Turning down the heat

North Shore Task Force member
Bob Hogan (left) and fellow Lynn
police detective Oren Wright make
the rounds in Lynn in December.

THUNDERSTORMS HAVE RAGED over the Tobin Bridge, pelting the narrow streets and closely packed tenements of Chelsea, driving everyone indoors. It’s a warm night in July 2007, and Chelsea police detective Scott Conley and FBI Special Agent Darwin Suelen are cruising the 1.6 square miles of the city. A head taller than his colleague, Conley refers to the cheerful, energetic Suelen as a “secret kung fu master” and teases him relentlessly about his enthusiastic approach to the job. Conley and Suelen are members of the North Shore Gang Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional group made up of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers charged with “identifying, infiltrating, disrupting, and destroying” violent gangs across the region—from East Boston, Lynn, and Chelsea up to Lawrence and Haverhill.

Suelen was a police officer in Des Plaines, Illinois, for six years before joining the FBI and coming east in 2005, so he’s light on the criminal history of the Boston area. Conley, who was raised in Chelsea and has been a street cop for 13 years, provides him with a running commentary of past mayhem as he rolls up and down the deserted streets: Heller’s Café, on Second Street, is where bookies and gangsters “paid up” every week to Whitey Bulger; the alley adjoining Division Street is where small-time mobster Teddy Deegan was murdered in 1965, leading to the wrongful convictions of Joseph Salvati, Peter Limone, Henry Tameleo and Louis Grieco; and the eerily lit King Arthur’s Lounge and Motel on Beacham Street is where 52-year-old reputed mobster Vincent J. Bordonaro was beaten to death in 1982.

In Greater Boston, the gangs of yore wore scally caps and car coats and roosted at the bottom of Winter Hill. Or they slicked back their hair, accoutered themselves with gold pinkie rings and Cadillacs, and spent the daylight hours sipping espresso on Hanover Street in the North End. Today, not only in Boston, but in Chelsea, Lynn, Revere, Lawrence, and elsewhere, street thugs from the Latin Kings, MS-13, La Familia, NETA, Tiny Rascals, the Crips, the Bloods, and other gangs are committing acts of violence, selling drugs, and recruiting kids as young as age 12 and 13 on the street and via MySpace.com and other websites—beating, blessing, and tattooing these youth into some highly organized criminal groups.

Law enforcement officials and social service providers say that besides the lure of ill-gotten gain from their criminal activities, young people from dysfunctional families join gangs because they seek identity, recognition, and a peculiarly tribal form of brotherhood. There is also the street-level protection from the violent whims of rival gangs.



Out on the streets, Hogan
plays the dual role of
inquisitor and mentor.

Because of its sheer volume of gang and gun activity, Boston may rightly get the most law enforcement (and media) attention these days. But there is also a stubborn gang problem facing smaller cities. Right now, the North Shore Gang Task Force is concentrating on two urban centers. The “north group,” based in Methuen, focuses primarily on Lawrence, which has seen a decrease in violent crime. (Its highest recent crime rate was in 1997, before the Task Force was formed.) Haverhill and Lowell, on the other hand, have seen an increase in gang-related criminal activity over the last few years, says FBI Special Agent John Woudenberg, supervisor of the task force.

The “south group” is based in Lynn, which has attracted rival gangs such as the Crips, the Bloods, and the Deuce Boys. The task force also operates in the connected cities of Revere, Everett, and Chelsea, where gang members ply their trade in drugs and guns. Overall, violent crime has been down, or holding steady, in these communities. But gang activity accounts for an overwhelming share of the violence that still occurs, making its suppression a top law enforcement priority. In Lynn, for example, 63 of 73 firearm offenses in 2006 (the last year for which complete data were available) were gang-related.

“Addressing gang-related violence is the number one priority of our branch of the FBI,” says Thomas Larned, 45, assistant special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office’s criminal division. “In some communities, and portions of others, gangs have taken over.” The goal of the FBI-sponsored gang task forces, says Larned, is “giving the streets back to those communities.”

KEEPING TABS

Close to 1 a.m., Conley and Suelen are descending the steep pitch of Grove Street, when Conley, who’s driving a glossy new pickup truck supplied by the FBI, notices a shadowy figure standing in a doorway. Conley stops the truck, grinding gears for a moment, and then backs up 30 feet, presenting himself to the person standing there, who flicks away the ember he is smoking.

“What are you doing?” says Conley.

“Smoking a cigarette,” says the boy, stepping into the light. He’s a fair-skinned Latino, wearing a white ribbed tank top, several gold chains and saggy jeans. “Cm’ere,” Conley says. When the boy doesn’t move instantly, the 35-year-old detective growls at him. “Get over here.”

Boston may get the most attention, but there is also a stubborn gang problem facing smaller cities.

The boy, who’s slightly built, approaches the running board of the pickup. His mass of curly brown hair is pulled tight into a ponytail; up close, he has delicate features and long eyelashes, his gaze flickering away as Conley stares at him.

“Didn’t I see you out here earlier, wearing your colors and smoking a joint?” asks the detective, referring to the red wardrobe choices favored by the Bloods. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans and three days’ worth of stubble, the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound Conley looks and sounds like a grizzled version of local-boy-turned-movie-star Ben Affleck. “What are you, a fucking idiot or something?”

“That wasn’t me.”

“C’mon. I saw you, bro. What ‘set’ are you in?”

“I’m a Blood.” The kid quickly shakes his head. “I was a Blood. I ain’t any more.”

“You just had some red beads and an old red bandanna lying around and nothing else to wear, is that it?” Conley asks. “Now, you are a Blood, or you used to be a Blood, which is it? How old are you?’

“Fourteen.”

From the passenger side, Agent Suelen lets out a low whistle. “Fourteen? I thought he was 20, 21.”

“Where you been?” asks Conley. “I haven’t seen you around. I see your brother but I haven’t seen you.”

The boy, whose name is Michael, says he was convicted on a firearms charge when he was 11, after holding a gun for another Blood. Both his brothers, who are Latin Kings, have been in prison for gun charges, Conley explains later. After serving time in “juvey,” Michael has been attending the Eagleton School in Great Barrington, a residential treatment center for boys and young men with severe behavioral issues. He lives with a foster family and is in Chelsea only for a weekend visit.

“Just remember, I gave you a break today. I knew you had weed on you and I drove right by,” says Conley. “How was that school? Did you like it?”

After some more prompting, Michael smiles in embarrassment and says he liked the school all right and wants to be an engineer. Although he’s old enough for high school, Michael will enter the seventh grade this fall, if he even makes it to school.

Conley keeps his eyes steady on the boy and says, “You see very few Bloods smoking dope at the big architectural firms in Boston.” But then the former US Army Ranger’s manner softens and he motions the boy closer. “You seem like a smart kid. If you ever need anything, call the police station and ask for Scott. I am the only Scott working there. You can call whenever you want, it doesn’t matter. I can help you out of something and maybe you can help me. All right?”

After another long moment the boy says, “All right,” and Conley drives off. Even on such a “slow” night, the two investigators have been busy with radio calls and a traffic stop that involved a reckless and rude driver with out-of-state plates. On the way down the hill, Conley says, “We’ve been out here for, like, 18 minutes and we’ve had a gang member assaulted with a bat in Bellingham Square, been flipped off by a Texan, which is just unacceptable, and ‘FIO’ed’ a 14-year-old Blood. That’s Chelsea for ya.”

POINT AND CLICK

The conversation with Michael is a prime example of the FIO, or field interview and observation, which is one of the primary tools of gang interdiction. In this sort of encounter, the local cops, who are usually known to the young gang members, play the dual role of inquisitor and mentor, doling out equal parts advice and admonition as they grill their subjects on who they are running with, what they’ve been doing, and what new, dangerous undercurrents are flowing along the streets. Since many of these kids have no adult guidance, the cops and agents are perceived by some of the gang members as surrogate fathers as much as authority figures.

Still, Conley and Suelen have learned to be wary, even when FIO’ing someone as apparently harmless as Michael. In the world of gangs and guns, today’s pot smoking 14-year-old Blood is tomorrow’s Pasquale Luna.

A few weeks earlier, during an immigration rally in Chelsea, Luna, a Latin King with the gang name tattooed on his hand and two previous gun charges on his rap sheet, was spotted in front of Roca, an agency that works with troubled young people. Luna, 22, had an active warrant for his arrest and when police hailed him, he ran away, leading Scott Conley and other police officers on a foot chase.

As he zooms along Division Street, Conley says, “As soon as he crosses the street right here—I’m chasing him, I’m the first one—I see he has a gun in his hand. He takes this turn, and I figure he’s going to dump it. I’ve known Pasquale for five, six, seven years. And so I’m yelling, ‘Pasquale, drop the gun.’ It’s daylight, three o’clock. I’m thinking as he’s going around the corner, ‘He’s going to drop it and be standing there with his hands up.’ We turn the corner, and he’s not dumping it. It’s a rally, people everywhere. An immigration rally in Chelsea is quite popular. It’s not like an immigration rally in Lexington.”

Conley stops the pickup truck and points to the corner. “I run up to here, right up to that NO PARKING sign. [My partner] Dan Delaney is back maybe about 20 feet. There’s people everywhere, there’s kids, there’s music playing. Luna takes this turn right here, the gun is in his left hand; he stops and turns around and points it right at my head—and fires.”

Conley stops the truck and peers through the windshield, nodding. “That’s what saved my life: the laws of physics and geometry. He points at my head but as he’s coming up, he points it and then fires at me, and his momentum takes the shot [across the alley] into the opposite wall over here and a little piece of fragment goes into Danny’s stomach. A little piece of the round. Either that, or Danny fell on a bumblebee and got stung.” Within seconds, Conley and his lieutenant, Dave Bachelor, and Officer Raoul Goncalves, an Everett cop who was also working the rally, caught up to Luna. They tackled and arrested him without firing a shot.

According to Conley, a short while later, in his jail cell, Luna said, “Scott, I’m crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I love you guys. I’d never wanna hurt you guys.”

“But you shot at us.”

“I’m crazy. I don’t know what I’m fucking doing out there. I black out,” Luna said. “Are your guys coming?”

“Who are my guys?”

“The FBI guys.”

“Yeah, they’re coming.”

“Then I’m fucked, huh?”

“Yeah, you’re in trouble.”

“Am I in trouble for shooting at you, or for having the gun?”

“A little bit of both.”

“Are you going to tell them that I shot at you?”

“Yeah, I think they know, brother. I think they got the word.”

OFFERING A THIRD CHOICE

As part of its nationwide Safe Streets Initiative, the FBI currently spearheads four gang task forces in the region; besides the North Shore, they are in the New Bedford, Providence, and Springfield areas. The Safe Streets budget includes overtime pay for the local police officers who work on the task force; leased vehicles; sophisticated surveillance equipment; and compatible radios.

Currently, the North Shore group is comprised of FBI agents, plainclothes state troopers, deputy sheriffs from Middlesex and Essex counties, and police detectives from Chelsea, Lynn, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Everett, as well as an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent who is assigned part-time. Intelligence collected by the unit is shared with other gang task forces across the region, including those operated by the state police, Boston police, ATF, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other law enforcement agencies.

“There are no gangs that aren’t involved in drugs and guns,” says FBI Special Agent Mark Karangekis, who now coordinates the task force in Springfield, but got his start on the North Shore. The FBI is involved in gang interdiction because gangs “are decaying our cities. It’s eating them up from within. You see kids taking their colors at age 9, 10 and 11 these days,” Karangekis says.

Karangekis, who grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and was the son of the local police chief, became the de facto coordinator of the North Shore Gang Task Force and helped make several cases against gangs in Lawrence. Before that, gang members had two options: “Be part of the gang, or be dead,” says Karangekis. The task force provided “a third option for these kids, who were going to be put away for life, or be killed on the street, sometimes by their own gangs,” he says.

This third option meant developing informants from among members of the gang. Karangekis reasoned with these kids, many of whom were known to local law enforcement, by saying “you trust officer so-and-so and he trusts me, and if you help us, we can help you start a new life.” Under the right circumstances, informants are provided with a cash stipend and assistance in relocating to another community.

A short, stocky fellow, Karangekis was clear about the nature of the relationship. “You’re not my friend,” he would say. “You are a tool.”

After the Latin Kings moved into Lawrence, the task force moved to ‘cut the head off the snake.’

Lawrence became the proving ground. With help from gang informants and their own undercover officers, Operation Gang Bust culminated on January 23, 2000, when 11 Latin Gangsta Disciples (who were locked in a feud with the Immortal Outlaws) were arrested. All 11 were convicted on narcotics charges in federal court, and several were also found guilty on firearms charges. Due to prior criminal records, the average sentence handed down to the defendants was 18 years, according to Karengekis. “Geez, that worked, guys,” said Karangekis. “Do we have another informant in the Immortal Outlaws?”

In 2002, the Latin Kings moved into the gang “power vacuum” in Lawrence, so the task force took down “the significant leadership and cut the head off the snake,” says Karangekis. In that operation, 22 Latin King members were arrested and tried in federal court. They were all convicted, with their sentences ranging between 12 and 24 years, according to Karengekis. Federal prosecutions are superior by virtue of “taking the convicted members of the gang and spreading them across the country in federal prisons,” says Karangekis.

Moving these inmates away from their power base is the key to disrupting the way they do business. “If you arrest 20 gang members in Lynn and move them into the Middleton jail, guess what? You just moved the gang to Middleton,” says Woudenberg, the task force supervisor.

LOOKING TO MAKE ‘FRIENDS’

With his ruddy complexion, dark hair, and cleft chin, Lynn police detective and North Shore Task Force member Bob Hogan looks more like a vintage Irish sportsman than a computer geek. But before a recent shift, the 42-year-old Hogan, who’s been a cop for 13 years, spends an hour in his office on the second floor of the Lynn PD, clicking through MySpace pages featuring local gang members.

Three years ago, an informant sent Hogan a link to a local gang member’s MySpace page that led to the gang member’s “friends” pages, and their friends’ pages, and on and on. Now Hogan logs on at least once a week to search for photos of gang members wearing their colors, making gang signs, displaying weapons, as well as other incriminating evidence. “I don’t think the [gang] kids know I can do this, that I can save a page,” says Hogan, pointing to a gang member’s MySpace site and his motto. (“Get Money and Fucc the Police.”)

Hogan brings the website to the attention of another detective in an adjoining cubicle. “If he’s out on parole and he’s communicating with another gang member on there, that’s a [parole] violation,” says the other detective, who has also called up the site.

Hogan logs off his computer and, at dusk, meets Woudenberg and a plainclothes state trooper, who works undercover and whom CommonWealth agreed not to identify, for one of their frequent patrols through Lynn’s grittiest neighborhoods. In a white Crown Victoria, the classic unmarked cop car model, the task force members are fairly conspicuous, but tonight’s mission is deterrence and information gathering, not surveillance or “takedowns,” the mass arrest of gang members that are the culmination of long, painstaking investigations.

At the apex of Bellair Street in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, Hogan stops the car to talk to a beefy white kid named Matt, who’s wearing a white T-shirt that hangs to his knees and baggy jeans.

“You healing?” asks Hogan through the open window. “Doing all right?”

Matt is associated with the Crips, as well as a homegrown gang known as the Baby Mafia. A few months ago, he was involved in a fight with several members of a rival gang at the corner of Washington and Laighton Streets, where he was shot twice with a .357 magnum. He lifts up his shirt and pant leg revealing two ugly, braided scars where the doctors removed the slugs. Eyewitnesses said that Matt had the .357 in his hand, was swarmed by his enemies and shot with his own gun.

“He stuck to his guns, so to speak, and said he doesn’t know who did it,” says Hogan, rolling up his window and driving away. “He got memory loss.”

“Some of these kids are near death with bullet wounds, but we can’t get them to cooperate,” says the state trooper.

Late in the evening, with the state trooper and Woudenberg busy elsewhere, Hogan stops on Olive Street to talk with several members of Avenue King Crips, who are draped on a parked car in front of a bullet-ridden, dilapidated house. Hogan is dressed in dark green fatigue shorts, a polo shirt, and sneakers, and the teenagers, one Asian girl about 14 years old and five boys between 15 and 20, greet the Lynn detective as if he were a playground instructor.

‘Some of these kids are near death with their bullet wounds, but we can’t get them to cooperate.’

“What’s up with MySpace?” asks Hogan, who has just seen new online photographs of some of these kids. “What are you guys doing with that? Recruiting?”

“Let[ting] niggas know,” a Latino kid named Shawn says tersely. “That’s it.”

Shawn is 19, a bright, amiable teen who is looking to Hogan for a little bit of jailhouse information on Blinky, the boss of the Avenue King Crips who’s been indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury for stabbing three men in a single night. Looking away with a smile, Shawn insists that MySpace is a harmless pursuit.

“We go on to check for girls,” he says, but adds, “My niggas got locked up just because they’re saying they’re strapped on MySpace,” he says, invoking street lingo for carrying a gun. “The FBI is all over MySpace, nigga.”

A small, triangular island divides the entrance to Olive Street, and while Hogan is talking with the group a car with tinted windows screeches around the corner, gunning past on the wrong side of the island. “Didn’t you see that car doin’ an illegal turn?” asks an Asian kid who’s been standing on the sidewalk flashing gang signs and laughing at Hogan.

“Call the police,” Hogan says.

The Asian kid laughs again. “You are the police.”

“You still live in Saugus?” asks Hogan. “I let Saugus [police] know you’re living there.”

“Damn, you’re a stalker,” the Asian kid says.

Hogan gazes up at the house. A group of small children are eyeing him from a second floor balcony and holes from a drive-by shooting that took place during the previous month dot the façade. “How many people live here?’ the detective asks.

“Twenty-six,” says the Asian girl.

“Really 35, but a lot are in jail,” says Shawn. He denies being an Avenue King Crip, despite having “AKC” tattooed across the knuckles on his left hand, and another gang tattoo, happy and sad faces side by side, on his forearm.

Shawn is talking tough, but with other, senior members of AKC on ice or on the run, he and his pint-sized posse are vulnerable to the violent inclinations of rival gangs. Beneath all the banter, Hogan is angling for the name of the gang member who’s calling all the shots now that Blinky’s in jail. What Shawn doesn’t seem to realize is that Hogan is offering him a way out of “the life”: If he’ll provide the task force with the right sort of information, they’ll try to help save him from a fate like Blinky’s, or worse. Such epiphanies, sadly, come far too rarely among the young people Hogan deals with.

Shawn and Hogan go on to joke about a recent basketball game between the gang kids and the cops, staged as part of a truce among warring factions. The gang bangers prevailed that night, Shawn reminds Hogan, and the detective laughs and says that might be true, but in the end, the cops are going to win out.

Meet the Author
“That’s how y’all’ll win,” says Shawn, ruefully. “You got straps.”

Jay Atkinson is the author, most recently, of City in Amber and Legends of Winter Hill. He teaches writing at Salem State College and lives in Methuen.