More than 100 spectators awaited the start of a neighborhood softball game at a field on Mount Pleasant Road in Northview Heights. It was an early May day in 1993, around dusk. Suddenly, one group of young men opened fire on another. Spectators dashed for cover.
Eighteen-year-old James E. Jarrett Jr. was shot and killed. Another young man, Michael Martin, died the next day in the hospital after being beaten with baseball bats. A third, Vivaron Roberts, 18, went to the hospital with gunshot wounds to both legs.
Pittsburgh street gang warfare had begun in earnest. A series of retaliatory shootings between the North Side OG’s of Manchester and the Hoodtown or Hoodtown Mafia of Federal Street in the Mexican War Streets would leave a growing number of young people dead or wounded, neighborhoods bracing for more violence, and community leaders and police looking for ways to change the story line.
But that spring evening, things were a long way from calming down. Pittsburgh police detectives said the Hoodtown gang had attacked the OGs. The night’s violence launched at least two other rounds of payback killings in 1993. Thirty years later, local crime is both similar and different.
When a Pittsburgh police criminal complaint last October included the comment that a North Side shooting that killed two bystanders was “a concerted assault stemming from gang activity,” people took notice.
City police Detective David O’Neill, who investigated the October case and wrote the initial criminal complaints, later walked back that characterization in a Nov. 2 press conference: “We don’t have what you would consider traditional gangs like you had in the 1990s and the early 2000s. We have groups of people that are affiliated through interests, through social media that sort of come together. They have no geographical boundaries at this point in time.”
Street gangs have existed throughout time in one form or another, but American gang violence in the 1990s hit unprecedented levels, fueled by the introduction of the highly addictive cooked form of cocaine called “crack.”
As Allegheny County’s homicide rate ticks up to historic highs, similarities exist with those gang-driven years — killings often involved money, drugs and honor, then and now. But the differences are striking -— to police officials and to community leaders, even to some former gang members.
The days of wearing the right colors and going through rituals to become part of a gang have given way to “cliques and crews,” loose groups of armed youth chasing opportunities or settling grudges with guns. Social media has amplified the trash talk volume, and its targets may respond violently and quickly.
According to activists, the old street gangs had two advantages not seen today — structure and loyalty.
“There were codes: Don’t shoot at kids, in front of a church, at elders,” said Rev. Cornell Jones, director of street outreach for Group Violence Intervention in Pittsburgh, a partnership between law enforcement, outreach, social services and churches aimed at mediating violence and stopping its spread.
“Now it’s like every man for himself. No ethics, no morals, nothing,” said Richard Garland, 69, a former Philadelphia street gang member and a Pittsburgh activist for violence prevention. “Loyalty is everything. They don’t have no loyalty.”
And that will likely make fighting this wave of violence a different challenge from that last one.
Law enforcement in the 1990s tamped down on homicides with highly coordinated efforts among federal, state and local agencies and organizations. Their approach drew on violence prevention programs for children and federal charges with lengthy sentences against gang members.
Community leaders are looking at the lessons learned then, but trying to figure out which pieces might make a difference in this new moment.
For those who joined gangs in the ‘90s, the appeal seemed obvious.
One former Pittsburgh gang member who spoke on condition of anonymity said he got involved because he saw the attention that gang members received.
His parents were married, had a loving household and worked, but they were poor and never owned a car or had extra money for small pleasures like ice cream, he said. “I’ll say I was raised right, grew older, and I made my own choices,” he said.
Watching criminals drive through the neighborhood with expensive cars, jewelry and lots of attention made him aspire to their lifestyle. “You look and there’s this beautiful Mercedes, beautiful BMW, and there’s these guys who are dressed so well … Being a working manager seems like a joke,” he said.
He joined the gang at 15 and sold crack — “I wasn’t, like, super duper successful at it” — hiding his activities from his parents.
One day, they cleaned his room and found his drug money. “They told me I had to find somewhere else to live if that’s the road you’re going to go down,” he said. “I wasn’t upset at all because that opened the door for more popularity in the neighborhood.”
He remembered the first time someone shot at him.
He was standing on a street corner at night selling crack when he noticed a car approaching with its headlights off. “I just seen a guy come out of the back with a big gun. I’ll never forget that ... It was like 20, 30 shots ... I was cowering behind a Dumpster.” The car sped past. Miraculously, he was unhurt.
He was lucky. Many other young men were killed or wounded in the 1990s as street gangs vied for control of the drug trade. In 1993, the number of Pittsburgh homicides soared to 80 from 44 in 1992 — an 82% jump and the most in at least 40 years, according to Pittsburgh police data reported to the FBI.
Allegheny County homicides, including those in Pittsburgh, for 1993 were 118, a number that exceeded the previous high of 115 in 1917, according to a January 1994 Post-Gazette article. Last year and in 2021, the county’s annual homicides went higher, to 123.
Somewhere between 1969 and 1971, the violent street gang called the Crips emerged from majority Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Fear of the gang and the desire for power spurred the formation of similar groups like the Bloods.
Just as military groups and sports teams use uniforms to identify their own members and the enemy, street gangs used colored clothing to signal their loyalties. Blue is the Crips’ color; red is the Bloods’.
Both these gangs still exist, though not on the scale they did in the 1990s. The U.S. Department of Justice in 2008 estimated Crips membership at between 30,000 and 35,000.
The introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s led the Crips to spread across the country seeking new markets, including Pittsburgh. Here, Crips groups formed in Northview Heights, Fineview, Braddock, Lincoln-Lemington and Homewood. When Homewood became Crips territory, surrounding neighborhoods such as East Hills, Wilkinsburg, Garfield and Larimer, which already had tension with Homewood, joined or formed competing gangs.
The most notorious independent gang was the LAW, said to stand for Larimer Avenue/Wilkinsburg in numerous news articles.
That gang traced its roots to July 1991, when the Taylor Way gang was launched, named for a Wilkinsburg alley. According to grand jury charges, the Taylor Way group and the Larimer Hoodies had a picnic on April 27, 1993, in Frick Park and merged to form the LAW.
It became common to see young men in Wilkinsburg dressed all in black, the LAW gang color.
Belonging to a gang comes with certain rules, some of which are explicitly spelled out and some of which may not be.
Although it is unclear whether one universal set of rules applies to all Crips or all Bloods, sources including a website purportedly from the Los Santos Crips and the book “Crips and Bloods: A Guide to an American Subculture” by Herbert C. Covey, list gang rules. These stress the importance of respect and loyalty, and by extension, not giving information to outsiders.
The Crips are said to have an initiation ritual of forcing a prospective member to fight several members, perhaps as many as six, at once, which is called “jumping in.” A member who wants to leave the gang may be permitted to ”jump out”— fight a group of members before he is allowed to leave.
When Pittsburgh’s street gangs were at the height of their intensity in the early 1990s, wearing the wrong color led to trouble. One East Liberty man said in 1993 that his 40-year-old brother had been attacked twice. “He won’t go out to get my father or a newspaper if it’s dark,” he told the Post-Gazette in January of that year. “He won’t put on a red shirt ever again.”
Gangs had hand signals and unique sounds or “calls.” The Homewood Crips call was “boo-yah,” according to a May 29, 1994, Post-Gazette article. Wilkinsburg-Larimer’s call was “gaawoo,” a July 13, 1997, article in the newspaper stated.
Among those arrested for the Hoodtown attacks at the spring 1993 softball game was James Guyton.
The Manchester OGs seemed to be retaliating on Saturday, June 10, 1993, when James Guyton’s brother Derrick Guyton, 21, and two other people were sitting on his front steps. Four men came around the corner shooting, police said, according to a Post-Gazette article. Police estimated 20 to 25 bullets were fired from three guns. Guyton started running down Federal Street. He made it about half a block before he was shot to death.
Hoodtown members attacked the Manchester gang next. At about 1:30 a.m. June 15, one car began chasing another in the North Side, with people in both cars shooting at each other as they sped along North Charles Street, riddling nearby houses and cars with bullets. The pursued car veered onto Kenn Avenue, hit a tree, flipped onto its side and hit a utility pole near Fowler Playground in Perry South. The car occupants jumped out and ran. At some point in the incident, Ronald Jarrett, 20, a cousin of the murdered James E. Jarrett Jr., was shot and killed.
One of the men in the car being chased was Vivaron Roberts, who had also been shot in both legs at the May softball game. On Sept. 27, 1993, four men in a dark blue car overtook a car carrying Roberts, then 19, and a 15-year-old friend on Juniata Street in Manchester. As the Roberts car was put into reverse to escape, a man jumped out of the dark blue car and fired, hitting the two in the other car as it struck a tree. Both ended up in the hospital in critical condition.
Other gang troubles contributed to the year’s homicides. Kenneth Ray, a Crips member, shot and killed Jerry Phifer, 19, for calling him a “crab” and a “creep,” derogatory terms for Crips, according to a September 1993 Post-Gazette article. Daniel Hopkins, 18, was shot and killed Oct. 16, 1993, in what police believed was a feud between the Crips and Deuces street gangs, a news item in the newspaper recounted. And a carload of men wearing blue bandanas shot and killed Troy Miller, 18, and wounded another man in November 1993, while the pair were standing on the 400 block of North Braddock Avenue, Homewood South, according to a Post-Gazette news item.
Gang members enjoyed their notoriety. “We would try to shoot before 11,” the former gang member said. “Try to make the 11 o’clock news, and if it didn’t happen, everybody was so disappointed.”
Gang-related violence drew attention locally and nationally. Law enforcement coordinated many local, state and federal agencies to launch prevention and enforcement initiatives. Their attention soon homed in on the LAW gang.
“We believed this gang had the most propensity toward violence,” Allegheny County sheriff’s deputy Norbert Micklos later testified in court.
After an 18-month investigation that included surveillance, undercover agents and putting a wire on the founder of the gang’s girlfriend, federal prosecutors unsealed a 155-count indictment against 45 alleged gang members in November 1996.
The next day, 225 police officers arrested 19 people in Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh’s East End. More were arrested in the ensuing months.
The indictment charged the gang with one homicide, trying to kill another 14 people, threatening to kill another two, plus committing seven robberies, four arsons, one carjacking and one kidnapping.
This roundup marked the first time that Western Pennsylvania prosecutors used the federal racketeering law to break up a street gang, according to a July 1997 Post-Gazette article.
In the wake of the 1996 Pittsburgh gang arrests, gang leaders and members were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
By 2000, people thought the worst was over. Wilkinsburg High School’s head boys basketball coach, Art Griffiths, told the Post-Gazette he thought the community’s fortunes were rising. “We don’t have the gang situation we did four or five years ago,” he said. “They’re in jail now thanks to the sweep.”
With one gang depleted, law enforcement turned to others. In October 2008, about 200 police officers rounded up 66 people allegedly linked to the Braddock Crips.
In January 2010, state and federal agents charged 13 members of the Hoodtown Mafia with crimes. Agents had tapped cellphones, used controlled drug buys and even installed a camera inside a utility pole to keep watch on suspects.
In February 2010, federal prosecutors unsealed a 91-page indictment against 26 people, charging them under the RICO act with attempted murder, assault, carjackings and intimidation related to two North Side gangs’ heroin and cocaine operations. The suspects allegedly belonged to the Brighton Place Crips and the Northview Heights/Fineview Crips, which had joined forces.
A year later, federal charges were mounted against the Manchester OGs. “There are still remnants (of the gang) out there, but this is a takedown of the most violent OG members,” then-Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said in a March 2011 Post-Gazette article.
“By the ’00s, violence had begun to decrease significantly,” said Frederick Thieman, the U.S. attorney of the Western District of Pennsylvania from 1993 to 1997, in a recent interview. “New stadiums began to take a greater priority,” he said, meaning that other issues like the new football and baseball stadiums began to dominate public attention. ‘I think you see now the pendulum starting to swing back.”
Indeed, the arrests and indictments against violent street gangs have continued, with charges leveled between 2018 and 2021 against alleged members of the late rapper Jimmy Wopo’s 11 Hunnit gang; the Zhoove gang of Beltzhoover; Hustlas Don’t Sleep, Sco and Darkside Smashers 44, which operated out of Monroeville, Turtle Creek, Wilkinsburg and McKeesport; and the Hazelwood Mob.
Warner Mariani, a former criminal defense attorney now in the civil division, said he didn’t think the racketeering strategy fit the situation at the time. “(Pittsburgh’s gangs) were not organized crime, to say the least. They were disorganized, loosely affiliated at best.”
Mr. Mariani served as defense attorney for LAW member Rodlyn “Hot Rod” Dunson, who was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to eight years, 11 months in prison. “He was at best a peripheral member,” Mr. Mariani said.
Criminal defense attorney Chris Rand Eyster in 2012 defended Bryant “Little B” Mathis, who was considered a local Crips leader. “I thought he got banged more than he should have. He got 20 years for pleading guilty. Ten years is sufficient,” he said. “I liked Bryant. We had a good relationship. I thought he had a lot of redeeming qualities. ... There were no murders involved. It was largely a drug case.”
Yet Ernie Batista, now retired, who had been the Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge in Pittsburgh during the LAW gang takedown, said the gangs met the criteria for prosecution under RICO. “There was a higher structure,” he said. “They had the rankings and reported up the chain.”
The combined Pittsburgh and Allegheny County homicide rose from 97 in 2019 to 113 in 2020 and then reached 123 in 2021, according to the county medical examiner’s office. It held steady at 122 in 2022. The previous historic high was 118 in 1993.
People involved in heading off youth violence blame social media and the pandemic as especially pernicious forces fueling violence now, with social media use up during the pandemic lockdowns.
“Everything’s on steroids with social media,” Rev. Jones said. “Back in the ’90s, it would be a basic argument. Now, it’s 400-something shares on social media. Now it’s across the entire city. You have to prove you’re not weak, you’re not a punk.”
Mr. Garland concurred. “One of the first things I tell people — ‘Are you on social media? If you’re on social media, get off.’”
Rev. Jones used to work as a prison chaplain. When a prisoner came into his office, he would shut the door “and they’d just cry.”
“They don’t want to play that role, but they’re forced into it,” he said. “We’re dealing with people who need a chance, who need some direction.”
Mr. Garland said he sometimes sees a lack of agency rather than a lack of opportunity. “I’m frustrated when I get these calls, ‘I can’t get a job,’ and I see these (help wanted) signs,” he said.
Jobs would improve the situation, in the view of the former gang member, who questioned why blue collar job training centers like the Western Pa. Laborers Training Center and the International Union of Operating Engineers training school were in Saxonburg and New Alexandria rather than in Pittsburgh. “It seems as if there is a mass design to keep these training centers away from Black youth,” he said.
Mr. Thieman advocated a return to the highly coordinated effort among federal, state and local law enforcement, agencies and community groups to offer after-school safety, mentoring and jobs training, in addition to arresting the most violent offenders. “In the ’90s, we had 50, 70 people meeting monthly,” he said. “It wasn’t just the cavalry riding into a community and arresting everybody,” he said.
Rev. Jones pointed to his organization’s violence interrupter process, which involves identifying someone imminently likely to commit a violent act and intervening before it happens. The intervention involves meeting the person at his home with law enforcement, social workers, clergy and mothers whose families have been affected by violence.
“About 2% of the people out here are shooters,” he said. “We can change the lives of the 2% working in love. ... We can make our community safe for everybody. All people can change.”
The former gang member shook his head when he considered his past life. ”Looking back, that was all just so sad and stupid,” he said. “Willing to kill over crayons, crayons — colors.”
Laura Malt Schneiderman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Malt Schneiderman
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Laura Malt Schneiderman