To some, the threat of gangs in Atlanta emerged one winter morning in early 2009, when a young bartender was shot and killed during a robbery at Grant Park's Standard Food and Spirits. The Standard shooting, as it came to be known, represented a shift in the public's awareness of gang violence. Suddenly, it seemed, gangs were the entire city's problem.
But the story of Atlanta street gangs goes back much further. They emerged in the '80s as drug-driven organizations that operated from, and mostly within, the city's two dozen housing projects. As those projects were razed and their residents dispersed throughout the city, gangs were robbed of the territories and neighborhood ties that gave them staying power. Since the disbandment of the projects, two street gangs in particular — the International Robbing Crew, one of the more violent in Atlanta's history, and 30 Deep, currently one of the city's most criminally prolific — have come to prove that Atlanta gangs are now different creatures: Loosely organized factions of criminals claiming no specific turf, with a penchant for robbery and a propensity toward occasional — and extreme — violence.
At its most active, IRC embarked on a killing spree that Atlanta police attribute to a 20 percent spike in the city's homicide rate in 2007 — a crime spree that included a high-profile (and failed) hit allegedly arranged by NFL star Adam "Pacman" Jones. More recently, in January 2009, 27-year-old bartender John Henderson was gunned down at the Standard during a burglary that police believe was carried out by members of 30 Deep — a crime that, more so than IRC's string of homicides, changed the way Atlantans looked at gangs. It also incited residents to demand that police do more to target organized crime.
As those and other cases moved through the courts, a clearer picture of the two gangs — and the wider landscape of gang life in Atlanta — has come into focus. Court records filed in those cases, along with interviews CL conducted with longtime law enforcement agents, shed light on how 30 Deep and IRC operate, as well as how gangs have changed over the past 25 years. The following is an unfiltered look at the shifting mentality of Atlanta gangs, as told by investigators, prosecutors and gang members themselves.
The drug era: Miami Boys and the Black Mafia Family
Current Atlanta Police Homicide Commander Danny Agan joined the force in 1974 and witnessed the city's gangs in their infancy.
Agan: "The earliest gangs I can recall would be the motorcycle gangs. These were typically white guys. Hispanic gangs? No. Black gangs? Not that well-defined. Something happened to change that."
Police officers began hearing in the '80s that gangs — with names such as the Miami Boys, Down By Law and Black Gangster Disciples — were linked to crimes ranging from drug trafficking to robbery to murder.
Agan: "Back in the day, the gang boys were called Miami Boys, which was an offshoot from an organized gang in south Florida that was moving into Atlanta. And the nature of homicides changed. Back in the mid-'70s, the murders had a lot to do with domestic-type situations. And then the motives changed. A lot of times it turned out to involve some kind of payback, some kind of vendetta — some kind of turf control of who was going to sell dope on the corner."
Former APD Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli recalls a time when the city failed to take the gang problem seriously.
Arcangeli: "The Atlanta Police Department command staff and mayor's office had a track record of denying the existence of street-level gangs. And while Atlanta didn't have the territorial, ethnic or neighborhood gangs, such as the Crips or Bloods, there were a lot of homegrown gangs that sprung up as a result of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s. The sale of crack requires a team effort because it's high-volume, very dangerous, and involves guns and money, lookouts and transport. Naturally, it led itself to the creation of criminal-enterprise gangs. But our mayor at the time, Bill Campbell, chose to call them 'loosely organized social groups.' [That] made the job of our street police officers more difficult. They were discouraged from really pursuing the gang members. To arrest them would be to acknowledge their existence."
Eventually, city officials were forced to recognize the reach and scope of gangs, and in 1994 the APD established its Gang Unit. Current Interim Police Chief George Turner was named sergeant of that unit.
Turner: "We started that unit because of perceptions around the Crips and Bloods and the traditional black gangs. Back during those days, housing projects were really challenging [because of] the drug trade. Guys in the projects weren't allowing Crips or Bloods or anybody in their territory."
In anticipation of the 1996 Summer Olympics, and to break up what had become pockets of poverty and crime, the city in the early '90s began the two-decade process of demolishing all of Atlanta's housing projects. Gang members were dispersed as projects were razed and, as a result, gangs in Atlanta changed. Once police eradicated housing-project gangs, street-level drug dealing became less organized. At the same time, investigators took down the Miami Boys' drug enterprise — and a position opened up for a top-level cocaine distributor. In the late '90s, a crew called the Black Mafia Family stepped in to fill the void. Not a street gang, per se, BMF was a highly structured organization with an eventual 500 associates in a half-dozen states. And with BMF in power, many of Atlanta's drug-turf wars subsided. BMF's leaders generally frowned on violence, out of concern that it would endanger their lucrative drug enterprise.
After a decade-long investigation began dismantling BMF in 2005, a new — and bigger — organization took its place. Jack Killorin, director of the federal task force that targets major drug distributors, says his agency's primary target is no longer BMF.
Killorin: "Now, no question, the dominant players in the drug market here are the Mexican cartels. This area has become the center-point for narcotics distribution in the eastern United States. These people would have wiped their feet on BMF."
Burglary kings: The International Robbing Crew
After the drug trade in Atlanta was somewhat stabilized, initially by BMF and then by Mexican cartels, street gangs in Atlanta began looking to another manner of illegal cash flow — burglaries. The International Robbing Crew took organized thieving to new heights in Atlanta. And in IRC's case, the thefts came with a heavy dose of violence. Active locally since the '90s, IRC members — many of whom came from New Orleans — were responsible for a litany of robberies and murders between 2005 and 2007.
Killorin: "Some gangs — International Robbing Crew and some of the others — were really a post-Katrina [phenomenon]. It was a gang, a tough gang, but it doesn't have any [longevity] behind its existing membership."
Police were able to draw parallels between IRC's many crimes, which were laid out in a chart inside a dense case file in Fulton County Superior Court. Here are some of the similarities between the attempted robbery of a man named Gary Lester and the murders of three men: Randy Griffin, Clarence Hargrave and Dwayne Osby:
Motive: In all four cases, the motive was robbery.
Victim: IRC targeted people believed to be involved in illegal activity, like dealing drugs, because the victims would be hesitant to call police.
Items targeted: IRC focused on the theft of jewelry and money, as well as guns and drugs.
Number of perps: As many as eight people carried out the crimes.
Surveillance: Victims were scoped out before IRC made its move.
News outlets reported that another IRC-linked crime, the shooting death of Iraq war veteran Ryan Harmon, might have been "target practice." But in a 2007 interview with Atlanta Police Detective D. Quinn, IRC member Daquan Stevens, who was present the night of Harmon's shooting, explained the killing was calculated — and started over a parking disagreement at a downtown strip club.
Stevens: "Me and [fellow IRC member] Marciell [Easterling], one day we sitting in front of Magic City. [They] tried to charge him to park in front of the club. So I laugh. No harm in laughing. [Harmon] was like, 'What the fuck so funny?' I even took time out to explain myself to the man. 'Hey, look bro, it was nothing like that.' I turned back to look at Marciell, and I then turned back around. They done rolled the back window down — then pointed a pistol at me. Marciell got a gun on him. I grab him, tell him no. I pull off. [A couple of days later], me and Marciell seen him again and shot through the back of [Harmon's] truck. [We] went and put the gun up at the house, and that was it. Then we went to the club."
In a far more elaborate scheme, IRC victim Griffin was targeted for robbery, but IRC botched the job. As Griffin ran from the scene, he jumped into a second car filled with IRC members whom he mistook for help. An appeal filed by Stevens, a participant in the crime, describes what took place:
"On May 22, 2007, [Stevens] followed Randy Griffin to his townhouse with the intent to rob him. There was a second car of gang members already laying in wait at Griffin's complex. The gang members in the second car engaged in a shootout with Griffin. In a panic, Randy Griffin ran outside the complex, entered the car occupied by [Stevens] and told the occupants he had just been robbed. At that point, [Stevens] and his cohorts elected not to kill Griffin for fear of being recorded by street surveillance cameras."
IRC member Carlos Drennon, who was shot during the Griffin incident, was subsequently incarcerated. Phone calls he made from jail were recorded and later used as evidence against him. The following is a portion of a phone conversation between Drennon and IRC member Maurice "Mo" Hargrove. Police believe Drennon was using code words in an attempt to instruct Hargrove and their fellow gang members to follow through and kill Griffin.
Hargrove: "Why the ho flag them and got in the back of the car with them? You heard me? They still ain't fuck the ho, bro."
Drennon: "For real?"
Hargrove: "Look, like I say, man, you ain't got nothing to worry about. Nigga going to fuck the ho, man. You heard me?"
Drennon: "Yeah, I sweatin' that ho, man. Shit, I already know the whole team going to run through that ho. You know what I'm saying?"
Hargrove: "Straight up."
Drennon: "So, you know, I just got to depend on you. You know what I'm saying? Go on ahead and lay that ho on out for me."
Hargrove: "Straight up. You already know that. That's my word. I'm a fuck the shit out that ho, man."
Randy Griffin was shot to death by members of IRC June 10, 2007. A court document describes how Hargrove and two other IRC members caught up with him at a well-known hip-hop club:
"Edward Morris, Jonathan Collins and Maurice Hargrove traveled to Club 112 and waited for Griffin to come out of the club. Once Griffin returned to his vehicle, Collins, Hargrove and Morris approached Griffin with firearms and shot him five times. [A]fter the murder, Collins, Hargrove, and Morris advised Easterling and Stevens that they killed Griffin and instructed Easterling and Stevens to inform Drennon. In response, Drennon stated, 'That's what's up. It's just a waiting game now.'"
The most high-profile of IRC's alleged crimes was one that earned national attention for its connection to a big name: Adam "Pacman" Jones. In June 2007, retired police officer Darian Haygood says his vehicle was peppered with bullets after a confrontation with Jones and IRC member Edward "Slugga" Morris at Club Blaze on Moreland Avenue, south of Atlanta. No one in Haygood's vehicle was injured and no one was ever charged with the shooting. Jones has denied any connection to the Club Blaze incident and has said that he and Morris were mere acquaintances. Gang members have told a different story.
IRC member Easterling: "[Jones and Morris] had already been dealing with each other, going to clubs and stuff."
"Slugga" Morris in an interview with ESPN: "[Jones is] my partner. We hang out."
Since the indictment and sentencing of IRC's major players — at least four of whom are serving life sentences in Georgia prisons — the gang has fallen off the radar, though not completely.
APD Maj. Chris Leighty: "They're still out there. Some of their members floated out, joined other groups. They kind of imploded themselves."
Where IRC left off: 30 Deep
If IRC is a collective of street-hardened thugs, 30 Deep is like their kid brother. Its members are younger, sloppier and not quite as ruthless — but certainly are inching toward IRC-type behavior. The APD has been aware of 30 Deep since at least 2005. Responsible for an untold number of smash-and-grab burglaries, they became colloquially known as the "Blue Jean Bandits" for their preferred methodology: stealing cars, breaking boutique windows and making off with high-end garments.
30 Deep has a vehicle of choice, which they commonly stole to use in the burglaries. From a 2009 police report:
"We have been having problems with Jeeps [being used in] smash and grabs at stores. The suspects are using large rocks to break the store windows out and loading the stolen property into the Jeep."
While they're far from victimless crimes, smash-and-grab burglaries don't tend to involve the infliction of physical harm on victims because they necessarily take place after business hours. Members of 30 Deep have, however, attempted to rob individuals in occupied homes and businesses — in at least one case with deadly results.
30 Deep became something of a household name after the shooting death of John Henderson at the Standard galvanized a citywide anti-crime movement. Four months after the shooting, 30 Deep member Jonathan Redding was arrested for Henderson's murder. If there was any question as to Redding's affiliation, "30" is tattooed on his cheek. He was 17 when the crime occurred.
APD Interim Chief Turner: "We've always felt that juveniles had the propensity to be more violent because the simple fact that when we're kids, we have that feeling that we're indestructible. They don't really see the ramifications. They don't really see what effect a split-second decision might have on the rest of their lives."
Redding has refused to divulge the identities of the two other individuals who were with him the night Henderson was killed. Despite Redding's arrest, 30 Deep's criminal activity didn't wane. In January 2010, a year after the attack on Henderson, 30 Deep members Jarquez Hood, Kenneth Copeland, Shannon Stillwell and Deaundrae Williams were arrested when police found designer jeans (bearing tags from a boutique that was recently robbed) in a home on Dill Avenue in southwest Atlanta. A police narrative describes what was found during that search:
"High end jeans were found in a front bedroom where Jarquez Hood and Kenneth Copeland were pretending to be asleep. There was evidence of the 30 Deep gang at the residence. The letters YRC (Young Robbing Crew) was written in large letters on the back bedroom wall. Bloodz and Bloodz 5 Star symbol was written very largely on wall behind the door in the back bedroom. A notebook belonging to [one resident] had YRC [Young Robbing Crew], DRC MBG 30 written all over the cover a black T-shirt with silver letters YRC 30 on the front and Free my nigga, nuk."
Even in the post-projects era, gang activity continues to be borne of inclement social conditions that have endured in low-income neighborhoods. It's a cycle, and one that isn't easily broken.
Former Deputy Chief Arcangeli: "Gangs evolve where other social structures fail. Where there's an absence of fathers in the home, absence of competent supervision after school, absence of competent schools. That's a ripe breeding ground for crime and gangs. These young folks are just reaching out for acceptance, and they find it in these criminal enterprises who need some people who are not subject to criminal prosecution, who are naive, gullible, vulnerable. And they're able to victimize them. So these kids go very quickly from being victimized to learning how to victimize. When you have strong neighborhoods, you're less likely to have gang activity."
Additional reporting by Scott Henry, Mara Shalhoup and Thomas Wheatley.