Gangs sometimes fire first shots online

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 9:57 PM

Facebook has become a virtual street corner where members trade threats, mourn the dead.

Decari Starr

It's been more than two years since the death of Decari Antonio Starr, an 18-year-old from St. Paul who was shot in the chest in north Minneapolis and then dumped at North Memorial Medical Center.

There's almost nothing publicly known about his unsolved killing, but tucked away on the pages of Facebook, Starr, who was also known as "Pudda" or "Pudda Loc," has attained the higher profile of someone revered on the street because he was violently taken away.

There, friends of his call themselves "R.I.P. Pudda Loc," and post pictures of him and his gravestone. Some vow to avenge his death on pages where others mourn. On a Facebook picture of Starr's grave, one person wrote "rip big cuzzin your killer dieing this year."

Usually hidden from public view, the life of gangs weave in and out of some Facebook pages as kids wrapped up in Minneapolis gang life share their highs and lows on the social network. Posting in real time, their pages include hospital photographs after they've been shot, poses before the mirror with gang signs flashing, and a never-ending conversation rife with gang references, memorials to those who've been killed and threats to enemies.

"It's probably no different than any other kids, right?" said Minneapolis police Lt. Jeff Rugel. "They're sharing stuff that they used to do face-to-face or over the phone. But there's criminal stuff."

It was this sort of online back and forth between two Minneapolis gangs that helped fuel a series of house shootings last month that culminated in the killing of 5-year-old Nizzel George, according to police. He was found on a sofa in the front room of his grandmother's house, which was struck by a hail of bullets fired from outside. Two teenage boys have been charged with murder in Nizzel's death.

Rugel runs the police department's Strategic Information Center, where officers use technology to track crime. One of the jobs in his office amounts to monitoring Facebook full-time. They understand the teen slang and filter through thousands of innocuous and inane comments to look for the few that could solve a crime or stop one before it happens. They try to draw connections out of the Facebook networks to help document the shifting alliances on the street.

Police were aware of Facebook threats between rival gangs weeks before the shooting that killed Nizzel, but the threats weren't specific. When Rugel and his staff sees something that looks like trouble -- a known gang member says he's going to hurt someone -- they pass the information along to officers on the street.

It's a poorly kept secret that the police watch Facebook, said Rugel.

"You see comments every once in a while. 'Don't put that on Facebook. You know who's looking at it,' " he said.

Despite some users' occasional concern, many of the Facebook users monitored by police flaunt their illegal behavior online, showing themselves smoking marijuana, posing with stolen merchandise, the security tags still attached, and making gang signs.

"I have a prolific shoplifter who posts things on Facebook and says, 'Who wants one?'" said Rugel.

A recent comment from one of the people police watch on Facebook had him making general threats against a neighborhood: "I get bored and just want to shoot [things] up, so for the next few days you can be my target practice," wrote the young man, who went on to name a specific neighborhood.

A man who was shot Monday morning was photographed by someone who knew him as he was loaded onto the ambulance gurney. The photo appeared on his Facebook page less than an hour after he had been shot. That sort of real-time response makes it harder for police to dampen people's urge to retaliate, said Rugel.

Peer-to-peer communication

Peering into the gang world on Facebook reveals a sort of peer-to-peer communication that police don't see otherwise.

It's a growing phenomenon that's been tracked by police departments elsewhere, according to the latest National Gang Threat Assessment from the FBI. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and specialized websites like TheHoodUp.com allow gangs to recruit and easily communicate with one another, according to the report. "The proliferation of social networking websites has made gang activity more prevalent and lethal -- moving gangs from the streets into cyber space," the National Gang Intelligence Center reported.

That's likely true of highly organized gangs, but not everyone's convinced that what's going on in Minneapolis rises to the same level.

The lifestyle projected in local gang members' Facebook pages shouldn't be a call to arrest, said Manu Lewis, a co-founder of Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous, Minneapolis chapter.

Lewis said some of the photos might be made in jest, and those that are serious should be seen as the product of a young person looking for help.

"It doesn't make sense that an individual would incriminate themselves on a social site when everyone can look at it," said Lewis, "but that goes back to that misdirection. If they had somewhere else to go and something else to do, they would not be on Facebook and they would not be doing destructive acts in their communities," he said.

Lewis, along with other members of CGA, talk to young kids trapped in the gang life to show them a way out. Some of their clients are as young as 13 and 14, he said.

"These young men and women are sponges. They are looking for guidance. They are looking to individuals to pattern themselves after. If the only thing they have to pattern themselves after is death and destruction ... they will do that."

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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