Whatcom County officials alarmed over increasing gang activity

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 6, 2011 

Washington State Department of Transportation employees Stan Hanson, Maintainence Lead Tech, left, and Dale McClellan, Maintainence Tech 2, cover up graffitti Monday morning, January 25, 2011 that was spraypainted the night before on the southbound Interstate 5 soundwall just north of the Lakeway exit. "When graffitti happens we want to cover it up as soon as possible, especially if there's profanity," said Hanson.

RUSS KENDALL — BELLINGHAM HERALD

On Jan. 13, Texas Street residents reported shots fired from a maroon Ford Taurus toward a group of people standing on the street. One person from that group returned fire. No one was hit in the exchange.

The shooting is believed to be gang-related - retaliation for an earlier incident between two rival gangs, according to Bellingham Police.

The 18-year-old driver later told jail officials he was a member of the Brown Pride Surenos gang, and that a member of the Bonsallo Locos Surenos had pulled a gun on him earlier that day, police said.

Gang activity is steadily rising here, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. Roughly 38 gangs operate in Whatcom County, with a total of 350 to 450 members, up from 150 to 250 known members in 2007. Their crimes range from auto theft to murder and many of the gangs are involved in drug trafficking and dealing.

"This is a growing issue and one we need to get a handle on," Sheriff Bill Elfo said.

A lot of communities across the country have degenerated because of gangs, which is why it's important to focus on it now, Elfo said.

"People like to believe it's not happening in Whatcom County, but it is happening in Whatcom County," said Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick from the Sheriff's Office.

VARIETY OF GANGS EXIST

Whatcom County has outlaw motorcycle gangs, white supremacist groups, drug trafficking organizations and various branches of Hispanic street gangs.

Law enforcement also has taken notice of people who affiliate themselves with the Insane Clown Posse, a Detroit rap duo. Members, who call themselves Juggalos or Juggalettes, "easily number over 100 in Whatcom County," Elfo said. They consider themselves a family rather than a gang, and many who claim affiliation are not involved in criminal activity, he said. Others, however, have extensive criminal histories.

Elfo said it is impossible to know the exact areas of the county where gangs operate.

"Gangs tend to be mobile, and when pressure is applied they simply move on elsewhere," he said.

Ferndale commonly sees branches of the Surenos, a Hispanic street gang that originated in Southern California, said Steven Gamage, school resource officer for Ferndale Police. Some ways in which members identify themselves are with the color blue, the number 13, the 13th letter of the alphabet, "M," and the Roman numeral XIII, he said.

The recent Texas Street shooting involved different branches of the Surenos, although it is unclear how many total members are in Bellingham.

Bellingham Police declined to provide detailed information on which gangs are active within city limits, or how many members belong to each gang. The police department believes the publication of such information glorifies the gangs.

They did, however, confirm about 100 members from various gangs live in Bellingham or have been contacted by police in Bellingham, according to Detective Al Jensen. That number doesn't include gang associates.

GANG CRIME WIDESPREAD

Three days after Gamage attended a gang training in January 2010, a gang fight erupted at Ferndale High School. Shortly before school got out, five males who claimed to belong to the 18th Street Surenos entered the campus, gathered next to the exit of the main building and waited. As students left, they attacked two students who claimed they were members of the South Side Whittier Tokers, Gamage said.

Two 18-year-olds attacked the students with bats or sticks. No one was seriously injured. The attackers were arrested and later pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault. They were sentenced to one year in jail with all but 30 days suspended.

That was just one of many gang-related crimes in the county since 2009. Some other notable ones:

Bellingham, May 19, 2009: Disc golf players were threatened and one was injured by 10 alleged gang members in Cornwall Park.

Everson, Sept. 26, 2009: Three alleged gang members fired several rounds into the air from a stolen car and then tried to flee. While driving off, they struck and injured three people who were attending a birthday party.

Bellingham, Dec. 18, 2009: Two males chasing a third male through the Bakerview Fred Meyer pulled out a can of pepper spray. The spray went into the air, exposing a family to the chemicals.

Bellingham, Dec. 19, 2009: A mother and her two sons walking through Bellis Fair mall were attacked by eight or nine teens, two of whom used a length of chain and pepper spray to attack the mother.

Blaine, Aug. 15, 2010: A 16-year-old boy and his father, as well as several other relatives and neighbors, were attacked by suspected gang members.

Bellingham, Sept. 26, 2010: A gang member from Spokane pulled a gun outside The Royal in downtown Bellingham and struggled against police officers as they arrested him.

In Everson, some of the first gang members to arrive were from the Yakima and Sunnyside areas, city Police Chief Erik Ramstead said. Police and community members first noticed the gang presence when graffiti began popping up all over town. Then, assaults and drug crimes increased. More people were seen dressed in all blue or red.

Everson police identified the problem early and cracked down on the gangs.

"We knew we couldn't let this get a toe-hold in our community," Ramstead said. "We tried to make this a place where they're not welcome."

Although the gang problem has decreased in Everson, Ramstead said many of the same gang members are still in Whatcom County.

TAGGING NUISANCE

While not all tagging is gang-related, graffiti is one of the most consistent problems associated with gangs, Jensen said. Some of that graffiti appears on the noise walls along Interstate 5.

The walls between the Lakeway Drive and Ohio Street exits are some of the most heavily tagged, said Ric Willand, a maintenance supervisor with the Washington State Department of Transportation. And someone who was "very bold" recently walked out onto the beams of the overpass near the Samish Way exit and did some spray painting, he said.

Willand said he has to send a crew out at least twice a month to cover graffiti on the noise walls. Each job takes at least an hour or more and costs a couple hundred dollars for the manpower and paint.

THE DRUG TRADE

In June 2009, two teenage boys were assaulted in an apparent gang-related incident outside of a house in the 4000 block of Eliza Avenue in Bellingham.

At least 15 rival gang members from the Mount Vernon area drove to the house and confronted two boys, according to Bellingham Police. A 16-year-old boy was stabbed in the abdomen. A 15-year-old boy was hit in the head and face with what was likely brass knuckles, police said.

The Bellingham Police Department cited this incident as one of the main examples of why it needed additional funding for gang prevention and suppression in a grant application submitted in 2009 to the state.

The department was awarded $103,147 for the salary and benefits of one full-time gang detective for one year to coordinate gang enforcement responsibilities.

In the grant application, the police department wrote it continues to "see an increase in gang members from Skagit County and lower British Columbia come to Bellingham to commit their crimes."

The transportation and sale of BC Bud marijuana and Ecstasy in the community mostly involves gang members from Lower British Columbia, according to the department.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the transportation and sales of Ecstasy by Asian gang members," the department wrote in its application.

The Northwest Regional Drug Task Force investigates drug and weapons trafficking by a number of gangs in Whatcom County. In addition to BC Bud and Ecstasy, methamphetamine and heroin manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into the U.S. are some of the most heavily trafficked drugs here.

Broader criminal syndicates use gangs to traffic narcotics - either as mid-level or street-level dealers - and gangs recruit younger people to deal at the lowest levels, Elfo said.

"We're seeing 18- and 19-year-olds involved in that stuff now," he said. "That's where they fund a lot of their operations."

The drug task force helps a lot, but it has limited funds. State funding was recently slashed, and the task force lost an officer from the Ferndale Police Department because he was needed at that department.

"The drug task force is the only program that we have that can make any dent in drug trafficking and criminal gangs," Elfo said. "If that were to be eliminated, it would just be wide open here."

STOPPING GANGS

Elfo said he fully supports Attorney General Rob McKenna in his recent proposal of a bill aimed at cracking down on violent gang-related crime. The bill would establish a grant program for gang prevention and increase prison sentences for gang-related offenses. It also would give law enforcement a new weapon - the ability to issue protection orders prohibiting gang members from taking part in gang-related offenses as well as closing down housing where gang crime is known to occur.

The bill, which has been met with opposition from civil rights groups, is currently working its way through the Legislature.

Elfo said the anti-gang legislation would be a "valuable tool" to help combat gang-related crime.

"We want citizens being able to sleep at night knowing law enforcement is taking care of the issue," Elfo said, adding that it's tough for law enforcement to deal with the problem because of shrinking budgets.

To help with gang prevention, Elfo said it's important for parents and teachers to become involved.

Many gang members are high school aged or in their mid-20s, said Chadwick of the Sheriff's Office. As gang members have children, more young children - some as young as kindergarten and first grade - are taking on a gang persona, wearing gang colors and flashing gang signs, Elfo said.

The biggest threat gangs pose to Whatcom County, Elfo said, is "the violence and recruiting of young people in our community to take up the gang lifestyle and to take up crime."

The kids most susceptible to joining a gang often have problems at home and are looking for security and safety, said Gamage of the Ferndale Police. They see the gang as a substitute family.

"Parents can help reduce the risk their children will develop gang affiliations by showing love, involvement in their lives, knowing who their friends are and ensuring that wholesome options are available to fill their free time," Elfo said.

Without a supportive parent, a teacher may be the only positive role model a child has, he said.

"Educators need to be aware of the signs of gang activity and take steps to help students understand the violent and dysfunctional future gang activity offers," Elfo said.

He said neighborhood organizations, such as The Boys and Girls Club, sports and scouting programs, can help children fulfill their need for acceptance.

"No one agency has the resources to deal with (the gang) problem," Elfo said. "It needs to be a community effort."

Reach ISABELLE DILLS at isabelle.dills@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2220.

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