting

He’s been the local prosecution’s version of Eliot Ness in the never-ending battle against Jacksonville’s gangsters and has more work than ever, with no end in sight.

Assistant State Attorney Rich Mantei began prosecuting the city’s criminal gangs about 10 years ago after police rounded up the Pickettville Boys, responsible for 17 drug-related murders in and around a number of Northside neighborhoods.

Years later, Mantei took on a gang of killers and drug dealers who terrorized the Grand Park area. Seven people were prosecuted under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly called RICO, which allows prosecutors to bundle actions together and point to them as proof of a criminal racket. The charges carry stiffer penalties than street-level crimes.

After Jacksonville police conducted a startling news conference last month tying at least three recent killings to gang rivalries, Mantei began talking with reporters for the first time about the makeup of the gangs, the threats they pose citywide and his drive to continue taking the fight to the enemy.

Noting that crime boss Al Capone was eventually imprisoned on tax-evasion charges, Mantei said he and his fellow prosecutors and police are doing what it takes within the law to bust up the growing number of local gangs.

If I can put [away] a gangster who I know has been responsible for several shootings, but the only case I can make on him is one of ID fraud or whatever, we need to make that case,” said Mantei, a prosecutor since 2000. “We need to make it stick.”

Jacksonville police, who not too long ago were hesitant to admit publicly that gangs were in the city, recently said they have documented 47 gangs around town with as many as 1,200 members. A chunk are based in northwest neighborhoods, though they also haunt Arlington, the Westside, the Eastside and all points in between.

Recent gang attacks have occurred at a busy Westside intersection, where two people were shot, and the killing of a man parked in a McDonald’s off Cassat Avenue near Interstate 10. Mantei said people who don’t think such violence — or crimes like burglaries used by gangs to finance themselves — could be creeping around the next corner are mistaken.

“Just because you’re living in Riverside or wherever doesn’t mean that this isn’t going to have a direct effect on you,” Mantei said.

GENERATIONS, GUNS AND GLORY

Today’s local gangs include the children and other family members of yesterday’s gang leaders, many of whom are dead, in prison or simply gave up the lifestyle. Other members take up the mantle left by those from the same neighborhoods.

“Most of them [the gangs] go through periods of activity and dormancy,” Mantei said. “They’re not the same people necessarily, but oftentimes there are interrelationships and generational ties.”

The members are becoming younger and better armed. Assault rifles are being whipped out and bullets sprayed with no regard for what they hit or the terror left behind for innocent residents.

Many guns are bought at gun shops or shows by people able to make the purchases who then sell them to felons. The guns are also stolen in burglaries, including targeted break-ins of police officers’ cars and homes, Mantei said.

“There certainly is no shortage of artillery,” he said of the firepower.

Many gangs are involved in taking pictures and filming videos posted on social media under the guise of being real entertainment. Hip-hop and rap music plays while members flash guns. Children are often used as props. Some gangs even have designated promoters.

Mantei said they call themselves entertainment groups for various motives, including an attempt to avoid being prosecuted as a criminal enterprise. One local gang even notes on its Facebook page that it’s not a gang at all.

Two members from separate gangs who met with a Times-Union reporter insisted the videos and pictures are meant to attract national music producers who could make them famous and help them escape poverty. But those gang members declined several requests for more in-depth, sit down interviews intended explore all aspects of their groups, including their criminal histories.

The likelihood of any of them becoming entertainment stars is as far-fetched as the countless youths who believe they will be professional athletes one day. The truth, Mantei said, is that the images are used by gangs to taunt each other, recruit new members and simply show off.

“Thirty-five percent of them are pointing guns at the camera and the remaining two-thirds are flipping the bird,” Mantei said. “That’s not entertainment. They don’t divorce reality from fantasy.”

The gangs continue to use drug selling and related crimes — burglaries, robberies, thefts — as fund-raising sources. But they have also turned to more white-collar crimes — income tax fraud and selling and buying EBT cards — as a way to supplement the more traditional sources of money, Mantei said.

BEEFS, BRAWLS AND BULLETS

Unresolved disputes started by some former and current gang members years ago are still being settled in 2015, with one-time victims becoming shooters, Mantei said.

People are still carrying some of those old grudges,” he said.

Newer disputes, ranging from turf wars to disrespecting a fellow gang member, fuel what are already bitter rivalries. Those turf wars includes fights over swaths of neighborhoods, where protecting drug corners is key to financing the gangs.

One such rivalry involves gangs from the Eastside and Grand Park whose attacks on each other include a number of recent unsolved slayings and shootings.

Many gang members come from broken homes in poor neighborhoods. But Mantei said in his many discussions with arrested gang members, he’s found a number from stable, supportive families.

“They have everything they need,” Mantei said, “and they chose to affiliate with some of these individuals. It’s that affiliation that gets them into trouble.”

He also said people join the gangs for reasons as old as becoming a Jet or a Shark decades ago.

“To some of them, it’s simply an identity, a belonging,” Mantei said. “It’s like, OK, I didn’t make the football team or the basketball team, but here’s my team.”

The hierarchy includes “shot callers,” who control finances and drug supplies, and grunts, whose jobs are to take orders to steal cars to kill rivals as a way to gain respect and status.

“You tend to be more of a decision-maker,” he said of the shot callers.

‘MURDER IS MURDER’

Most neighborhoods affected by gangs are filled with people who want to live in peace, Mantei said.

“There are a lot of people who live in these neighborhoods who take no part in this activity, want no part of this activity,” he said.

They are essentially held hostage, he said.

And while he encourages the public to help police by providing information about gang members, he said he understands the fear of retaliation by exposed gangs.

“People are so scared that the next round of bullets is going to find its way through their living-room window, they don’t want to talk and would rather pretend it didn’t happen or pretend it won’t effect them,” he said. “Meanwhile, the problem feeds on itself.”

Mantei said he is working on two or three new racketeering investigations but declined to discuss specifics. He said he remains determined to prosecute any gang members, no matter who is victimized, to help stop the violence.

I’m going to go as hard after a guy who kills a rival gang member as someone who kills an innocent bystander,” he said. “Murder is murder.”

Jim Schoettler: (904) 359-4385

IT’S THE LAW:

A criminal gang under Florida law is described as a formal or informal ongoing organization, association, or group that has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts, and that consists of three or more persons who have a common name or common identifying signs, colors, or symbols, including, but not limited to, terrorist organizations and hate groups.

A criminal gang member under Florida law is a person who:

■ Admits to gang membership.

■ Is identified as a gang member by a parent/guardian.

■ Is identified as a gang member by a documented reliable informant.

■ Adopts the style of dress of a gang.

■ Flashes a hand sign identified as used by a gang.

■ Has a gang tattoo.

■ Associates with one or more known gang members.

■ Is identified as a gang member by an informant of previously untested reliability who is corroborated by independent information.

■ Is identified as a gang member by physical evidence.

■ Has been observed in the company of one or more known criminal gang members four or more times. Observation in a custodial setting requires a willful association. It is the intent of the Legislature to allow this criterion to be used to identify gang members who recruit and organize in jails, prisons, and other detention settings.

■ Has authored any communication indicating responsibility for the commission of any crime by the criminal gang.

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