Violence remains down in Atlantic City a year after two major drug gangs were depleted following separate investigations. But what is left behind may reveal deeper problems in the community.
“It helped tremendously,” said Valencia Terrell, who was run out of her Bungalow Park home by a shooting in September. “But the people left out here are real low-level. That’s why I think you have all the gun violence. You have people trying to be drug dealers who don’t know what they’re doing.”
Sixty people were charged in separate gang sweeps in 2013. Federal investigators led the first raid that March, which took down Dirty Blok, a gang that had allegedly kept tight rein over the neighborhoods of Stanley Holmes Village, Schoolhouse Apartments and Carver Hall. Then, on May 14, a state-led investigation and sweep resulted in 26 people being charged as members or associates of a gang called 800 Blok, based in Back Maryland.
Atlantic City still has eight gangs — just as it did a year ago — but their power is lessened, said Vice Unit Lt. James Sarkos, whose officers’ knowledge was integral to the raids.
“Both investigations were very effective,” he said. “We’re still seeing improvements as a result.”
Terrell agrees. But, she pointed out, violence still erupts. Sometimes it’s the same drug battles blamed for much of the violence. Other times, it can be traced to more personal fights.
In September, two brothers who were dating Terrell’s daughters were shot outside her Bungalow Park home.
“I heard, ‘Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow,’” she recalled. “They couldn’t be shooting at my house? I’m mom to everybody.”
But they were.
Adam Ross, 23, came running down her hallway, covered in blood. When Terrell tried to grab him, he ran out the back door.
Then came his brother Derrick, 20, limping badly as he tried to run. He also pulled away and went out the back.
Terrell followed them outside and saw their bullet wounds: Adam had been struck in the chest and both arms; Derrick in the groin. Both survived their injuries.
Muhammad Khalid, 23, was arrested in the shootings last month — the crime was tracked to him after he accidentally shot off the lower part of his leg.
Terrell alleges the shootings were tied to an an ongoing fight some girls began with her daughter and was ordered by a former friend who was jailed at the time. But there are no charges yet backing that claim.
“As mad as I am at them, I feel bad,” Terrell said, wiping her eyes. “A lot of these boys are bad because they don’t know any better. They don’t know what it’s like to have a family.”
“It’s called survival,” Aziz Abdullah, 48, said as he sat in the courtyard outside the Stanley Holmes Community Center, playing chess with his brother, Wali. “If you’ve got to eat, what are you going to do?”
He told a story about a boy whose mother sells herself to provide for the family. To rescue his mother from that life, the boy sells drugs. Soon, they have things and mom no longer has to trade sex for money.
“People don’t understand,” Abdullah said. “A lot of us become a product of our environment.”
Mustafa Smiley, 51, sat on the back of a chair, his arms on his thighs as he watched the game.
“I’ve been there, done that,” Smiley said.
All three men admit they have dealt drugs and have done time for it. In fact, they were at the community center for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, they not-so-anonymously offered.
Smiley — whose criminal record lists his first name as Tracy — said he was never part of a gang. But he did fall into the cycle of getting out of jail just to wind up back in after turning to dealing again to make money.
“All it does is repeat itself over and over,” said Wali Abdullah, 47, a chef at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
Now, Smiley said, he’s done with that.
He insisted he won’t return to that life, despite being laid off from the Flagship Resort and waiting for nearly a year to see whether anything would come of two applications with City Hall.
Arrests are just part of attacking the problem. There need to be opportunities for those who have records, and to keep the youth from getting in trouble in the first place, the men agreed.
“You’ve got a lot of intelligent kids out here,” Smiley said.
“But, if you want me to put the guns down, what are you giving me better to replace that?” Aziz asked. “If you take anything from a child, you have to replace it with something equal or something better.”
The Ross brothers themselves had problems, Terrell acknowledged.
Adam Ross was just 18 when he was accused of pulling a gun and pointing it at the chest of police Officer Anthony Abrams in 2008, according to a report in The Press of Atlantic City at the time. Ross was charged with aggravated assault and weapons offenses. He was 16 when he was sentenced to the Training School for Boys for dealing cocaine and assaulting a corrections officer at another juvenile facility.
“You hear it all the time, when there’s no work, there’s going to be more crime,” said LuQuay Zahir, who has worked with various groups in the neighborhoods to try to keep the peace.
“I don’t think anybody really understands how the help is needed,” Terrell said. “You have these 17-, 18-year-old girls out prostituting for McDonald’s and weed. Everybody wants to fight about whose responsibility it is. It’s all our responsibility.”
Meanwhile, they agree things are better.
“You’re not seeing the large drug busts or people getting locked up with caches of weapons,” Zahir said.
Detective Lonell Jones, a longtime city gangs expert, struggled to recall the last shooting in Stanley Holmes Village. There was one Jan. 16 that injured a woman who got caught in the crossfire of a dispute. But nothing that seems linked to gang issues.
“There’s a lot going on offshore now: Galloway, Mays Landing, even Cape May County,” Zahir said. “I think a lot of time, when law enforcement focuses in on a certain area, either the criminal element stops coming or they migrate.”
There are remnants of the two gangs left, but they don’t seem to have re-established themselves, Sarkos said.
At least one gang tried to fill in the gap, Sarkos said in November, when he announced the arrests of 13 alleged members of the Blockstarz, led by Haneef Molley — who goes by the name “Weezy” due to his resemblance to rapper Lil Wayne.
But investigators were careful not to detail what’s on the horizon.
“Our focus is always to look at the next big trend in criminality in the city to keep the gangs at bay,” said Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, who heads the Attorney General’s Atlantic City office.
The Atlantic City Task Force is a state-city partnership that includes law enforcement from various entities, including the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, State Police and the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office. Ruberton and Assistant Atlantic County Prosecutor Erik Bergman prosecute all the Task Force’s cases and have about eight left to indict in the 800 Blok case. The others are moving through the criminal courts. Five are at the sentencing stage.
One of the defendants, Razzaq Shannon, is also accused of killing Christon Hargrove, 21, on July 8, 2012.
Because of their records, even some not charged with violent crimes could see about a decade in prison, Ruberton said.
Still, it’s not easy to keep those arrested behind bars, especially as the cases move through the courts. Federal guidelines are strict, but in the state cases, some were bailed out — only to be accused again, or even flee.
Rasan McGee was arrested in the 800 Blok sweep but soon made bail. Then, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office charged him under a statute that holds a drug dealer responsible for a person’s fatal overdose. But by then, McGee had left the state. He was arrested in Georgia in November.
Eric Teasley has been in and out of jail since Jones first spotted him May 21 — a week after the 800 Blok raid — and realized he was wanted on a fugitive warrant in that case. Teasley made bail and since has been arrested on charges including a Jan. 25 gunfight in which two people were wounded and drug offenses last month.
“It can be frustrating to us when an individual bails out, and we believe he returns to crime,” Sarkos said. “But we’ll just open a new investigation into him or her.”
The problem goes beyond arrests, however.
A University of Washington study found that adolescent gang members have significant consequences in adulthood.
Researchers followed 800 fifth-graders for 23 years, ultimately identifying 173 that wound up gang members. Another 173 who did not join gangs were used as a control group. Although both groups of kids were similar in drug and alcohol use, academically, in living environments and socioeconomic conditions, those who spent time in gangs were three times more likely to have committed a crime and double the incarceration rates of those who did not.
“The (former gang members) also ran a three-fold risk of substance addiction, were twice as likely to say they were in poor health and had a 50 percent drop in high school graduation,” according to an article about the study in March’s Scientific American.
“Under different circumstances, they could have been great guys,” Terrell said. “We’ve go to do something about these kids.”
She knows many of the the Blockstarz members, and insists they have potential. They even market themselves. Her granddaughter — now 10 months old — even came home in a onesie bearing the name.
Aziz Abdullah hopes to help through his work as a mental health and substance abuse counselor in Cherry Hill. He also wants to start a program for the youth. He’s got a name picked out: Neighborhood Addiction Prevention Program, or NAPP.
“It’s not so much rehabilitation, but ‘habilitation,’” he said, putting his own spin on the word. “They’ve never been taught.”
They also know that the violence stems from these groups, defending their territory and their livelihoods with guns.
“We’re not that place where things just happen randomly,” Zahir said. “It’s still safe to walk in any neighborhood and, if you don’t have an issue with someone, nothing’s going to happen to you. Whenever something happens, there’s usually a story.”
By cracking down on those groups, both police and those working with the groups hope to change the story’s ending.
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