Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Pyramid of Death

For the most part, gang banging is a glorified pyramid scheme. A gang's leaders--the five percent at the top--reap most of the financial benefits, while the 'shorties,' as the younger members are known, and the foot soldiers take most of the physical risks but see very few rewards.

I typically try to avoid acknowledging a street gang by name. Simply mentioning a particular band of malcontents may provide the impetus for street credibility. Too many Hollywood films lionize organized crime figures and do society a great disservice in the process. Yet, like the gang leaders themselves, the producers of these movies are generally interested in one thing: making money.

On the other hand, some creative types dare to see the gang subculture for what it is: a collective of wannabe block bullies. One such person is Mitchell Nevin, author of The Cozen Protocol. The e-book's disclaimer states that The Cozen Protocol is a fictional book about two gangs--the Latin Maniacs and Los Dominicanos--battling over drug turf. But for those of you interested in true crime, Nevin's book, at least from my perspective, contains much more fact than fiction.

As a former homicide detective, several scenes from The Cozen Protocol ring a familiar bell, particularly the murder of a young man on the steps of a Catholic Church and the execution style slaying of a rival gang member inside a barbershop.

In 1998, 15-year-old Israel Rodriguez was gunned-down on the steps of St. Anthony's Catholic Church on Milwaukee's near south side. A Latin King assassin screamed "Mexican Posse Killa" before firing nine rounds into a group, one of which struck and killed Rodriguez. After investigators scrapped the 15-year-old's body from the pavement, a half a dozen arson fires ensued, which authorities attributed to the homicide. This brazen killing on the steps of a place believed to be a community sanctuary set-off a rash of retaliatory shootings.

The Cozen Protocol's barbershop homicide is ripped right from the headlines of the 1997 slaying of Latin King Frank Garza. Jordan Mueller, a 21-year-old former honor student, was given instructions to whack Garza, who had a falling out with the hierarchy of his own gang. "I walked to where Frank was getting his hair cut," testified Mueller, who wore a ski mask as he entered the barbershop. "I put a gun to his head and fired."

Mueller, who is white, grew-up in a middle-class neighborhood on Milwaukee's southwest side. Seventeen months prior to the barbershop execution, officers from the Milwaukee Police Department's gang unit stopped a car driven by Mueller. Brain Turner, a leader of the Junior Latin Kings, was inside. Immediately after the stop, the gang officers went directly to Mueller's home and spoke to his parents, both of whom didn't seem overly concerned about the company Jordan was keeping. "We explained, in fairly good detail, who Jordan was hanging with," said one of the officers, "but his parents seemed aloof."

In the months between the gang officers' traffic stop and the barbershop homicide, Mueller received a ritual beating and became a member of the Junior Latin Kings. In July 1996, Mueller, Brian Turner, and another of the gang's members spotted a group of rivals seated in a car. "I ran out of the bushes," Mueller testified in federal court, "and pointed the gun in the direction of the driver and I started shooting." Mueller then went to the passenger's side of the car. "I just shot and kept shooting until I didn't have any bullets left." A 17-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man succumbed to bullet wounds and a third person was seriously injured.

The underlying motives for these gangland crimes are similar to the those committed in The Cozen Protocol -- street gangs take their drug turf seriously. But like the Latin King robots all too willing to take orders from above, the thugs in The Cozen Protocol soon discover that the real meaning of the acronym D.O.P.E. is death or prison eventually. In the interim, the gang leaders at the top of the pyramid--those who have others recruit the likes of Jordan Mueller--are all to willing to sell their stories of glorified dysfunction to anyone careless enough to listen.
Steven Spingola is a former Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective and author of The Killer in Our Midst: the Case of Milwaukee's North Side Strangler.

Copyright, Steven Spingola, Milwaukee, WI 2009

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