WTOC Investigates: Gangland Rising

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - There's an old Chinese proverb that, as you're about to learn, can be applied perfectly to Savannah's growing violent crime problems.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Our missed opportunity is the result of decades of deceit and neglect that dominated the thinking of local elected officials and law enforcement here when it came to the growing threat of gangs.

To be fair, the tables are starting to turn now. A tree is being planted. But what the years of failing to attack a growing gang problem have cost us, will now be impossible to outgrow.

Naquile Graham, 21, walked through the Woodville Cemetery on Savannah's north side.  There's a lot of new concrete here.

"Lots of 90's babies around here," whispered Graham.

Savannah's Woodville Cemetery is filling up.

"Used to be where you could walk through without stepping on graves," she said. "Now it's so full, you have to be mindful. It got really packed over the last two years. This place used to be empty."

And over the last two years, Graham will tell you no fewer than 15 of these graves have been filled with her own classmates.  All of them victims of Savannah's skyrocketing violent crime rate. Graham will also tell you she too was digging her own grave as she sunk deeper and deeper into Savannah's prolific gang culture.

Twenty miles away, in the small town of Rincon, Commander Jose Ramirez, a Rincon police officer and board member of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, was showing off a gang banger's jumpsuit.  It was bright orange and covered in Sharpie drawings, diagrams and names. All that ink literally defines the Crips gang of which this suspect was a proud member.

"He's got a 'B' right here, backward and upside down with a line through it," Ramirez described. "And he's got a 'K' here. So, you got Blood Killers."

For Savannah, the "inevitable" began more than a decade ago when Commander Ramirez was just a Metro street cop assigned to a one-man gang unit on Savannah's mean streets.

"At that time," he recalled, "our state legislature recognized that the state of Georgia is in a state of crisis with gang violence that includes every municipality, every city, every county that lies in the state of Georgia."

That statewide message and the passage of a powerful Gang statute were delivered to communities like ours in 1992. So by the early 2000's, Ramirez had his work cut out for him.  For years he photographed, documented, and cataloged gang members, rivalries and the violent crimes they were committing in neighborhoods every day. Every bit of that effort; wasted time.

"Here I am given a job description to identify gangs, to monitor gangs, to go out and prosecute gangs, but when the time came to hey, here I am," Ramirez remembered. "I've identified this gang in this particular area, and then here's another rival gang in this area that might be responsible for these crimes and so on, and it's alright, that's good. Don't talk about it anymore. Just leave it to the wayside. It becomes frustrating."

Ramirez's bosses at Metro police didn't want to hear about it because Savannah was not about to tell the world this growing tourism Mecca had a gang problem, despite the overwhelming evidence and the threat to its citizens and other police officers.

Ramirez recollected dozens of violent crime cases in Chatham County that should have been prosecuted under the state's tough Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, an act designed to add decades to the sentences of those convicted of gang-related violence. For nearly 20 years, that statute was never once used in Savannah.

And while the city, the county and local law enforcement continued to live in their imaginary, gang-free world, the then jail administrator, John Wilcher, was keeping tabs on the gangs and gang members passing through the Chatham County detention center. These members had the tattoos, wore the colors and readily admitted to who they were associated with to avoid being cellmates with a rival. And what Wilcher discovered year after year after year was an infestation.

The now Sheriff Wilcher gave me the list of confirmed gangs represented by the inmates who came through this jail in the last 14 months alone.  There were more than 80.  And when counting the individuals who gladly identified themselves as members of these 80 gangs, jailers documented some 528.  Remember, this was last year alone.

Presenting this documentation to the rest of the community, Wilcher says, got him laughed out of the room.

On Dec. 30, 2016, the FBI sent an internal awareness bulletin warning local law enforcement of a credible threat by the national Bloods gang. Four Bloods members are currently facing death penalty murder prosecutions in Chatham County.

The order from the imprisoned head of the Bloods tells local gang members to use civil unrest to assault police officers. It goes on to tell loyal members that assaulting officers will increase their rank in the gang, that the gang is to prepare for war against the gang's true oppressors. And the order pins the Southeast as a specific target area.

Sheriff Wilcher doesn't mess around with threats like this.

"I've even gone so far as to tell my officers don't go home with your jacket hanging in your window, has Sheriff on it," Wilcher said. "Lay it in the seat.  You don't want nobody to know that because of all these drive-by shootings and killings we've had in what, the last eight months."

Wilcher insists this is not amateur hour on behalf of the gangs that exist in this county. He said the numbers of gang members passing through his jail is nothing new over the last decade.  The only thing new is that the rest of the law enforcement community has finally pulled its collective head out of the sand.

And it is hardly business as usual at Meg Heap's office these days.  As perhaps the first public official to mention the "G-word" in public, you could say she opened the box so many before her wanted to stay sealed.

"When I got into this spot, when I became DA, it's like okay, we got a problem," said Heap.

At that moment, many on City Council and County Commission, about to see the unspoken become the talk of the town, took a deep breath and have been holding it ever since.

Matt Breedon is the District Attorney's new Gang Prosecutor.

"The fact that there is this intelligence void so to speak on these groups and gangs that are operating in Savannah, is why it's going to take just a little bit of time get a handle on it," said Breedon.

Make no mistake, the handle is finally turning. Metro police and the DA meet weekly with our federal partners from the FBI, ATF and US Attorney's offices. And are spending a lot of money on the tools needed to track and attack gangs, much like other Georgia communities have been doing for decades now.

"You're not going to see results tomorrow," Breedon added. "It's going to take time to build these cases, to build what other cities have with years' worth of intelligence and knowledge of how these groups and gangs operate for us to get to that level."

Gangs are also now a huge target of the new Stop Gun Violence initiative in Savannah. Capt. Lenny Gunther heads the intelligence gathering end of that.

"There's no denying that it's a lot of hard work right now because of what happened in the past," admitted Gunther. "But I would say 100 percent because of Chief Lumpkin's leadership we're headed in the right direction."

Gunther also says a successful attack on a gang problem like ours is not about taking down entire neighborhoods.

"It's surgical. It's surgical," he said.  "We're being successful in terms of targeting these certain individuals that are causing social harm.  We don't want to blanket whole neighborhoods.  We want to use our intelligence to target that small percentage of the population that's driving the majority of the violence in our community."

And that surgery includes something called a Custom Notification. This is the first time the chief has released one of these actual letters publicly.

It is a hand-delivered letter, signed by the Chief, that lets an individual know Metro is now laser focused on their activities, that they are considered at high risk of death or imprisonment, that their gang affiliation is no secret and that their criminal history makes them a prime target for federal prosecution.

Is it working? Again, Savannah is brand new at this gang thing, thanks to years of hiding behind the illusion that gangs were always someone else's problem.

Back at Woodville Cemetery, Graham has known better than that her entire life.  She's watching a generation of young Savannah men pay the price so the leaders of her community could save face.

"Oh my gosh.  There's so many, so many," Graham said as she strolled between the vaults.  "Some kids out here, they never made it to see 16 or 17. I just wish things could have happened a little bit quicker before it was too late."

Graham is turning her life around with the help of the Metro's Impact Program.  A degree, a job, a life.

So, did denying our gang problem for so long save the Savannah economy?  It did save our tourists from associating the word gang with our community while costing those who live here perhaps hundreds of lives and certainly our quality of life.

By Metro's own estimates, a successful counter to gangs here could cut the violent crime rate by more than 60-percent.  That translates into 30 of last year's 50 murders.

Yes, a tree has been planted.  For it to grow, it'll be up to voters to hold your elected officials accountable for their past and their current efforts to keep up the pressure.

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