the Other Gang Wars

Dallas has almost as many gang-fighting groups as It does gangs. And they’re all battling each other.

IT IS THE BIGGEST TURF WAR TO ERUPT IN THE CITY: NAME-calling, fighting and back-stabbing occur each day.

But not among street gangs.

Dallas’ top three gang intervention groups, the Dallas Police Department and the district attorney and attorney general’s offices hurl barbs back and forth like bullets in a drive-by shooting.

All involved say their purpose is altruistic-to reduce gang violence on the streets of Dallas. But their message is sometimes difficult to hear over the din of their territorial disputes.

The gang-fighting business in Dallas is a paradox, and the so-called solutions have become part of the problem.

On January 29, 1992, two young boys, age 12 and 13, run away from Holmes Street Foundation, a juvenile facility in South Dallas. They are armed with a .38 revolver, which they stole from an employee.

The 13-year-old is a member of a Pleasant Grove gang.

First, the pair stop at a convenience store and hold up a customer at gunpoint, for “something stupid, like potato chips,” says a Dallas County prosecutor.

The boys wander around the rest of the day and, by nightfall, are in the Dallas suburb of Pleasant Grove. They hook up with two more friends, who are members of the same gang.

One of the boys asks how they are going to get back to the other side of town.

“I’ll get a car,” says the 13-year-old, and crosses the street to an Exxon station. But the 12-year-old is already there, his gun pointed at Benito Reyes, 24, who is on the pay phone. His car, a Geo Prizm, is parked nearby.

“Give me your car!” shouts the 12-year-old.

As Reyes turns around to the small voice behind him, he is shot once in the throat and falls to the ground, dead. The 13-year-old jumps in the driver’s seat of the car, the 12-year-old hops into the passenger’s side, and they start it up. But the car does not move.

Neither of the boys knows how to drive a stick shift.

The two run from the scene, tossing the ,38 into bushes nearby. A few days later, Dallas police arrest them.

On March 16, the 12-year-old is sentenced to 30 years for murder. Later that month, the 13-year-old is sentenced to 20 years for aiding and assisting in murder. Both boys are now living at the Texas Youth Commission’s facility in Giddings, Texas.

The Dallas Police Department’s gang unit never knew about the crime.

The homicide, along with five others that occurred from January to May 1992, were prosecuted by the special gang unit of the Dallas County district attorney’s office. During this time, the Dallas Police Department’s gang unit listed the number of gang-related homicides as four. Yet none of the crimes listed on the DPD gang unit’s roster match up with the crimes prosecuted by the district attorney’s office.

“Obviously, we missed some,” says Deputy Chief Ray Hawkins of the Dallas Police Department’s family violence division, which oversees the gang unit.

In 1991, they missed a few more. While the DA processed 15 gang-related homicides, the police department’s gang unit reported only 11. At least seven of the gang-related murders reported by the police department do not correspond with those prosecuted by the DA’s office.

Ask anyone but the DPD gang unit if gang-related crimes are increasing, and the response is a resounding yes-the numbers are escalating, and at an alarming rate.

Dallas has one of the highest rates of juvenile violent crime in the state-from 1990 to 1991, it increased 24 percent-and it appears that these numbers are continuing to rise. On any given day, the detention center is filled to capacity with juveniles who’ve committed violent crimes. For example, on June 4,1992, 16 juveniles were in detention for murder, capital murder and attempted murder in Dallas, compared to 10 on that same day the previous year.

Judge Hal Gaither, who presides over juvenile cases in the 304th District Court in Dallas, estimates that well over half of the cases he tries are gang-related. “I am just going over the detention list, and circling the ones that are there for murder or capital murder, and I’m on page two already…,” he says, marking them with a yellow highlighter, “.. .and I’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10-on two pages.”

Yet that same month, June 1992, the Dallas Police Department widely reported that gang-related crimes were down 17 percent, capturing front-page headlines in The Dallas Morning News.

“Is gang crime going down?” laughs John Sholden, who, along with Janet Wright, compose the district attorney’s special gang prosection unit. “Not from what’s on my desk.”

His desk is covered with manila file folders, stacked like pancakes, all stamped with a large, red “G,” for gang-related.

Why then, are the courts filled with cases that the DPD’s Why unit either knows nothing about or selectively chooses not to include in its statistics?

Says one Dallas county prosecutor: “It’s a matter of turf”

Gang unit officers complain that the other departments, especially homicide, don’t let them in on cases that they know to be gang-related. Homicide cases, for example, are sent directly to the DA’s office for prosecution by the DPD’s homicide division. The police department’s gang unit does not assist in investigations with officers from other divisions, as it claims, because it is usually not called in to help. According to one high-ranking police department official, neither department trusts the other and, therefore, information is rarely shared.

When 18-year-old Pleasant Grove gang member Jestin Matthew Turner was indicted for murder in June for fatally shooting a grocery store manager in January 1991, Mickey East, the gang unit officer most familiar with Turner’s gang, knew nothing about it. Homicide detective Linda Erwin, who investigated the Turner case and helped process the indictment, refused to be interviewed for this story. East would not comment on the case.

“Have they earned the right to expect the rest of the police department to give them information?” asks one high-ranking official . “Instead of trying to act like it’s a big intelligence deal, a big secret, why don’t they share their information?”

Although the gang unit has a computer system that is the envy of the rest of the force, the 19-member group has been the butt of jokes within the police deparment since it was formed three years ago.

One much talked about story is that earlier this year, one of the gang unit’s own unmarked police cars was stolen from police headquarters downtown. The car, which later turned up in southeast Dallas, was allegedly stolen by a Pleasant Grove gang-according to gang members at Street Church Academy, a gang intervention program in Garland.

Part of the problem may be the DPD’s difficulty in defining what exactly a gang-related crime is. Crimes that are gang-related are supposed to be designated as such by patrol officers who answer the calls. But some say the criteria for marking the “Gang-related?” box either “Yes” or “No” are long, cumbersome and confusing.

“If it’s gang-related, we have to come up with all of these reasons and bullshit as to why it’s gang-related, so most of us don’t mark it,” says one Dallas police officer.

According to a training bulletin issued in December 1991 by the gang unit, an incident should be considered gang-related “when the participants… are known to be gang members… or there are strong indications that an incident is gang-related, such as the nature of the offense (i ,e drive-by shooting) or the fact that the participants were wearing/using common identifying signs, symbols or colors; or gang members or associates are identified through existing police gang intelligence files.”

Yet when interviewed for this story, gang unit officers said that a drive-by shooting isn’t necessarily a gang-related crime.

the Texas attorney general’s office, in 1990, reported that Dallas had 221 gangs, more than any other city in the state. As a result, Dallas was declared the gang capital of Texas. However, 1991 figures show a dramatic drop-gang membership in the city enjoyed a 91 percent reduction, from 3,695 to 320. And the number of gangs dropped 85 percent.

The attorney general’s office says that the decline may be due to different definitions of gangs used for the two surveys. Police departments were allowed to use local definitions to obtain the 1990 statistics; the attorney general’s office, however, provided its own definitions for the 1991 report. Despite this change, no other major Texas city reported such a large decline in numbers of gangs and gang membership. Now Dallas ranks below Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

To add to the confusion, the Dallas statistics, which came from Sgt. Guadalupe Fernandez, a supervisor of the gang unit, didn’t match figures released by his own division-statistics that are much higher, but also declining.

The gang unit sticks by its most recently released numbers, not the attorney general’s report. The estimated number of gangs in Dallas, according to the gang unit, is now 175, with 3,500 members-a 22 percent and 16 percent decrease, respectively.

The attorney general’s office misinterpreted the numbers, claims Deputy Chief Hawkins.

“My first reaction was, ’Huh?’ ” says Lt. David Clary of the gang unit when asked about the attorney general’s report. “There are a lot of people who question those numbers.”

Indeed. One gang unit officer in a Southern division says he doesn’t believe the statistics reported by his division. “All we’re doing is building up someone’s résumé, and we’re out here on the streets.”

Hawkins says that if the gang unit figures are wrong, it’s because they have been incorrectly reported by the patrol officers. And he says all divisions within the gang unit-intelligence garnering, targeted enforcement and public awareness-are aimed at reducing gang activity and gang violence.

The gang unit has received state grant funding since 1990 from the Criminal Justice Office of the Governor-this year, it received $252,959 from the state and an additional $798,000 from the city. According to Dave Cook, assistant director of budget and research for the city of Dallas, the gang unit has requested $169,438 in state grant money for 1993, to be matched with $248,048 from the city, plus an additional $549,952.

Mayor Pro Tern Al Lipscomb, a frequent critic of the police department, says the numbers are purposely kept low to show the police department’s success in combating the gang problem.

“Chief Rathburn is doing an excellent PR job,” says Lipscomb. “I won’t allege, I will say yes, definitely, they are juggling the figures-because it’s what we [the City Council] want to hear.”

TEEN-AGE BOYS WEARING JET-black T-shirts emblazoned with “In Memory of Pancho” stop at an open casket and quietly weep. One by one, they kiss the forehead of their dead friend, his face caked with powdery brown makeup. A neatly folded, crisp blue bandanna signifying gang membership is placed on his chest.

Driving back from the funeral, Cookie Rodriguez jokes with Johnny (his name has been changed), a 15-year-old in the back seat, who is giving her directions to get onto I-30. Johnny is a former gang member, says Cookie. He has already spent time in a juvenile facility for attempted murder.

“Johnny, he is so crazy,” laughs Rodriguez. “Tell her about those homemade bombs you made,” she says, while careening through traffic in her shiny new van.

He fiddles with the Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist and pushes a button so it plays “It’s a Small World.”

“They were just some gasoline bombs,” he says quietly.

Rodriguez and Johnny are on their way back to Street Church Academy, the anti-gang program she founded 10 years ago. An ex-prostitute and drug addict turned minister, Rodriguez had the singular role of gang expert in the city for years. That is, until Blanca Martinez entered the picture.

According to Councilman Domingo Garcia, the war between Rodriguez and Martinez started earlier this year when Martinez received $30,000 for her 4-year-old Nuestro Centro gang prevention program through community development block grant funds, and Rodriguez got nothing. This year, an old fire station on S. Ewing Avenue was donated to Nuestro Centra The rent is $1 per year for the next 10 years.

The reason for the favoritism, says Garcia, is Mayor Steve Bartlett.

Before he was elected mayor, Bartlett visited Nuestro Centra in Oak Cliff on a number of occasions, and then his daughter began to volunteer at the center.

“Cookie has always been at the forefront, but she has never been able to operate as well in the political system as Blanca,” says Garcia.

Nuestro Centro is funded primarily through city, county and federal grants, and operates on a yearly budget of approximately $60,000. Street Church Academy, with a $190,000 annual budget, relies on some funds from the Dallas County Juvenile Department and has received money from the Park and Recreation Department. But for the most part, Rodriguez depends on private donations. Both programs focus on GED programs and getting jobs for gang members.

While there are a number of smaller, specialized groups that deal with gangs, the top three battling it out have been Street Church, Nuestro Centre and the relative newcomer, Journey, which takes gang members to a three-day camp in East Texas. Dependent solely on private donations, Journey operates on an estimated $125,000 budget and is currently in limbo-in the middle of its own territorial dispute.

Since the beginning, Journey has been perceived as an intruder by the other anti-gang organizations.

Journey celebrated its first-year anniversary at a 1991 Christmas party in a room at the West End Marketplace. All of the former gang members who had gone to camp so fer, about 350, were there, many of them with their girlfriends. Each table was decorated with a red Journey baseball cap as the centerpiece, and multicolored confetti was sprinkled everywhere. A DJ played “Can’t Truss It” by Public Enemy, and some of the kids were dancing.

Janet Wright and John Sholden from the gang prosecution unit of the DA’s office were there, too, but they both left before things really heated up.

According to Beth Epperson, president of the Journey advisory board, Blanca Martinez, with 20 kids in tow, crashed the party. Martinez and crew started handing out Nuestro Centro business cards to the Journey kids.

When Epperson asked her not to pass out the cards, Martinez says she and her kids left. But not before some of the kids dumped food on one of the tables and poured drinks into the Journey caps. From there, the event deteriorated to name-calling and cursing, according to Journey program director Amon Rashidi.

Martinez men called Epperson a bitch, says Rashidi, and said, “All y’all got is a bunch of weak-assed kids. I deal with serious gang-bangers.”

Martinez does not deny the events, although she says she did not curse.

“She is the biggest hypocrite,” says Martinez. “It’s all about politics, jealousy, envy and threats. She [Epperson] feels threatened by us.”

Epperson is only slightly more reserved in her comments when she recalls a Nuestro Centro fund-raiser she attended two years ago. “I left halfway because she [Martinez] was up there in this tight little white dress, talking about her life on the streets as a hooker,” says Epperson. “It wasn’t even like a fund-raiser.”

AT STREET CHURCH ACADEMY, Cookie Rodriguez is dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt with her Street Church logo on the front. She is surrounded by gang members from Oak Cliff, who’ve come over to work out a truce with an opposing gang.

A girl walks up to the table with some news: “I heard East Side was going to Blan-ca’s,” referring to a gang going to Martinez’s Nuestro Centro program in Oak Cliff.

“I know East Side,” says Rodriguez. “They’ll come here rather than go to Oak Cliff.”

Rodriguez, 50, calls herself the Mother Teresa of Dallas gangs. She has been featured in scores of newspaper articles for her gang efforts and has published two books, Make Me Cry and Cookie.

“Blanca needs to learn a few things from me,” says Rodriguez. “I don’t brown nose City Hall.”

Not that it would do much good if she did.

Gangs have not been a priority at City Hall. To highlight the problem, in June, Councilman Domingo Garcia called a Town Hall meeting, devoted solely to gang intervention and prevention.

Only four city council members attended.

Sitting among the empty chairs along with Garcia were council members Al Lipscomb, Larry Duncan and Donna Halstead.

The directors of the top gang intervention groups-Rodriguez, Martinez and Rashi-di-were asked to outline their programs. But behind the rhetoric was an insincerity that even they admit to.

“Oooooh, Cookie’s here, too?” laughed Rashidi, looking at the evening’s agenda. “Could be a shoot-out.”

Clutching a wadded up tissue in a manicured hand, Rodriguez walked to the podium. An oversized button of her deceased son, Danny, who was gunned down two years ago during a robbery, was pinned to the lapel of her bumblebee-yellow jacket.

“We’re just a little agency. Street Church, and we just get the little crumbs. The big guys get all the money,” she said, referring to larger groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas.

Councilman Garcia, well aware of the rivalry among the groups, asked if there is any effort to bring them together.

“As far as I’m concerned, I have nothing negative to say about any of them. I hope we all will unite and work with each other,” Rodriguez said.

Blanca Martinez hugged Rodriguez and sat down beside her.

After her reformed ex-gang members gave testimony about how Nuestro Centro changed their lives, Martinez asked the city for money to help fight the gang problem.

Rashidi was last on the evening’s agenda. As he described the Journey program, Rodriguez ignored him, flipping through the pages of Time magazine and whispering to Lt. Clary of the Dallas Police Department’s gang unit, who was seated on her left.

“We all need to try and work together,” said Rashidi, summing up his presentation. Rodriguez scratched her head and giggled.

“When they hugged, it was so fake,” Rashidi said later, “They hate each other.”

None of this surprises Luis Llerna, ex-program coordinator of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, who also attended the meeting. “Yeah, there’s infighting between Cookie, Blanca and Journey. They’re just like gangs but with different purposes.”

The groups admit a rivalry exists between them. “This attitude of ’this is my turf, no one can do gang intervention but us,’ is sad, and the kids see it,” says Martinez.

But Rodriguez and Martinez do agree on one issue-that the Dallas Police Department’s gang unit is completely unaware of how much gang activity is really going on in the city.

And behind their backs, the Dallas Police Department also has a few things to say about the various gang intervention groups. Both Rodriguez and Martinez harbor gang members who are wanted for criminal activity, say gang unit police officers. And, gang unit officer Willie Williams says he can’t figure out what Martinez’s program actually does. Williams also claims that Martinez’s kids called him “Officer Nigger” when he handed out posters from a Hammer concert. He says that stolen cars have turned up on Nuestro Centra property, too.

While the bad-mouthing rages, one of the gang fighting organizations has split in two. Now both factions are struggling to regain turf.

IN THE SPRING, BETH EPPERSON AND Amon Rashidi with Journey laughed together in the counselor’s cabin at Camp of the Pines while they counted T-shirts for the kids. Epperson now says Rashidi threatened her at the last Journey camp, and she was so scared that she left the next day. Apparently, an argument over the radio being played outside of her cabin at 7:50 a.m. turned into a heated debate over whose program Journey was-hers or his.

Rashidi laughs at the accusation. “What did I threaten her with, a gun or a knife?”

Epperson and Rashidi have not spoken since. Separately, each has filed to trademark the name, Journey The Gang Alternative, and its logo. Rashidi has also registered the name with the county as a business and has incorporated the name with the state of Texas. He says the logo and name are rightfully his.

Epperson says she will probably sue Rashidi for infringement, and it will cost him everything he has. Plus, the integrity of the program is in danger with Rashidi’s name attached to it, she says.

“He has aspirations to make it a totally black program and he’s pushing his Muslim ideas [on the kids],” she says.

“I never trusted her,” says Amon, who is not a Muslim.

Rashidi, 27, is now trying to raise funds for his Journey program. He also has been working for the Boys and Girls Club in Grand Prairie.

Beth Epperson still is employed as coordinator of grants and area funds by Communities Foundation of Texas, a well-established Dallas non-profit funding organization. She says her Journey program will soon have its own non-profit status, and she will remain as its board president.

ANDY WRIGHT IS ALL DRESSED up in a tuxedo. He’s 15 and today is his funeral.

Blood-red ribbons stream down from the top of the baby blue casket. Inside, his head rests on a satin pillow.

As the Sweet Home Baptist Church Choir sings, family and friends line up outside to see Randy for the last time.

Randy attended two Journey camps in me fall of 1991. He was shot to death while trying to steal a car.

Another Program, More Problems

The Dallas Park and Recreation Department anti-gang program has been troubled since its creation in June 1991.

First, the department hired non-Spanish-speaking Diane Boyd as its gang program coordinator, although statistics show that the majority of gangs in Dallas are Hispanic. Community leaders pressured her to resign before she ever started. Next, Alfonso Herrera was up for the post, but he was indicted on fraud charges for holding two full-time government jobs simultaneously. Then, after Luis Llerna was named to the post, there was a shooting at Pemberton Hill Recreation Center in Pleasant Grove during an anti-gang party. It left 15-year-old Victor Calderon Jr. dead, and a $3.8 million lawsuit filed by the Calderon family alleged negligence on the part of the Park and Recreation Department. Llerna resigned in June, citing a lack of city support for the program and a bureaucratic quagmire that gave him no control.

Currently, the program’s only full-time staffer is Javier Rios, who is the community outreach supervisor at the Martin Weiss recreation center in Oak Cliff.

The Park Board is requesting $364,779 for its gang intervention program for 1992-93, more than double its current $148,000 budget.

“Without support from the city, the program is doomed to mediocrity,” says Llerna. “I quit because I wanted to make a political statement that the limited response to the problems of gangs in this city is inexcusable. I felt like a fireman putting out a skyscraper with a garden hose.”


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