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In trial, violent dynamics of Buffalo street gang unfold

For two-and-a-half days last week, Sam Thurmond sat on the witness stand and talked about the three shootings, two murders and his own violent gang life that have him looking at life in prison.

Now 26, Thurmond, wearing an orange inmate jumpsuit, spoke about joining the 10th Street Gang when he was 17 and quickly rising through the ranks of an organization that, at its height, had 100 members and associates and for 10 years terrorized Buffalo’s Lower West Side.

He testified about the gang’s hierarchy – members gaining status and respect by selling drugs and committing robberies – and of the various roles and jobs – fighter, shooter, drug dealer – that individual members took on.

A federal court jury listened as Thurmond told story after story about 10th Street’s long-standing feud with the Seventh Street Gang and the violence and intimidation that became part of a bloody rivalry that sometimes spilled over and took innocent lives.

“Is sitting here hard for you?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi asked Thurmond at one point last week.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Explain why,” Tripi said.

“Because they’re friends of mine,” Thurmond said. “I grew up with them. Being up here is hard.”

Just a few feet away, his boyhood friends sat, listened and took notes as their longtime running mate testified against them.

For the four defendants on trial – the only ones left among the 44 accused 10th Street members who continue to maintain their innocence – Thurmond’s testimony may prove damaging.

It also provides a rare glimpse into the violent street gangs that reigned over much of Buffalo. Under questioning by five different lawyers, Thurmond described how young men – teens, actually – got into 10th Street, the role of women in the gang and the group’s deferential approach to “older 10th Street” members.

He testified about the gang’s reliance on drug dealing and guns – he said nearly every member had at least one – and its use of tagging to stake out its turf.

“What was your role?” Tripi asked at one point.

“Shooter, basically,” Thurmond said.

“How many shootings?” Tripi asked.

“Three,” Thurmond answered.

During more than 10 hours of testimony, Thurmond took the jury through his life as a gang member, from the day he moved into the neighborhood as a young teen to the day of his arrest in 2012. He’s been behind bars ever since.

He spoke matter-of-factly about his involvement in many of the gang’s most violent crimes, including the murders of two innocent bystanders, Brandon McDonald and Darinell Young, on Pennsylvania Avenue in April 2006. Thurmond was one of the shooters that day.

The day before, the younger brother of a 10th Street member had been shot, and gang members had rallied together to retaliate.

“Revenge was in the air,” Tripi told the jury.

After more than a year in police custody, Thurmond pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara to racketeering conspiracy, and admitted taking part in the double murder on Pennsylvania. He also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

His decision to testify against his old friends – Johnathan Delgado, Matthew Smith, Domenico Anastasio and Ismael Lopez – could prove crucial to making the government’s case. At the core of the prosecution is the allegation that 10th Street was a criminal enterprise and that its members acted collectively to maintain and grow the enterprise.

“If they shot a rival gang member, they gained respect,” Tripi said. “If they killed a rival gang member, they gained respect. That’s what the gang was all about.”

Gang members’ roles

When Sam Thurmond moved to the West Side, he was barely into his teens, and his first friends were kids from the neighborhood.

Eventually, he and his brother, James Foxworth, started hanging with 10th Street Gang members, and it wasn’t long before they were asked to join.

“You had to know someone to get in?” Tripi asked him.

“Yes,” Thurmond answered.

But that was just a foot in the door. Thurmond said the key to rising through the ranks of the gang was “putting in the work” – in short, dealing drugs, fighting with rival gang members or doing robberies and shootings. And the more work you did, the higher your status in the organization.

Members also had specific jobs, Thurmond said. There were guys who dealt cocaine, and there were guys who sold just marijuana.

Even more telling, perhaps, he said there were gang members whose sole job was fighting and shooting.

“You didn‘t deal drugs?” defense lawyer Terry Granger asked him at one point.

“No,” Thurmond said.

“You were just a shooter?” Granger asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Thurmond told the jury the gang ruled by majority but had no president or figurehead, and never held regularly scheduled meetings.

“There was no leader,” he said.

Under questioning by the government, Thurmond talked about the role of women and older 10th Street members.

Women took on a wide range of jobs, he said, but among the most important is hiding guns and drugs when the police show up. He said most cops are men, so it’s less likely for women to get searched during a raid.

He also spoke about the gang’s more senior members, or what he called “older 10th Street.” They tended to be the organization’s large-scale drug distributors, the guys who supplied the gang’s street-level dealers, he said.

And with the drugs, of course, came guns. Thurmond said they were prevalent throughout the organization, and he estimates he saw anywhere from 50 to 70 guns during his time as a 10th Street member.

When Tripi asked who owned them, he said, “Almost everybody.”

Two innocents slain

Thurmond and one of the four defendants in this trial, Delgado, go way back.

Boyhood friends. Rap singing duo. And to hear Thurmond talk, co-conspirators in a gang attack that went horribly wrong.

It was just past midnight on Easter Sunday in 2006, and the news that Delgado’s younger brother had been shot by rival gang members was still fresh enough to provoke a call for revenge.

And ultimately, the murder of two innocent people.

Thurmond said he, Delgado and two other gang members armed themselves and loaded into a red sport utility vehicle that late April night with the intention of retaliating against the Seventh Street Gang.

Within minutes, they were on Pennsylvania Avenue cruising by what they thought was a well-known Seventh Street hangout – 155 Pennsylvania.

As they drove by, Thurmond said he noticed something odd.

“I didn’t see anybody I knew,” he told the jury. “I didn’t see any familiar faces.”

When he asked his friends if the people on the front porch were Seventh Street members, he said Delgado and Douglas Harville, another gang member, insisted they were.

The group pulled into a nearby alley, donned their black hoodies and masked their faces with bandanas.

“We didn’t want to be seen or recognized,” Thurmond said, “Anyone who grows up on the street knows you wear black when you’re committing a crime.”

As they sprinted toward 155 Pennsylvania, one of the shooters with him opened fire on a different house, Thurmond told the jury.

Five minutes and about 50 shots later, six people had been wounded, two of them fatally.

It wasn’t until later, while he was watching the early morning TV news, that Thurmond realized the two victims were not gang members.

“We saw that it was innocent people that got shot,” he said.

The victims, 16-year old McDonald and 45-year-old Young, were caught in the crossfire and died from their wounds.

Three of the four people who Thurmond says were armed and in the red SUV – he, Harville and Michael Corchado-Jamieson, have acknowledged their role in the murders. But Delgado maintains his innocence.

Prosecutors insist Delgado fired the .38-caliber bullet that killed McDonald, and Thurmond confirmed it was Delgado who was carrying a .38-caliber revolver that night. He also claims he saw Delgado firing at the house where McDonald was visiting.

Thurmond also told the jury of Delgado’s subsequent questioning by Buffalo police and how his friend tried to pin the murders on someone else. And when the other suspect’s girlfriend learned of the false allegation, she threatened to blow the whistle on Delgado, Thurmond said.

He said Delgado eventually learned of the threat and asked Thurmond if he should “quiet” her.

“What did you understand his statement to mean?” Tripi asked.

“That he wanted to kill her,” Thurmond said.

Facing a long sentence

In August 2010, Thurmond’s brother James, also a 10th Street member, killed himself, and the outpouring of support for his family led to an impromptu outdoor gathering at the 10th Street playground.

Dozens of people turned out, many of them dressed in red, Foxworth’s favorite color, and flashed what prosecutors claim are well-known gang signs.

A videotape of the event shows Thurmond and some of the defendants in attendance and, according to the government, is further proof of their involvement in the gang.

Thurmond now acknowledges his role in 10th Street but that wasn’t always the case, a fact defense lawyers were quick to pounce on.

“You denied being in a gang, correct?” asked Scott Green, the defense lawyer for Delgado.

“Yes,” Thurmond said.

“And you denied knowing anyone in a gang, correct?” Green asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Green took Thurmond through the various interviews he had with investigators, and asked him why he waited until this year to implicate the defendants now on trial.

Thurmond claims he was trying to protect his old friends but, in the end, realized he had to tell the truth in order to earn a shorter prison sentence.

With that in mind, defense lawyer Granger questioned Thurmond about the condition of his jail cell.

“Not a pleasant place is it?” he asked.

“No,” Thurmond said.

“Not a place you want to spend any spend time?” Granger asked.

“No,” Thurmond said.

”Certainly not 25 years,” Granger added.

The suggestion, of course, is that Thurmond would do or say just about anything to shorten what could be a life sentence.

Granger said Thurmond could reduce his potential life sentence to as little as 17 years in prison.

Green, Delgado’s defense attorney, also wasted no time in challenging Thurmond’s credibility as a witness. He suggested that Thurmond has a history of lying to police and prosecutors and that his testimony last week was just more of the same.

“You don’t want to spend your life in prison, correct?” Green asked.

“Yes,” Thurmond said.

“You want to be able to see your son again, correct?” Green asked.

“Yes,” Thurmond said.

Gang dismantled

By most accounts, the 10th Street gang is dead, dismantled by an FBI-led investigation that included a wide range of state and local law enforcement, including Buffalo police.

Thurmond said the decline started when the violent feud with Seventh Street escalated to murder and 10th Street members started going to jail.

So far, 40 of the 44 defendants in the case have been convicted.

The trial of the last four – Delgado, Smith, Anastasio and Lopez – resumes today.