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Breaking up violent West Side gangs took two years, multiagency effort

The summer of 2009 was a bloody one for Buffalo's West Side.

Nine young men were killed, including a 14-year-old boy shot while riding his bicycle. Many more were wounded but lived.

Many of the killings could be linked to a feud between two neighborhood gangs -- the 10th Street Gang and the 7th Street Gang.

"There was a feeling of terrorism," recalled Lourdes Iglesias, executive director of Hispanics United, a community services organization on the West Side.

"It was just crazy that year," said Stephanie J. Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a housing development agency on the West Side. "One thing after another kept happening."

The Buffalo police were doing what they could, patrolling the neighborhood and arresting people for selling drugs. But that clearly wasn't enough.

So the police got together with federal and state law enforcement. They had worked many times before to go after gangs through an FBI program called the Safe Streets Task Force, which brings together resources of federal and local law enforcement to target violent street gangs using federal laws.

This time they tried something a little different. Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda assigned two homicide detectives to work full time on the task force. They were joined by investigators from the State Police and FBI agents. They had one mission: Dismantle the 10th and 7th street gangs.

"We formulated a plan to go after them and get rid of them once and for all," Derenda said.

Two and a half years later and after five rounds of coordinated raids, 44 members and associates for the 10th Street Gang and 18 associates of the 7th Street Gang have been indicted in federal court. Already, 14 people have been convicted. And they are doing hard time -- decades in some cases -- in federal prison.

In the meantime, the homicide rate has dropped dramatically as well. In 2009, there were 60 homicides in Buffalo. Last year, there were 36. So far this year, there have been 16 homicides -- on par with last year.

"It's made Buffalo a safer community," Derenda told The Buffalo News in a recent interview. "The homicide rate being down, I believe, has a lot to do with this particular investigation."

Derenda acknowledged that there has been a rash of shootings lately, including on the West Side where two people were fatally shot in separate incidents in May. Those shootings are gang-related, according to investigators, but did not involve the 10th or 7th Street gangs.

>The West Side gangs

Police believe there are roughly 100 gangs operating in the city. Some have national affiliation. Most are neighborhood based. The 10th Street Gang and the 7th Street gang were believed to be the neighborhood type.

The 10th Street Gang, in particular, was "one of the most violent gangs we've ever seen here in Buffalo," FBI Special Agent James Jancewicz said.

The 10th Street Gang, also known as 1015 and MOB, was formed in the late 1980s and claimed control over the area between Niagara Street and Richmond Avenue and Auburn Avenue and North and Carolina streets.

The 7th Street gang, also known as Cheko's Crew, is a newer gang claiming turf on the west side of Niagara Street in the lower West Side, according to an indictment written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Tripi, the lead prosecutor.

Both gangs are made up of "kids that grew up in the neighborhood," Jancewicz said. "They grew up with that gang, always knowing that gang was in their neighborhood."

Both gangs were multicultural, despite their reputations as Hispanic gangs, Jancewicz said. Both gangs were engaged in selling drugs -- cocaine, crack, marijuana and heroin, according to court records.

>The violence

What most worried police was the gangs' penchant for violence and thirst for vengeance. Worse, it seemed they didn't care if innocent bystanders got in the crossfire. They were firing at people in the middle of the street, sometimes in broad daylight.

The indictments against the gangs offer chilling details:

In 2006, the same Easter weekend that Sister Karen Klimczak was murdered by an ex-convict she took into her halfway house, a 10th Street member was shot.

His brother, Jonathan "Jmag" Delgado -- who authorities have identified as a senior member of the 10th Street gang -- and other members of the gang got together that night to plan a retaliatory attack against the 7th Street Gang.

They obtained weapons, and one gang member allegedly scoped out a known 7th Street Gang hangout on the 100 block of Pennsylvania Street.

"They are out there, do what you gotta do," he called the others to report, according to court records.

The gang members allegedly met in an nearby alleyway, then ran out, shooting wildly. Five people were wounded, two fatally.

Six men -- Delgado, 23; Sam Thurmond, 23; Domenico Anastasio, 24; Ismael Lopez, 24; Darnell McIntosh, 28; and Christopher Pabon, 23, have now been charged in federal court in the mass shooting.

One of those killed that night was Brandon McDonald, a 16-year-old boy who authorities say wasn't a gang member but happened to be visiting with some members when the shooting occurred. Darinell Young, 45, who lived next door, also was killed. He was coming home from the corner store after buying snacks for his pregnant girlfriend when he was hit by stray gunfire.

Then there was the bloody summer of 2009.

That May, 10th Street Gang member Saul Santana allegedly shot at purported 7th Street Gang member Anthony "Ace" Colon, according to court documents. He missed, but wounded two others.

A month later at 5:30 p.m. June 26, Santana fatally shot Colon on Ullman Street in Riverside. Santana has since pleaded guilty to the slaying.

In between the attempts on Colon, Christian Portes, a 14-year-old boy who was in and out of the 7th Street Gang, was shot June 13 as he was riding on his bike at Whitney Place. Miguel Moscoso, also known as Cheko, has been charged in Portes' slaying.

And on Aug. 11, a 10th Street Gang member fired shots at a house on Pennsylvania Street. The same day, Eric Morrow, a fellow 10th Street Gang member, was gunned down on West and Auburn avenues.

Alleged 10th Street Gang leader Efrain "Cheko" Hidalgo, Kasiem Williams, Esteben Ramos-Cruz, Juan Torres, Jordan Hidalgo, Uda Hidalgo and Ritchie Juarbe were charged last month in Morrow's death.

A few hours after Morrow was killed, two 10th Street Gang members are accused of going after a 7th Street Gang member. They chased him down Bird Avenue, shooting him in the back over and over. He survived and the shootings raged on.

>Targeting violent gangs

The task force that took on the 10th and 7th street gangs was made up of two FBI agents, two Buffalo homicide detectives and two State Police investigators. They did not want their identities to be published because of the nature of their work.

The task force members worked almost exclusively on the West Side gangs case for the last two years, said Jancewicz, who oversaw the task force.

The plan of attack: Revisit all the crimes the two gangs had committed, going back a decade in some cases, to establish that they were part of an "enterprise" and committing crimes to help or further this "enterprise" -- racketeering.

The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was originally used to go after the Mafia in the 1970s, explained U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr.

"What RICO allows us to do is charge multiple participants that are part of an enterprise with multiple crimes, all at the same time," Hochul said.

The first order of business for the Buffalo task force was identifying who was in the gangs. "You have to prove they are a member of the gang," said one task force member who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his name not be used.

The team of investigators consulted with patrol officers familiar with the turf and pored over police and court documents for anyone identified as a possible member of the West Side gangs.

In 10th Street's case, investigators discovered some gang members had posted photos on their MySpace accounts, identifying themselves as gang members and showing pictures of them together throwing gang signs.

"You just type in the name online and the investigators start seeing all the same guys that they think are in a gang and now they see pictures of them together making signs," said prosecutor Tripi, who also worked closely with the task force.

Once the young men were identified as members of the gangs, the task force pulled each member's arrest record, culling each report for information -- where they were arrested, who they were with, and what drugs or weapons they had on them.

Their convictions, in city or state court, were then used to bolster the RICO case against the gang. While a conviction for selling a small amount of drugs may amount to a nominal amount of jail, that same conviction could also be used to show the gang member was committing the crime as part of the enterprise, Hochul said.

The task force also took a look at unsolved slayings that Buffalo detectives had suspected were the work of the West Side gangs -- many retaliatory acts for previous murders and attempted murders.

The task force members re-interviewed everyone they could find connected to the cases, from witnesses to alibis, and put together those cases as part of the RICO case.

The first federal charges came in the fall of 2009 against a single 10th Street Gang member who already had been picked up by Buffalo police for shooting up a car. Then in December, five more members of 10th Street Gang were charged with racketeering, along with attempted murder.

The following May, 28 members were picked up in simultaneous raids, and this time murder charges, built on information gathered following the previous arrests, were included.

In the meantime, 18 members of the 7th Street Gang were arrested, including the reputed leader, "Cheko" Hidalgo, who was captured in Puerto Rico.

The task force remains active today. The homicides haven't been as rampant, but there have been shootings, including two recent homicides, neither of which were related to the 10th and 7th street gangs, according to investigators.

>The community

As for the joint local and federal investigation, Derenda said he couldn't be more pleased with the results. "We have decimated the group," Derenda said.

Community leaders are pleased with the more-comprehensive approach law enforcement has taken.

"There's nothing more beautiful than picking up the paper and seeing 30 people have been arrested in a sting operation and that some are high-level people," said Common Council Member David Rivera, who represents the Niagara District. "That is music to our ears."

He hasn't heard many complaints about 10th and 7th street gangs lately, he said. But that doesn't mean the gang problem has been eradicated.

All too often, Rivera said, he sees groups of young men hanging out on street corners and up to no good. "They're not done," Rivera said. "Nowhere near being done."

Council Member Darius Pridgen, whose district includes a small portion of the Lower West Side that has been heavily affected by the gangs, said he is also a fan of the more-comprehensive approach.

"It's more than a Band-Aid," he said. "We are finally doing the operation to remove the illness of crime."

Simeon, whose organization's office is on Virginia Street, said she's found that the community feels that the arrests have left the situation somewhat safer.

"People say it's not as bad as it was before," she said. "Peope are not duck-and-diving any more."

While the shootings are down, other crimes persist, and the perception continues that the neighborhood is unsafe.

The city needs to work closely in the neighborhood, Simeon said, providing jobs and activities for young people and making sure the streets are safer through everything from increased police presence to improved street lighting.

Lourdes Iglesias said the community has had mixed emotions about the mass arrests.

"Certainly, we all want to feel safe," she said. "But then, on the other side of that token, they have picked up so many young people and that is distressing. So, we wonder, what could we have done to prevent this?"

That's the question Bob Kuebler, who heads Youth With a Purpose, asks, too.

Kuebler has known many of the young men killed or now in jail as part of the gang feud.

He was especially hit hard by the death of Christian Portes, whom he was trying to keep out of trouble. The boy had been part of a performance group that went into schools to show alternatives to gang life. The teenager eventually drifted back in with the gang crowd.

"There are so many Christians out there," he said of the slain boy.