Some consider it pop culture at its worst.
Gangs continue to occupy lower-class neighborhoods throughout the nation – spreading crime, drugs and violence without a cure.
Through the late 1980s and ’90s, the Columbus area experienced a heightened level of gang activity that began to choke several urban neighborhoods with an overpowering grip of fear and terror. The Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney prosecuted its first gang-related case, a gang execution, only nine years ago in 1994.
Assistant Prosecutor Dave DeVillers, who heads up the gang unit of the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, remembers the influx of gang activity in Columbus shortly afterward – peaking in 1995 and 1996.
“Prior to that, gangs were of little concern to Columbus law enforcement authorities. We were dealing with corner gangs that basically dealt marijuana and stole cars,” DeVillers said.
DeVillers said the increase in gang activity was because of people migrating from larger cities, such as Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, it was also influenced by the adoption of ideas and mannerisms of gang culture from those cities.
The late 1980s brought an overwhelming increase in local drug trafficking, with gangs exporting crack cocaine and heroin from Columbus to cities such as Cincinnati and Portsmouth, DeVillers said.
Drug trafficking, however, comes second to the firearms market. Because of of the low cost of guns in Columbus, gangs are able to turn a huge profit by selling locally purchased firearms at an incomparable price elsewhere.
“A gun that costs $50 in Columbus is worth $1,200 in New York,” DeVillers said.
In Columbus alone, at least eight different gang sects identify as Bloods, seven as Crips, along with several other miscellaneous gangs, including the New Short North Posse and 218, according to the Columbus Division of Police Street Gang Unit.
“They mostly fight each other. And drugs are always involved,” DeVillers said.
Columbus Police Sergeant Dennis Matko agreed drugs are what fuel gangs.
“You cannot divorce gangs from drugs,” Matko said.
As a solution to local gang infestation, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien established a gang unit in 1997 to combat the increasing amount of gang-related crimes in the Columbus area. The unit’s purpose is to work closely with law enforcement personnel on a federal, state and local level to investigate and prosecute gang members. So far, the gang unit has successfully prosecuted hundreds of Columbus gang members for crimes including drug trafficking and homicide.
The unit utilizes a tactic known as RICO to facilitate the apprehension of not only principle offenders but those in leadership positions within the gangs as well. RICO essentially allows the gang unit to pursue those at lower levels of the gang hierarchy, working its way toward “Original Gangsters” – the highest rank in the gang.
Because most criminal activity is carried out by lower-ranking gang members, authorities find it more effective to start where the crime is first committed – at the bottom.
RICO was first used in the prosecution of the Linden Avenue Crips in 1998. Twelve individuals were convicted with 74 counts of racketeering, aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery. While the average sentence was 18.5 years of incarceration, Norman “Hellbound” Jones, the Original Gangster of the Linden Avenue Crips, received the highest sentence of 82 years for racketeering, aggravated murder and robbery.
Jones was the last of four men sought in the 1996 execution-style slaying of Anthony Kacir, a Capital University student. He was also convicted of the involuntary manslaughter for the 1997 murder of Mustafa Rabia, a Mount Vernon Avenue convenience store owner. Jones had been on Columbus’ Most Wanted list for more than a year.
Columbus law enforcers established a gang law as a result of the Linden Avenue Crips case. The law, which is modeled after a similar California law, makes it illegal to participate in a criminal gang, Matko said.
It also specifically defines a gang, as well as prohibited behavior, that adds an additional second degree felony and an extra eight years behind bars for participating in a gang. The law allows one prosecutor to handle all cases related to one gang, rather than individual prosecution for each gang member, Matko said.
At first, Matko saw the law as a final solution to the gang problem in Columbus.
“I thought the law was a death knell,” Matko said. “I thought the gang problem would go away. But there is much more going on with gang culture than we realized.”
Franklin County continues to be the most successful Ohio county in gang prosecution by having the most convictions, Matko said.
While gang activity in Columbus is still prevalent, DeVillers sees an evolution taking place.
“We’re finding that less people are joining gangs, and there seems to be less color killing between the Bloods and the Crips. But, there seems to be more organized crime,” DeVillers said.