Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist held a news conference Tuesday to declare victory – at least by the measure of convictions and reduced gang violence in Tacoma.
Flanked by local and federal law enforcement leaders, Lindquist said a large-scale crackdown and a novel legal theory aided the prosecutions of three dozen suspected members of the Hilltop Crips over the past year.
The efforts by prosecutors and police sparked racially tinged controversy and worries about legal tactics, but Lindquist said the approach brought success. He expects to use it again.
“Our gang sweep was a major victory for the community,” he said during the morning news conference held at his office.
Officials held the news conference because most of the trials and court proceedings involving the 36 alleged gang members arrested in February 2010 are complete.
Of the three dozen men charged with criminal conspiracy and more than 50 other crimes, 34 either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. The cases against two men were dismissed.
Those convicted received sentences of from nine months in jail to more than 64 years in prison. One man will be sentenced next month. One of the 36 men has been charged with new crimes since the crackdown.
Gangs are not going away, but prosecutions such as the one against the Crips help, said Ron Twersky, FBI assistant special agent in charge from Seattle.
“These are significant hits that do have an impact,” he said at the news conference.
The crackdown came after a months-long investigation by the South Sound Gang Task Force, an FBI-led group of local, state and federal detectives.
Investigators said members of the street gang, one of the oldest and most notorious in Tacoma, were robbing, shooting, beating and stealing throughout the city to win turf, make money and reinforce their fearless reputation.
Prosecutors initially linked the 36 defendants using a charge of criminal conspiracy, arguing that joining the gang was enough to prove an agreement among its members to commit crimes.
It was thought to be the first time prosecutors had tried to make a conspiracy case against a street gang in Washington state.
Some in the Hilltop community called the effort racially motivated because most of the defendants were black. Law enforcement officials denied the focus was racially motivated.
The News Tribune sought comment Tuesday from leaders who had voiced concerns about the crackdown and publicity that surrounded it but was unable to reach Mayor Marilyn Strickland, the Rev. Gregory Christopher of Shiloh Baptist Church, the Rev. Arthur C. Banks of Eastside Baptist Church, or Bates Technical College President Lyle Quasim.
Family members and friends of the defendants also questioned why the men were ordered held in jail on high bail – $1 million – after their arraignment.
Defense attorneys attacked the conspiracy tactic, arguing in court that prosecutors were overstepping their bounds.
Three months into the criminal case, Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle ruled that prosecutors could not pursue a vast conspiracy case against the alleged gang members.
The cases were broken up and then moved through the court system, with 25 defendants pleading guilty and nine being convicted at trial. Twenty-two defendants were convicted or pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
The conspiracy charge was effective in that it gave prosecutors leverage in plea negotiations and led to stiff sentences, Lindquist said.
“We would do it again and we will do it again,” he said. “We are going to continue to use that theory where appropriate.”
Lindquist and Tacoma police commanders said the prosecutions helped reduce crime in the city.
Crimes against people – including aggravated assaults, assaults, murders and kidnappings – have dropped 24.6 percent in the year since the crackdown, police said.
Meanwhile, robberies dropped 11.7 percent and crimes against society – drug-related violations, weapons possession and drive-by shootings – declined 4.8 percent.
Drive-by shootings, generally considered a gang-motivated crime, dropped from 36 in the year before the crackdown to 32 in the year since.
The Crips sweep was part of the Police Department’s strategy to reduce gang-related crime in the city, Assistant Police Chief Mike Ake said.
“We want to send a message out to gangs,” he said.
The crackdown continues to have a chilling effect on other gangs in the city, police officials said. They’ve heard talk from other suspected gang members who fear they’d be the focus of a conspiracy case.
Law enforcement officers didn’t round up all of the suspected members of the Hilltop Crips. Those still on the streets have kept a low profile, police said. Their names haven’t appeared in many police reports or in connection with any homicides, said detective John Ringer, who led the investigation.
“They have been very low-key,” he said.
Mike Ness, the general manager of a Denny’s restaurant on South Hosmer Street, said Tuesday that the crackdown had immediate, positive effects.
The restaurant’s parking lot used to be a hangout for gang members, who routinely gathered to drink and do drugs after nearby clubs closed, he said.
“This was a meeting place,” Ness said. “It was common knowledge that they would eat here.”
Frequent fights, robberies and a gang-related shooting in 2008 frightened employees and customers, he said.
“All of a sudden the crackdown happened and there was nothing,” Ness said. “We had no fights after that. It was almost like pushing a broom through. It was a clean sweep.”
MORE TO DO
Ringer and FBI agent Todd Bakken, another lead investigator in the case, also noted that their work on the Crips case was not done.
Five defendants agreed to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors. Information from them has led to other cases, and more charges could be filed soon. One man already has been charged because on that information.
“This case is not done,” Bakken said.
Meanwhile, the South Sound Gang Task Force continues to work on other gang-related cases.
“We are in the middle of other cases,” Bakken said. “We are not going anywhere.”
At the time of the sweep against the Crips, police and prosecutors noted it was just the first gang targeted.
In the months since, 19 alleged members of the Eastside Lokote Surenos have been charged in connection with three homicides from last year. Some of the defendants face conspiracy charges.
“We are continuing with our vigorous and creative prosecution of gang violence in Pierce County,” Lindquist said.
He noted he’ll go to the County Council in the coming weeks to ask for money to continue to fund his office’s gang unit. The unit, which was formed in mid-2009, worked the Crips case.
More than $450,000 in grant money for the unit, comprised of three deputy prosecutors and two staff members, runs out in June and September.
“We need the money to continue to devote resources to the gang unit,” Lindquist said.
Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268
Staff writer Rob Carson contributed to this report.