Gangs: How a national gang moved in on the city's drug trafficking

They came armed, organized and with their own language

abeam@thestate.com, jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 18, 2007 

  • WHY CRACK IS SO ADDICTIVE

    Cocaine addicts keep coming back for one reason: dopamine.

    It's the stuff that makes you feel good when your favorite college football team wins or your son hits a home run in Little League.

    Dopamine is produced naturally in your body and usually is absorbed after it is produced.

    Cocaine -- or crack, the crystallized, smokable version of cocaine -- releases dopamine and builds a dam in your brain so that the dopamine builds up to extreme levels. In other words, it makes you feel really good.

    Crack, which is what the Gangsta Killer Bloods are accused of selling in Columbia, normally is smoked. It produces a high in about six to eight seconds, said James Wilson, a treatment consultant with the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

    But once it brings you up, cocaine takes you down lower than you've ever been, Wilson said. "It's not when you use cocaine (that makes it addictive), it's what happens when you stop using it," Wilson said.

    The effects are mostly psychological, said Dr. Robert Stafford, medical director for the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. Stafford said your body doesn't develop a physical dependence for cocaine. It's the brain that wants it.

    "In most cases, cocaine does not require a medical detox," Stafford said. "It requires a social detox."

A highly organized gang with national connections has operated for at least six years in the heart of Columbia, using violence and robbery while hawking its destructive product -- crack cocaine. Meet the Gangsta Killer Bloods.

Its members got many of their drugs at a run-down apartment complex off Harden Street known as "The Cut." But the gang's tentacles stretched throughout Columbia, according to federal documents and court testimony. An FBI mole, snitches, bugged cell phones and video equipment hidden on informants have put two of the gang's main suppliers, two of its leaders and nine members in jail on drug conspiracy charges in the past three weeks. The FBI is investigating the case under federal organized-crime laws, search warrant documents indicate.

FBI agents, with a federal judge's permission, raided eight homes Jan. 26, 2007. Agents forced their way in without knocking because of threats against agents and evidence the men had weapons such as a military-style, .223 assault rifle, which members allegedly nicknamed the "Michael Jordan."

The FBI found, according to search warrant documents:

  • $73,975 in cash, most taken from Wilmette Road house
  • An undisclosed amount of drugs, including crack cocaine and marijuana
  • Eight guns
  • More than 154 rounds of ammunition
  • Newspaper clippings about fellow alleged gang members
  • A red folder containing Bloods street gang literature and recruiting information.

Over the past few years, police and the FBI quietly have arrested 68 alleged gang members or gang associates, mostly street-level dealers, according to court documents.

The most recent arrests mark the end of the investigation's first phase, officials said. More charges and arrests are expected.

The investigation is significant because:

  • Its scope, techniques and targets are unprecedented for Columbia. Federal judges in South Carolina approve between six and eight wiretaps each year; the FBI used one in this case.
  • It shows the connections between drugs, violence and a gang with national ties operating in the city. The Gangsta Killer Bloods is a subset of the United Blood Nation, the East Coast cousin of the infamous Los Angeles street gang, the Bloods. Law enforcement officials say the gang came to Columbia in 2000 armed, highly organized and with its own language used to thwart law enforcement.
  • The alleged gang has been a major source of Columbia's cocaine and crack cocaine, federal agents say.
  • Sixty-eight people have been charged in connection with the case so far. Thirtyseven have pleaded guilty. Two were the first to go to trial last week; they were convicted Thursday.
  • There are 200 Gangsta Killer Bloods in Columbia, an FBI agent quoting an alleged gang member said in court last week.
  • The FBI paid one informant at least $48,000 over two years for spying on alleged drug dealers.
  • And, after a secret briefing last month by U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble made gangs and their eradication a focus of his annual State of the City address.

The gang's client base, sometimes referred to by members as "my little smokers," are the Midlands' cocaine addicts and users, which might number 16,000 or more, according to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

But it's unknown how much of the city's drug trade is gang-controlled or if the Gangsta Killer Bloods are the largest gang in Columbia.

A neighbor who lives next door to The Cut said activity around the apartments has dropped off since the Jan. 26 arrests. Like many others approached for this story, the resident declined to be identified.

The investigation, started by Columbia police in 2000 before they asked the FBI to come in, focuses on drugs. But violence also is a key component.

Crimes connected to the Gangsta Killer Bloods so far include

  • a Dec. 20, 2006, shootout at the Gable Oaks apartments off North Main Street up to 50 bullets ripped through walls to settle a grudge over a posting on the social Web site Myspace.com.
  • An Oct. 24, 2007, armed robbery on Sigmund Circle, off North Beltline Boulevard, in which a family of four -- including a 10- year-old -- were dragged from their beds by masked men and the father shot in the neck as he tried to escape.

FBI wiretaps also turned up chatter about some gang members having gotten guns that were stolen from Columbia's Lawman Safety Supply in December. At least 12 guns were taken from the store, though FBI agents have no evidence that gang members were involved in the robbery.

"We have a well-organized set operating here in Columbia whose sole purpose is to sell crack cocaine and engage in violent acts," FBI agent Michael Stansbury testified in federal court Jan. 31, 2007.

Stansbury was speaking in support of a 15-page criminal complaint filed in late January in federal court that will be the basis for indictments expected as early as this week.

More details of the case spilled out, too, during last week's federal trial of an alleged gang member and an alleged Bloods associate -- the first of the investigation's cases to come to trial.

That trial, along with Stansbury's testimony and the criminal complaint, pull back the curtain on a portion of Columbia's hidden drug trade and the police tactics used to bring dealers down.

THE CUT

The Cut hides in the shadows of a paper company's warehouse at a forgotten end of Richland Street, a block from the state's old lunatic asylum.

Single-story. Cinder block. Faded paint.

Overturned shopping buggies are strewn in front of the screen doors, among the littered bottles of King Cobra malt liquor and crushed boxes of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.

The only activity these days comes from Peanut, a pit bull with a ferocious bark but no bite, who keeps watch over the apartments from his leash.

Travis Pinkston worked The Cut with two cell phones, two semiautomatic pistols and a silver Chevy Caprice, according to the federal complaint.

Pinkston, 25, is identified in the complaint as one of the Gangsta Killer Bloods' leaders. His main job, the complaint alleges, was to get cocaine, cook it into crack -- a more potent version of the drug -- and give it to other gang members to sell on the street.

One of Pinkston's main suppliers, according to testimony, was Fernanda Lee, 34, who goes by "Hammer." Lee, who the FBI says is not a member of the gang, kept an apartment at The Cut for his drug distribution network.

It's unknown where Lee got his drugs. At times, though, his apartment contained up to 15 pounds of cocaine, according to an FBI informant listed in court documents as "confidential source No. 1." Pinkston's dealers sold crack for $700 an ounce, so 15 pounds would be worth about $168,000.

Since 2000, Lee worked for the city of Columbia, where he made between $20,390 and $32,364 a year driving mosquito trucks, trapping rats in sewers and collecting discarded tires, among other things.

Pinkston and Lee had a system, documents allege: Lee would drive his gray pickup truck to meet Pinkston at The Cut, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., when Lee was on his way to work. There, Lee would supply Pinkston with cocaine from a stash he kept buried outside, near a brick wall.

Pinkston then would take the cocaine to an apartment off Broad River Road that he shared with his girlfriend and cook it into crack cocaine.

Pinkston also bought from Javis McKenzie, 29, identified by the FBI as a leader in the rival Folk Nation gang.

The FBI believes McKenzie is a major cocaine dealer who employs other dealers to sell cocaine for him. On Dec. 13, 2006, agents say they intercepted a phone call between Pinkston and McKenzie in which Pinkston ordered $5,600 worth of cocaine.

As the FBI agent put it in the complaint, McKenzie and Travis Pinkston "apparently put aside their differences in order to make money by selling crack cocaine."

While Pinkston kept the drug supply coming, another Gangsta Killer Blood leader, Torrean Sims, 22, orchestrated the gang's meetings, usually held at deceased gang members' graves as a show of respect, the FBI's Stansbury testified in January 2007.

From November to January 2007, Pinkston and Sims unknowingly led a chorus of law enforcement on a tour of Columbia's drug trade by way of their bugged cell phones.

Officers heard Pinkston use shop talk to set up drug deals and make sure his street hustlers had enough crack to meet demand.

On Jan. 26, 2007, their business was interrupted. Law enforcement arrested eight gang members, including Pinkston, along with the two main suppliers, Lee and McKenzie.

They're in jail on drug conspiracy charges.

Lee had been sentenced to four years of probation in 1995 for drug trafficking. He was fired from his city job Jan. 26, 2007 after failing to report to work for three days in a row, city officials said.

That was out of character for Lee, his boss, Marc Mylott, said.

"He was an excellent worker," Mylott said. "He reported to work on time, gave 110 percent, did not abuse his sick time and got along well with people."

Pinkston has had few prior run-ins with the law.

Bill Nettles, a defense attorney representing Pinkston, said no one should assume the government's charges about cocaine distribution are true.

"My client is innocent until proven guilty," Nettles said.

UNDERCOVER

Deborah, a 40-something former Columbia resident, is a professional snitch. For $50 a buy, she wears sophisticated video and audio equipment and goes hunting for drug dealers.

She is one of several confidential sources listed in federal documents who were able to penetrate the gang's distribution network and get high-resolution video and audio of drug transactions using miniature equipment hidden in clothing. It is dangerous, tedious work.

Deborah was featured in the trial last week of two low-level drug dealers with ties to the Gangsta Killer Bloods -- the first to come to trial. The two were convicted Thursday.

A short, stocky woman, Deborah carried a knife and pepper spray as she bought dope.

She has been an informant for more than 20 years. She began in the early 1980s when she was charged with possession of crack cocaine. She agreed to help police if they would drop her charges.

"She has the demeanor," Columbia police Sgt. Michael Babin testified Monday in federal court. "She could blend in and get them to believe she was not police."

A seasoned veteran, Deborah plays her part well. She was always loud and joking when buying crack, making deals on McDuffie Avenue while young boys rode by on bicycles, according to video shown in court last week. If there wasn't enough crack, she asked for more. She didn't want to be hustled. "I couldn't leave that impression," Deborah said. "My life would be in jeopardy."

Deborah made close to 300 buys during the investigation. Columbia police usually paid her $50 a buy. FBI agents paid her $2,000 a month for two years to cover her living expenses.

Early on, she used the money to buy crack for herself. She was careful, knowing that if she were caught with drugs she would go to jail.

"I ain't going to be that stupid," she said under cross examination.

Deborah now refers to herself as a recovering addict and says she has been clean for two years. She now lives at an undisclosed location far from Columbia.

She fears for her family's life, she testified in court last week. The State is not publishing her full name because of her fears for her and her family's safety.

'THE GUNS WERE RIPPING'

Gang life is violent -- and uncertain.

Drug dealers only deal in cash, and they don't file police reports. A dealer's good fortune can turn bad when word hits the street. It's like advertising for a robbery.

It happened at least once to Pinkston. Someone stole $7,500 from him around mid-December.

Most of the robberies and shootings target rival gang members or drug dealers. But bullets don't discriminate.

Mary Rose, 42, and Derrick Thompson, 51, who live at the Gable Oaks apartments off North Main Street, know this all too well. Rose was working on the couple's computer about 1:30 a.m. Dec. 20, 2006.

About 15 seconds after she got up to join Thomas in bed, an AK- 47 bullet came through the wall, ripped through a television set and tore into the leg of the chair where she had been sitting. Police found the bullet later, after it had bounced off the refrigerator in the kitchen.

On the street, guns were blazing to settle a grudge over a posting to Myspace.com, a social networking Web site. Rose and Thompson were caught in the crossfire as they huddled between their bed and the wall.

The gun battle's roots go back to Oct. 28, 2006, when alleged Bloods member Prince Antwan Gilliam, or "Twan G," was shot and killed while driving on Broad River Road. Someone wrote something on Myspace. com that upset Gilliam's fellow gang members, Stansbury, the FBI agent, testified.

The dispute was between Raymond Brown, identified as a drug dealer with the Gangsta Killer Bloods, and a man identified as 'Lil Rick.

'Lil Rick and his associates came to Gable Oaks Dec. 20 to settle the score.

After the shooting, Brown called Pinkston's phone and bragged to Pinkston's girlfriend about the shootout. The FBI was listening.

"He was laughing on the phone about a big shootout, talking about how the guns were ripping," Stansbury said in court. "Basically, that it was fun."

Columbia police said more than 50 bullets had crashed through several apartments, sometimes penetrating four or five objects before stopping.

Police officers knew of Brown's involvement, but the FBI asked them to not arrest him because he was a target in the drug investigation, Stansbury testified. Brown was arrested later, in the Jan. 26 federal roundup.

The bullet holes are still in Thomas' apartment walls. He covered them with masking tape a couple of weeks ago. He still jumps at loud noises.

"It's a little bit beyond the word scared," he said.

'KNOWLEDGE CYPHER'

Drug dealers don't say "crack." They never say "cocaine." It's all spoken in code.

Law enforcement officers depend on confidential sources to help them understand intercepted phone conversations.

On Dec. 22, 2006, Cameron Hammond, 23, another alleged Gangsta Killer Blood member who was arrested in February 2007, called Pinkston.

"I got a one-two for you for some wisdom," Hammond said in a conversation captured by an FBI wiretap. "They want a knowledge cypher cypher."

Most of the gang's code words have to do with amounts of drugs. In this case, "cypher" is 0. "Knowledge" is 1.

So, in Hammond's case, "knowledge cypher cypher" is $100 worth of drugs.

But what type of drugs? The gang had code words for those, too, FBI agents say.

In this example, "wisdom" refers to crack cocaine.

Adding "knowledge cypher cypher" and "wisdom" means Hammond was asking for $100 worth of crack cocaine.

Dealers used code names for customers as well, sometimes referring to them as "swerves" or "one-twos."

So, when translated, Hammond's sentence reads: "I got a customer for you for some crack cocaine. They want $100 worth."

A BIG CASE

The case already has grabbed the attention of local politicians.

In mid-January 2007, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble was given secret briefings by Police Chief Dean Crisp and Lloyd, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

On Jan. 31, Coble made gangs a focus of his annual State of the City address, saying it was the city's highest priority to stamp them out. He announced major new programs to prevent young people from starting lives of drugs and gangs.

The Columbia Police Department, the FBI, Richland County Sheriff's Department, the State Law Enforcement Division, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the IRS, the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration worked together on the case, which is far from over.

It's not clear how much the investigation is costing taxpayers. But the wiretaps are a sign the case isn't cheap and the investigation, significant.

"When you see a wiretap case, you know there's been a lot more investigation done," said Jack Swerling, a Columbia defense attorney representing McKenzie, the alleged Folk Nation member.

Wiretaps are expensive and involve extensive monitoring by police. Police have to convince judges that wiretaps -- which involve potential invasions of privacy -- are a necessary method of gathering information, Swerling said.

The gang's national ties and its level of organization also point to this being a significant investigation.

Black inmates at New York's Riker's Island jail formed the United Blood Nation in 1993 in response to Hispanic gangs, according to testimony in last week's federal trial.

The gang since has split into eight subgroups, one of which is the Gangsta Killer Bloods. That subgroup, often abbreviated to GKB, gained a toehold in Columbia around 2000. That's left many frightened.

Near The Cut, a resident who declined to be named for fear of retaliation told The State of threatening phone calls made since the Jan. 26 arrests.

"I ain't gonna get shot," the neighbor said.

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405 and Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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