Figures show Manatee’s growing gang problem

ROBERT NAPPER (Bradenton.com)
Feb. 25, 2010

MANATEE, FL — A large share of the region’s gang problem is right here in Manatee County.

Of the 4,289 gang members in a 10-county region that also includes Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier, some 800 in 15 different gangs, or 18 percent, were in Manatee, according to a state report released Wednesday.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum released the first report on gangs in Florida completed by the Coordinating Council on Gang Reduction Strategies, which is made up of numerous state and local law enforcement agencies, including the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

The council includes seven regional anti-gang task forces made up of law enforcement, which all reported the scope of their gang problem as part of the council’s report.

For years now, local and state agencies have been actively monitoring suspected gang members on the street and documenting them in a Florida Department of Law Enforcement database, if they meet certain criteria such as having gang tattoos, being in the presence of known gang members or engaging in gang graffiti. A person who meets three criteria can be documented, while those with less than that are known as affiliates.

The attorney general’s report also outlined the scope of the problem statewide, with 1,100 known gangs, and 48,812 gang members and affiliates. Manatee’s gang members and affiliates make up 1.5 percent of Florida’s gang population.

Statewide, gangs have exploded over the past 20 years, skyrocketing from just 159 known gangs in 1991, with recruitment of members as young as 8 years old. The report said most documented gang members are between the ages of 14 and 21.

In Manatee 20 years ago, documenting gang members didn’t even take place, so it is unclear how many existed back then, but they were almost surely here, said Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube.

“It is sort of like when a new drug comes up. You know it’s out there, but you just haven’t seen it or made arrests,” Steube said. “Then it explodes.”

And explode it did in Manatee County in recent years, with an outbreak of drive-by shootings and killings that culminated in the death of 9-year-old Stacy Williams in a 2007 gang-related shooting. The sheriff’s gang unit also ballooned from two to 10 deputies.

In the wake of the violence, the sheriff’s office found itself with the unfortunate task of being the pioneer of a new plan to take on gangs using racketeering laws.

Racketeering laws allow the prosecutor to convict someone based on the totality of their criminal record, if those crimes are found to benefit a gang.

The attorney general’s report touted 24 convictions of gang members in statewide racketeering cases, to the tune of 305 years in prison sentences — the majority of which occurred in Manatee County.

Dozens of members of the SUR-13, Brown Pride Locos and 3rd Shift street gangs in Manatee have been sent to prison.

On Wednesday, Jerry Green, 21, a 3rd Shift member, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in a Manatee court and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The courts in Manatee have had trouble finding defense attorneys to take on the racketeering cases, as the majority of defendants in Manatee were found to be indigent. Numerous attorneys in the area have taken their names off the appointment list for fear of having to take on a costly racketeering case.

One local attorney, Gregory Hagopian, refused to takes Green’s case, saying the massive amount of work it would take would put him out of business. An appeals court had to step in when 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Lee Haworth ordered Hagopian to take the case.

The Florida 2nd District Court of Appeals later ruled that Hagopian had the right to claim financial hardship, allowing him to get off the case. Haworth had to make a special request to Clearwater attorney Charles Lykes to take Green’s case.

Another racketeering case is now in its third year as the same appeals court threw out the conviction of accused Brown Pride Locos member Eric Santiago, saying his racketeering conviction was based on drug convictions that were later overturned.

Meanwhile, as those problems are being tackled, Steube is promising more work for the court system, as his detectives are building another racketeering case against a local gang.

“I don’t think I will ever be able to stand up in front of anybody and say we are done with this problem,” he said.

Robert Napper, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024.

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