Pubdate: Thu, 30 Dec 2004
Source: Times and Democrat, The (SC)
Copyright: 2004, The Times and Democrat
Author: Richard Walker, Staff Writer


COLUMBIA -- It's August 2003. A public place. Rival gangs crossed paths. 
One group is Bloods, one is Crips. Police say at that point, guns came out. 
A gun battle ensued. A young man ended up dead.

"His own buddy started shooting and instead of shooting the bad guy, he 
shoots his buddy in the back of the head," Richland County Sheriff Leon 
Lott said.

Another incident, another time.

A group of 17 church-goers enter a Columbia-area sandwich shop. Nearby, two 
gang members spot two opposing gang members "disrespecting" them by 
entering their turf.

Handguns are drawn and bullets fly. The glass windows of the sandwich shop 
are shattered. Several of the church-goers are wounded by flying shrapnel.

"They shoot at one another and we're having gang members shot and killed," 
Lott said. "But we're losing innocents as well."

Not necessarily with bullets but with legal brawn, state law enforcement 
officials say they will now be shooting back.

For the first time publicly, state Attorney General Henry McMaster said 
there is a serious gang problem in South Carolina. But he did so with a 
plan to fight back, unveiling his plan Wednesday.

"We have a gang problem in this state. It's growing and getting more 
violent," McMaster said. "While law enforcement has been vigorous in 
prosecuting gang crimes, it is clear that we still do not know the breadth 
and depth of the gang problem statewide. Therefore, it is appropriate to 
utilize the state's most powerful investigative tool, the state grand jury, 
to investigate and prosecute gang crime."

Typically, when police investigate a drug-related crime, gang members clam 
up, leaving investigators with little alternative, McMaster said.

However, the state grand jury can be used to compel gang members to testify 
in drug cases. Those who refuse can be charged with contempt of court, 
McMaster said.

That, in turn, will be an effective tool investigating gang members 
involved in the illegal drug trade by slashing what is believed to be their 
lifeblood -- drugs.

"The state grand jury has the authority to investigate the drug arena," 
McMaster said. "What we intend to do is utilize all of our resources to 
bring gang members into question."

It is hoped that by questioning lower-level gang members, the leaders of 
these drug-dealing gangs can be dealt with.

"If we cut the head off, the body will fall," Lott said.

The Richland County sheriff has readily said his gang investigation unit 
has identified approximately 50 gangs in his county with a membership of 
about 850.

And the problem is continuing to grow, Lott said, because of denial by 
local police and in the influx of out-of-state gang members, particularly 
from the Charlotte area.

"They look at South Carolina and the Midlands as fertile, new grounds," 
Lott said. "We don't want to wait until it becomes a Chicago or Little 
Rock. We're going to lock (gangs) up."

That has an alarming trickle effect, RCSO gang investigator David Soto 
said. The gangs cropping up in the bigger cities of the state are training 
those youths from the smaller rural areas.

"They're coming up here from places like Orangeburg," Soto said.

The plan to utilize the state grand jury is going into effect immediately, 
officials said. With the laws and power already in place, they are simply 
there for the using. In this case, the using to combat gang growth.

"The state grand jury is a powerful investigative tool and surely will be 
of great assistance in combating gangs' illegal activity," SLED Chief 
Robert Stewart said. "This should impact ill effects gangs have on our 

The time has come to do something, McMaster said, before it is too late.

"This is a culture, a subculture in our society that most of us don't know 
much about," McMaster said. "It's hard to believe that it's actually going 
on, but it is. It's in every neighborhood. The rich, the poor, old, young, 
black, white, it doesn't make any difference. It's all over the place."
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