The Top Story by Chris Graham
The Shenandoah Valley has a gang problem – this is what we have to assume, if only because this is what we are told is the case.
We’re reminded often that we have seen gang-related murders here – three in the last five years.
This in addition to other gang crimes – not to mention the extensive graffiti tagging that is visible in virtually every community in the Valley.
But what if what we were being told wasn’t true – that the problem that we are being sold on wasn’t a problem at all, that the murders, while obviously horrific, were not emblematic of a larger societal trend, that the tagging was just kids repeating what they see on the movies and music videos and in video games?
“I feel like to some degree there’s a scare tactic there – and I think sometimes the media unwittingly becomes part of that because we report what we hear, because we report what is told to us,” said Brent Finnegan, the producer of a WVPT documentary, “Virginia Reports: Gang Signs,” that examined the topic of gangs in the Shenandoah Valley.
“There are real gang members in the Valley, no doubt about it – but I definitely am skeptical that there are three or four hundred real gang members in the Valley. I have to really question that,” Finnegan told The Augusta Free Press.
And he is not alone in questioning the official line on the presence of gangs in the Valley. Harrisonburg defense attorney Aaron Cook has been outspoken on the issue.
“To me, the bottom line is that Harrisonburg and the Valley need to be aware that there are other areas in our country and even in our state that have gang problems. We need to be aware of that, we need to be working hard to keep that out of our area – and I think there are some great groups in the area, the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, of course thousands of parents out there who know where their kids are, that’s what we need to keep doing,” Cook said.
“But I don’t think it’s a good idea to overstate the case of what’s going on currently. I don’t think it’s a good idea to govern by fear,” Cook told the AFP.
Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Commonwealth’s attorney Marsha Garst understands the skepticism of people like Cook and Finnegan and others. She was there with them herself not that long ago.
“I’ll be honest with you – I was skeptical. I saw some gang activity beginning in 2000. But some of it was kids that we saw all the time. I thought, geez, there’s nothing to this,” Garst said.
“But I have to tell you, I had a rude, rude awakening when we found Brenda Paz had lived in our community before she was murdered – and all the MS-13 ties she had. It was a really shocking thing for us,” Garst told the AFP.
The 2003 murder of Paz, a member of a Northern Virginia set of the violent MS-13 street gang, is one of the cases cited by local law enforcement as being evidence that the Valley has a gang problem on its hands.
The first case of that nature was reported in Augusta County in 2001 – with the brutal murder of Christopher Scott Kennedy, a member of a local Crips set who was killed after deciding that he wanted to leave the gang.
“I’ve not heard that we’re making too much of it. I have not heard that. We get requests from different types of organizations – civic organizations, community organizations, to put on programs to share information about what a gang member looks like, what is their tattoo, what are their colors, what are their signs, that sort of thing,” Augusta County sheriff Randy Fisher said.
Fisher told the AFP that his office has files on 168 suspected gang members or affiliates who live and conduct their regular business in Augusta County – including members of Bloods, Crips and MS-13 gangs.
“Those are loose numbers. They are what they are. Let me put it this way – they’re important enough on our radar screen that we’ve made files on them,” the sheriff said.
Waynesboro police chief Doug Davis, like Fisher, has not heard criticisms that law-enforcement authorities are making too much of the local gang problem – “if anything, I’ve heard the opposite, that people are worried that we’re underestimating the extent of it,” Davis told the AFP.
“We know that we’ve got some members of the Crips living here, the Bloods – and you’ve always got your local high-school gang,” Davis said. “So we’ve got those guys here, too – and we know who they are. We hope we know who they all are. I’m sure we don’t – but we try to keep tabs on them. We enter them in the gang database and keep track of where the graffiti shows up. We’ve been doing that kind of intelligence-gathering for several years.”
But does the fact that local police are keeping files on suspected gang members and their graffiti and tattoos and the rest mean that there is necessarily a gang problem?
“We don’t appear to have gang wars, turf wars, robberies, rapes – all the stuff that essentially a real gang problem has. My guess is that if the press were to push the officials on the facts, I think that they would find that there’s not a whole lot there,” Cook said.
But as Finnegan points out, that is easier said than done.
“One of the problems is that we don’t have access to the lists of gang members that they refer to – because they’re classified information. So if someone on the gang task force says, I have 400 gang members living in this area, you have to take their word for it,” said Finnegan, who also runs the Hburgnews.com Web site.
“I’m not saying that there isn’t a problem. I’m asking the question – is there a problem?” Finnegan said.
Garst points out that those in the law-enforcement community don’t have the luxury of waiting until the gang problem becomes more readily apparent to everybody to take action.
“As unappealing as it is to admit that we’re beginning to have a problem, to hide your head in the sand and say, oh, it’s no problem, people confuse this, it’s a sense of community, and those things – no, no. I’ve seen what these gangs do to young people. I’ve seen the slashes across their faces. I’ve seen what it’s done to them as far as their ability to go to school and become productive members of society,” Garst said.
“I hope everybody that has the opportunity to wake up about the reality of gangs in our community does so – because I think as long as we let people come in and take our children from our homes and involve them in criminal activity, then they’re our next generation, and they’re the ones who are going to commit the crimes. And it’s not going to get better – because once the gang culture becomes popularized, therein lies our problem,” Garst said.
(Originally published 08-21-06)