Gangs in small-town Central Washington
Grant County, with a population hovering around 89,000, hardly dominates the national radar as a center for gang activity. Yet the area logged nearly 100 robberies and shootings last year, all gang-related — including a 10-year-old boy shot in the head when his parents' trailer was riddled with bullets, and a 13-year-old girl injured in a drive-by while she sat in her living room.
TAKE A CASUAL stroll through this Central Washington farm town and you'd never guess what's going on. The streets are quiet. Men take leisurely afternoons to get their beards trimmed at the barbershop downtown. Motorists driving through, past fields of alfalfa and spearmint, are welcomed with a huge sign proclaiming Quincy the embodiment of "Opportunities Unlimited."
Yet this homespun place of 6,700 souls is also where a 25-year-old man was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy thoroughfare last spring, where cops had found a crowd of teenagers hiding a sawed-off shotgun in a couch several months earlier, and where the chief of police says a teenage girl was recently gang raped.
Nearby in Moses Lake last summer, U.S. marshals rounded up 50 suspected gang members — many of them with alleged ties to the Mexican Mafia.
Here is small-town Americana, a land of wide-open spaces, church socials and, increasingly, gang warfare.
Grant County, with a population hovering around 89,000, hardly dominates the national radar as a center for such activity. Yet the area logged nearly 100 robberies and shootings last year, all of them gang-related — including a 10-year-old boy shot in the head when his parents' trailer was riddled with bullets, and a 13-year-old girl injured in a drive-by while she sat in her living room.
"People think this is a big, safe community, but it's all under the surface," says Creeper, a 20-year-old high-school dropout from Moses Lake, and sometime member of the Marijuanos 13 set. "Believe it — we've got PL, LVL, Florencia, Marijuanos, Nortenos. You got everything out here in Moses Lake you can think of."
City officials strongly disagree, insisting that such comments are nothing more than bravado and toothless intimidation.
"That's not to say there isn't criminal activity that occurs here, but it may be overstating to call it gang crime," says Moses Lake City Manager Joseph Gavinski. "Gangs are formed for a criminal purpose. They have territory and they have organization. I'm not sure that's what we have in the city of Moses Lake."
Perhaps it's a matter of defining terms. In a 30-day period this spring, there were four shootings, two home invasions and a homicide all linked to a single Moses Lake crew, according to the Sheriff's Department, which has identified a dozen organized groups comprising more than 500 known gang members countywide. At the annual Moses Lake Spring Festival, held Memorial Day weekend, Deputy Joe Harris was stunned at the number of young people brazenly displaying their gang colors.
"For a city that doesn't have a gang problem, there sure were a lot of gang members walking around — just these packs of eight or 10 of them," he says. "It was eye-opening."
COUNTRY LIVING "is kind of an untapped resource in the gang world," says Harris, describing the changes he has seen: During the past four years, loose-knit groups of kids prone to fighting each other have evolved into true gangs, he says, with hierarchies, regular meetings and missions assigned to the youngest members — generally graffiti tagging or home burglaries.
"They're still run kind of democratically. They still have a roundtable, discuss things and vote on it," Harris says. "But now they are actively involved in selling drugs, selling guns and doing drive-bys."
Gang life has grown so active in the area that many crews meet twice a week to collect pocket change from "pee-wees," eager to contribute and help buy more ammunition before getting their next list of items to burglarize (generally stereos and guns). Each is hoping to move up the ladder, from pee-wee to street soldier, shot-caller and, finally, to becoming an esteemed O.G., or "Original Gangster."
"You see these kids," says Grinch, a Marijuanos O.G. in his 30s, gesturing at a crowd that had gathered in Quincy last winter to watch Creeper get his sixth tattoo. "They see us rap, drink. They all want in. All I have to do is ask, and they'll kill. It's that easy. Because this is not a choice for us. This is life."
Statewide, the lower Yakima Valley — Sunnyside, in particular — still outpaces Grant County as a center for gang activity. But Yakima itself has made major inroads in dealing with the problem, and its success has become Grant County's bane. Gang members have discovered that it is easy, here in the miles of emptiness, to travel at will, transporting guns and drugs and eluding law enforcement. With 2,700 square miles of open country patrolled by five sheriff's deputies, there is no round-the-clock police presence in numerous towns, including Royal City, where there are 50 known gang members, and Mattawa, where a 15-year-old was recently charged with attempted murder.
And with poverty hovering near 20 percent, there is a ready supply of bored, disaffected young people eager for a shot at real money.
IN THE SUMMER of 2009, 40 gang members were locked up in the Grant County jail, taking up half the available beds. Pleading for federal aid, local law enforcement described the area as a place where drive-by shootings occurred weekly and "bodies are dumped with little more than tattoos as identifiers."
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has noted increased calls for help from regional law enforcement working on gang-related gun crimes. "There is a perception that this is a growing problem," says spokeswoman Cheryl Bishop.
But whatever financial support Grant County had from the federal government is about to dry up. Harris, for instance, went back to regular patrol in July, no longer funded to gather gang intelligence, even as the problem mounts.
"We have been trying to get a federal task force for years," he says. "But money is an issue. The federal agencies concentrate their efforts in urban areas because, quite frankly, the numbers out here just don't sound as sexy. In the last 30 days, we've had two gang homicides, two home invasions and six or seven shootings, all gang-related. In Seattle, they'd see that and say, 'So?' But look at it on a per capita basis."
While some groups do deal drugs or traffic weapons, the bulk of their activities — graffiti, intimidation, petty theft — have a far greater impact on more quotidian realities: "They just suck the life out of a community," says Quincy Police Chief Richard Ackerman. "Innocent people live in fear."
Not everyone in town agrees. Nor are they pleased with the chief's blunt talk. The owner of a wine bar asked aloud why news media were picking on Quincy. Curt Morris, a local real-estate agent, acknowledged the gunplay, but characterized it as little more than an annoyance. "We're sick of it," he says. "It's a headache. But am I afraid to walk around at night? No."
Indeed, most people passing through these parts would feel the same. Ackerman has been assiduous in painting out graffiti, and the streets feel safe.
But not to Creeper, afraid to go shopping almost anywhere in the county for fear of running into a rival gang member. He says he is done with that life now, focused on getting a job and putting the past behind. Still, he cannot quite disavow the group that provided him with a sense of family back when he was a shy, chubby kid overwhelmed by middle school.
"When you're young, you run with the pee-wees, trying to earn your name, your stripes," he says. "When I got into this, I knew what I was in. But people are only hearing the bad side. We do things just like any family. We have barbecues. We go jet-skiing. Even the newspaper says our gang's more organized, more structured. We keep our people in line, in check. We got our code of conduct that we don't break."
Primarily, this code mandates that criminal activity remains within the gang.
"You don't bring it to your families. You don't bring it to your house. Stuff happens, but gangs are going to regulate whoever messed up," Creeper explains. "Innocent people are innocent. You don't go after them — kids and women, especially. Innocents are innocent."
Cops, of course, do not enjoy that distinction. Two summers ago, members of one gang routinely cruised a quiet development in Moses Lake where several state patrolmen lived, taunting the officers by driving slowly past their homes, music blaring, and tossing beer bottles onto the manicured lawns.
This trend is what most upsets Harris. "That was one of those lines you just did not cross, but they're doing it now," he says. "Before, there was that mutual respect: I jack you. I don't go out and jack up your family, so you don't come to my house, either."
No more. Four alleged gang members recently attacked two officers leaving a Mattawa High School football game, Harris says.
Frightened into trying to make a fresh start after a gang fight left the floor of his home covered in blood, Creeper moved in with his parents several months ago. But erasing the past has not been easy. Creeper is a ninth-grade dropout, covered in tattoos, and his prospects for legitimate employment are limited, while the likelihood of crossing paths with a gang member is not.
"It's all over Moses Lake," says his mother. "When he moved in here, he didn't let any of them know where he was. But this is a small town — everybody knows everybody. When my son went to our neighbor's house, there were kids from four gangs there, and they wanted to fight. It was very, very uncomfortable for him."
If Creeper's gang activity has left him scared and confused, it has taken an even greater toll on his family. Over the past decade, his mother and father have had to secure their home against theft from within and defend their younger son from assault by Creeper's associates (at one point taking out a restraining order). The more they fought, the deeper Creeper's involvement grew.
"We've felt completely alone in this," his mother says. "There doesn't seem to be any information on what to do to stop it, like the only answer is to leave. The gangs just came after and after him, starting in grade school. By middle school it was over."
Even now, though she believes the worst is behind them, the family home remains in turmoil, and Creeper has once again moved out. "Everything just feels like it's crumbling," Creeper's mother says. "My husband is constantly running — still — to bring our son food or help with his bills. I don't know if he'll ever get a job. We made mistakes. I think we should have installed alarms on the windows so he couldn't sneak out. But you can't exactly lock them up in a closet till they're 35."
LAW-ABIDING folks around here are finally holding meetings and saying it out loud, if cautiously: Gangs are making their lives increasingly uncomfortable. While most of the crime is focused on other initiates, brazen assaults such as the assassination of a 16-year-old last year in Beverly — a town of 620 people — and the dumping of a 17-year-old's body by the side of the road in Desert Aire, do nothing to help real-estate agents, tourism boosters or city officials trying to position their region as a family-friendly resort area.
"It's a huge problem," says a business owner in downtown Quincy, who grew concerned enough to apply for a concealed-weapons permit and now carries a gun to work. "In the past six months we've had two murders, and there's gun shots every week. In a city like Seattle, maybe that's easier to deal with, but we're a small community. Our quality of life has been diminished because of this."
Property values could be affected as well, he says. "I can't pretend that me and my family haven't talked about leaving town. We have. But we're in the middle of an economic crisis. My home isn't worth as much as it used to be, so I can't sell right now. I feel trapped."
Harris, too, knows people who have moved away or canceled plans to retire in Grant County because of gang crime. Yet his frustration is tinged with a grudging respect for the ingenuity and drive of his opponents. One gang member bragged to him about his crew's use of police scanners: "You guys are going to have a hell of a time catching us because we know what you're going to do before you do it," he'd said. And the officer could not argue.
Even Chief Ackerman, who moved to Quincy in 2009, was surprised at the reality. A veteran cop who retired after 32 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, Ackerman had done what research he could before arriving in town for his job interview and found not a word about gangs. But driving around, their presence was unmistakable.
"Any law-enforcement officer with experience is going to see all the tagging and say, 'Oh, I'm in a gang area.' It's as obvious as the nose on your face," he says.
"If we don't do something to manage this right away, we're headed in the same direction as Yakima Valley — whether folks here want to admit it or not."
Claudia Rowe is a Seattle freelance writer. Mike Kane is a Seattle freelance photographer.
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