Monday, May 15, 2017

As Nationwide Gangs Fracture, Bullets Fly in New York

 By
Benjamin Mueller, Noah Remnick and Al Baker
 
They came for the aging Bloods soldier a few minutes before midnight, bursting from the lobby of a housing project with a loaded 9-millimeter handgun.
The first bullet probably killed him, but six more shots followed anyway. And then the assailants scurried off into the shadows. Six brass shells lay in a halo at Jequan Lawrence’s feet. Another rested beside his head: a point-blank shot at an already-dead man that would leave his face disfigured at an open-casket funeral.
In a South Bronx neighborhood where violence is hardly rare, the brutality of the ambush gave even the most hardened residents and detectives pause.
But it meant even more to Mr. Lawrence’s fellow Bloods. It disabused them of the notion, however naïve, that their gang’s red flag of loyalty prevented one Blood from killing another over a petty beef.
The New York Times has documented every homicide last year in the 40th Precinct, a two-square-mile section of the South Bronx. The 14 killings that occurred amid the area’s housing projects and rolling parks represented the most intransigent forms of urban violence at a time of historically low crime: a machete murder by a schizophrenic man, two domestic homicides, orchestrated hits on drug dealers, a party out of control, bullets that killed women they weren’t meant for.
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Mr. Lawrence’s death was not the last, but it is the final one to be chronicled in this series. Detectives call the 31-year-old’s murder the darkest and most confusing killing on those streets in all of 2016.
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Friends and relatives of Mr. Lawrence, who was 31 when he was murdered. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
They believe it sprang from a fissure that for the past decade has been reshaping gangs across the country, especially the Bloods. Of all the murders last year in the 40th Precinct, it is the one most clearly linked to changing currents of crime that have led to deaths far from the Bronx.
Gangs are not as top-down and regimented as they once were, or unified any longer by a vision of racial solidarity and rivalries with opposing gangs.
Rather, the Bloods are fighting increasingly among themselves, sometimes to fill leadership vacuums as older leaders are locked up through federal prosecutions. As a result, sets — subgroups of national gangs — are splitting up and losing influence to separate, younger crews more loyal to their local housing projects. And profit-making, long central to gang life, is occasionally uniting Bloods and Crips — red and blue, bitter enemies for decades — in narcotics or car-stealing schemes. Gang life is as chaotic and unpredictable as ever.
“There is no doubt that over the past decade, the idea of one Blood nation is gone,” said Todd Blanche, former chief of the violent crime unit at the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan.
Detectives have told Mr. Lawrence’s family that they are focusing on an up-and-coming Bloods leader and childhood friend of Mr. Lawrence’s who, gang members say, was feuding with him over control of their set. The gang members, along with several friends and associates, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their safety.
But the police have not publicly named a suspect, and like five of the other murders last year, the killing remains unsolved.

Murder in the 4-0

To understand how murder lives on in a city that has seen crime fall to historic lows, The New York Times examined the life and death of each person whose murder was recorded in 2016 in the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx, as well as the challenges of policing there.
That sweltering August night, Mr. Lawrence had draped himself in the color of the Bloods: a throwback red-and-blue Detroit Pistons jersey, a red hat, red sweatpants and red-and-white Air Jordan sneakers. His boxers were printed with dollar signs. On his right shoulder were three O’s burned into the shape of a dog’s paw, an anachronistic trademark of the East Coast Bloods.
The verdict on the streets points this way: Mr. Lawrence — struggling to hold a job, stuck in a gang he no longer recognized — was leaning against a tide of change in the life of his set, the G-Shine Bloods.

Tranquil Beginnings

Mr. Lawrence had an idea that someone wanted to shoot him, so when he walked into the courtyard of the Mill Brook housing project, he would often carry a Nike shoe box containing a 9-millimeter.
If the police came by to sniff cups for liquor, he would hand the shoe box to a friend. The friend would stash it in a trash can or under the bushes, where “he could get it real quick,” the friend said.
But on Aug. 8, the Monday he was killed, friends said Mr. Lawrence wasn’t paying as much attention as he had been to the threats lurking around him.
He was born amid the crack boom and violence of the 1980s, in the George Washington Carver Houses in East Harlem. “All around us, people were getting shot just for stepping on the wrong sneaker,” said his mother, Karen Santana.
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A contractor cleaning the pavement where Mr. Lawrence was shot multiple times. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Still, his earliest days were relatively tranquil. Mr. Lawrence was a fat baby and slow to walk; Ms. Santana liked that because it meant he wouldn’t stray far. Nicknamed Quanny, he thrived in school and developed a fondness for illustration, a talent inherited from his father, Willie Harden. The child drew portraits of anyone patient enough to sit.
But Mr. Harden struggled with alcoholism and split from Ms. Santana. She met another man and spent some nights away from Mr. Lawrence and his older sister.
Ms. Santana moved the family over the Harlem River to the Mill Brook Houses in the Mott Haven neighborhood. She forbade her children to play in the courtyard and moved their beds away from the windows for fear of stray bullets.
The new neighborhood brought new problems. Mr. Lawrence went to Morris High School, an institution afflicted by violence, shrunken staff size and a paltry four-year graduation rate that hung then around 30 percent. Mr. Lawrence began skipping classes before dropping out in the 11th grade. On many mornings, Ms. Santana watched from her 11th-floor window as her son bypassed his bus stop and instead walked to another tower in Mill Brook. He moved in for a time with his father, who had since sobered up, but bristled at his strict rules and returned to Mill Brook, where, he told a probation officer, he had “more freedom.”
“That’s when he got away from me,” Ms. Santana said. “He wasn’t my Quanny no more — he was Q.”

Blood Brothers

Mr. Lawrence found a sense of purpose in the one institution around him that seemed to be thriving: the Bloods. By age 12, he was on the corner with men twice his age, waiting to rob someone, friends said. When he was around 17, his lawyer, Jennifer Brown, told a judge, he got the dog’s-paw mark burned onto his shoulder.
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Outside the funeral for Mr. Lawrence, who was a soldier for the Bloods. Detectives on the case are focusing on one of his fellow gang members. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Mr. Lawrence had always wanted a brother. In the Bloods, he found he could have dozens, and on top of that, he could make enough money for small luxuries: Chinese dinners for girlfriends and new sneakers for his little sister.
“The love-and-loyalty aspect of our set was something that he respected more than anything,” said a man in his mid-30s whom Mr. Lawrence once recruited to the gang.
Mr. Lawrence found a mentor in Robert Lockley, a thick-necked “O.G.” — original gangster — of the Gangster Killer Bloods, one of several sets that joined forces under the banner of United Blood Nation, which was established in 1993 on Rikers Island to combat better-organized Latino gangs. G.K.B. — or G-Shine, as Mr. Lawrence’s set called itself — solved problems with violence.
“Everyone knew G.K.B. were the shooters — they were individuals who had no fear,” said Ron Barrett, a gang-prevention specialist based in Albany.
Mr. Lawrence was a good fit. He made up for his 5-foot-8 stature with a big temper. Several friends spoke of his pulling a gun during fights. He would rob rival drug dealers knowing they would probably not call the police.
One night he took $20,000 in robbery spoils to Sin City, a South Bronx strip club — then threw most of it in the air for the dancers. Friends said he also solicited clients online for prostitutes, a scheme prosecutors say is growing more prevalent among Bloods as their control of drug markets declines.
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Mr. Lawrence’s father, Willie Harden, left, prayed at the service, held at Eternity Funeral in the Bronx. Mr. Lawrence, right, was laid to rest in the color of his gang: red. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Mr. Lockley was arrested in April 2010 in Newburgh, N.Y., a run-down area so popular with Bronx gang members seeking an escape from the New York Police Department that a local police captain said one neighborhood was nicknamed Little Bronx. The Ulster County district attorney, Holley Carnright, said at the time that Mr. Lockley was “known to authorities as a high-ranking member of the Bloods.”
Five years later, after being convicted on weapons and other charges, he died at an upstate prison from what friends say was a heart attack. The death splintered the G-Shine set. Soon several men were vying for the crown, and the set devolved into disputes over who was snitching, who had power and whether, at its core, G-Shine was a family or a business.
“The king’s asleep,” the Bloods recruit said, referring to Mr. Lockley’s death. “Everything changed.”

A Fractured Landscape

The changes convulsing the G-Shine Bloods in the South Bronx mirrored those affecting mainline national gangs in Newark, Chicago and Los Angeles. Over the past decade, the gangs splintered, leaving in their wake a number of proliferating subsets, many of them more aligned with particular blocks and business interests than with founding members growing old in federal prisons.
In almost two dozen interviews, former Bloods, federal prosecutors, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police detectives attributed the atomization to a variety of factors, none bigger than the aggressive conspiracy cases that regularly hit Bloods leaders with sentences described as football numbers: years high enough to be football scores. But social media has also allowed up-and-comers to latch onto gang lore without ever meeting an older member, and the rigid hierarchy of street drug markets has waned.
Several people have compared the Bloods to a franchise that has grown too large. Young men join because the brand name carries an automatic threat of serious violence against those who do not pay their debts. But as more and more franchises open, the founding ideal — Brotherly Love Overcomes Oppression and Destruction, as the original acronym goes — fades away, and the Bloods become a business alliance more than a brotherhood.
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Family members, including Mr. Harden, right, attending the burial at Mount Rest Cemetery in Butler, N.J. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
With leaders locked up, more Bloods are facing threats from within, as Mr. Lawrence did.
Dashaun Morris, known as Jiwe, a first-generation Blood in Newark in the 1990s who now conducts gang mediations, said there were once major consequences “if you violated another red rag.”
Not so much anymore. Younger men sometimes even flip their affiliation between the Bloods and the Crips. And it is not uncommon for rival gangs to join forces.
A few weeks ago, an F.B.I. special agent in New Jersey, John Havens, said he arrested a group of Bloods who, along with two Crips, had been stealing cars. Mr. Havens said that when he asked one of the Bloods how he had made peace with his rivals in blue, the man answered, “The only color stronger than blue or red is green.”
“They’re perfectly O.K. working together about money,” Mr. Havens said.
Mack Jenkins, an assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles, where the Bloods were born in the 1970s, said old rivals had recognized that violence was bad for business. Now, when someone is killed, gangs will sometimes send an emissary rather than a gunman.
“It isn’t from altruism,” he said. “It’s, ‘Let’s maintain our business relationships.’”
Money has long created rifts in the Bloods, ever since gangs tried to exploit the crack cocaine boom in Los Angeles, Mr. Jenkins said. And the East Coast Bloods — which have 7,000 to 15,000 members, the F.B.I. estimates — have long been better organized within prison walls than on the streets.
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A friend, left, poured Hennessy over the coffin of Mr. Lawrence, who was also commemorated at the Mill Brook Houses, right. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
But some of the hallmarks of the Bloods in years past, though always loosely followed, are falling away: paying homage to so-called original gangsters in prison, reciting oaths and rules, deferring to leaders in matters of violence.
“There were certainly people who were the equivalent of Christmas and Easter Catholics,” said Adam Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia, speaking of a recent Bloods case there.
The intergenerational rift was on display at the meeting of a Bloods set in Los Angeles in 2009, when founding members laced into younger men for not retaliating against rivals, dating women from other neighborhoods and fighting among themselves.
“Where’s the family at?” one man asked, according to a recording made by an undercover informant. “Only time we come together is at the funeral, homie. That’s the only time we see the family unity.”

Deadly Entanglements

Police officers knocked on the door of Mr. Lawrence’s mother in 2010, looking for a gun. To avoid making a scene, said his lawyer, Ms. Brown, Mr. Lawrence led them to a drawer where he had hidden a loaded .38-caliber Charter Arms revolver. A prior conviction on drug charges when he was 18 made possessing the gun a federal offense. Prosecutors said he told a detective he was in the Bloods and received money from gang soldiers, though Mr. Lawrence said he had the gun for protection only.
A prosecutor, Serrin Turner, said the authorities were not quite sure of Mr. Lawrence’s role. A detective, he said, explained that Mr. Lawrence “may have been out of the street game, out of the street life part of the gang, but nonetheless maybe he had moved up in the organization or was in some sort of retirement.”
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Remembering Mr. Lawrence at the Mill Brook Houses. He joined the Bloods after moving there as a child. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Mr. Lawrence walked away from a halfway home in November 2011, then was returned to prison and released again. A short time later, he was accused of beating up a man whose son had given away a pit bull Mr. Lawrence had bred and asked the boy’s family to watch.
He told a probation officer that it was difficult readjusting to life outside because there were cocaine parties in his mother’s apartment.
When he returned to the streets, Mr. Lawrence was 29 — past prime gang age — and imagined a steady, if duller, future raising the son he’d had eight years earlier with a girlfriend. He and the boy, Jequan Jr., known as Juju, played basketball outside when it was warm and video games inside when it was cold.
“After his fed time, he said enough is enough,” said William Lawrence, Mr. Lawrence’s uncle. “He didn’t want to be washing his clothes in a toilet bowl for the rest of his life. He had a son to raise.”
He got jobs folding hotel linens and stocking frozen food, and then a city job cleaning housing projects that paid less than $29,000 a year. Eager to escape the Mill Brook Houses, he borrowed money from his uncle and rented an apartment farther north for himself and his girlfriend. He kept the address a secret from everyone back in Mott Haven, including his own family.
Then he started fighting with his girlfriend and missing days of work. Early last year, he got into a fight with a tenant and lost his job.
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Mourners released balloons during the ceremony in the Bronx. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Mr. Harden, Mr. Lawrence’s father, often lent him money and once accompanied him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. But last summer, Mr. Lawrence stopped answering his father’s texts and calls.
At the same time, G-Shine began to split into warring factions. Mr. Lawrence had been counting on Mr. Lockley’s return from prison to calm the big egos seeking the top job.
One of them was a childhood friend of Mr. Lawrence’s, a man with a reputation for greed and brutality.
After Mr. Lockley died, the childhood friend started coming around the projects with bodyguards and flaunting his sleek black-and-white Audi. He became the set’s leader and inspired widespread fear.
“I don’t really like saying that cat’s name,” one man said. “I call him the Grim Reaper.”
The police have told Mr. Lawrence’s family that the new leader was among those they were investigating after the murder, but The Times is not printing his name because he has not been charged with a crime.
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A bullet hole in a slide at the Mill Brook Houses, located in a neighborhood where violence is not uncommon. Credit Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times
Through his brothers and mother, who were reached by phone and in person at the family home, the leader declined repeated interview requests from The Times.
The leader was feuding with Mr. Lawrence on a few fronts. He and a brother had threatened Mr. Lawrence’s friend, who had accused the brother of snitching in a federal case involving the sale of the drug PCP. The police believe Mr. Lawrence owed the new leader money for drugs. And Mr. Lawrence, friends said, resented him for his quick rise.
Mr. Lawrence “didn’t want to let go of the fact that this wasn’t his hood — or not anymore,” said a friend who occasionally spoke with Mr. Lawrence’s enemies.
The new G-Shine leader started calling Mr. Lawrence.
“He’ll call his phone and be like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that to you,’ to the point that Q was walking around with a gun,” said the friend who held the gun for him, using Mr. Lawrence’s nickname.
In the evening, four to five hours before the murder, Mr. Lawrence got another call. The leader threatened to kill him, and Mr. Lawrence replied that he wasn’t going anywhere.
He walked his son and his son’s mother to a cab on East 138th Street, passing a metal slide with an old bullet hole in the courtyard playground. Then he headed toward a Mill Brook high-rise where his girlfriend was waiting with a warmed-up plate of steak, rice and refried beans. He warned her not to share any spoilers about “Power,” the 50 Cent-produced crime drama they were going to watch together. “I’m walking to the building right now,” he said over the phone.
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Karen Santana, the victim’s mother, packed up her apartment in the Mill Brook Houses last October. She moved to Florida. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Three men had sneaked into the building’s lobby, taking advantage of its perpetually broken lock, and were waiting. There was no camera there or on the building’s awning — one of the few public-housing buildings in the 40th Precinct without one. They killed him and ran.
“Quanny just couldn’t get out of Mill Brook,” his father said. “So God took him out of Mill Brook.”

A Small World Unravels

After a storm of secondhand tips early on, the police investigation sputtered. Witnesses gave one set of answers about where they were when Mr. Lawrence got shot; GPS-linked ankle bracelets and security footage gave another.
“Nobody tells us anything,” said Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo, the commander of the 40th Precinct’s detective squad. It’s a theme that echoed through nearly all of the precinct’s murder investigations last year and The Times’s stories about them.
At Mr. Lawrence’s funeral, 11 days after he was shot, rumors about the case flew around a chapel full of candy-red do-rags and dresses. It was a Bloods reunion, but also a reckoning of ruptures in the gang. Men hurled accusations of “fake friends” and spurned loyalties.
A man in a red dashiki tried to speak: “No more from Mill Brook, no more, I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” he began before trailing off in whimpers and stumbling away from the lectern. Beside him, Mr. Lawrence’s body was clothed in a red baseball jersey, along with a matching hat to conceal his bullet wounds.
In the Mill Brook courtyard, there was no hiding the evidence of Mr. Lawrence’s murder. A cousin and an ex-girlfriend had tried using lemon-scented ammonia to scrub off the bloodstains. But their kitchen sponges tore off in bits of yellow fuzz until they were too small to hold.
With his Bloods set already fraying, the murder unspooled Mr. Lawrence’s world entirely. Feeling paranoid and suspicious, his younger sister retreated into solitude before moving away. A friend of Mr. Lawrence’s grew fearful that the killers would come for him next and disappeared from Mill Brook for long periods.
Worst of all was Juju. The 10-year-old boy had previously been a model of charm and composure, but he began acting out in school.
Mr. Lawrence’s mother had been in Florida when he was killed. On a gray Tuesday in October, she packed her things for the 27-hour bus ride back down south. This time it would be for good: Everything she couldn’t stuff into two suitcases went into a heap of black trash bags spilled across the floor.
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