NEW YORK — Life and death around West 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue come in strong doses.
On good days, mothers in curlers push strollers to a corner market, boisterous youngsters gather at a community center for after-school programs and old men play checkers at Col. Charles Young Playground.
On bad days, drug dealers and others settle their disputes with semiautomatic gunfire, often spilling blood in broad daylight, in front of children.
"The curriculum around here is violence," said Dwayne George, 31, one of the Harlem neighborhood's walking wounded. In 1993, George was shot in the face during a domestic row with his nephew.
"A lot of people got shot there the same way: Walk up, bam, bam, bam, and get away with it," said George, who now wears an eye patch.
Recently, however, the bad days are fewer. Murders and reports of other violent crime are down in the poor, largely black neighborhood, mirroring citywide statistics.
What's behind the overall trend is a topic of debate.
But in the blocks surrounding West 142nd and Lenox, authorities say, a startling drop in the homicide rate is directly tied to the demise of a drug gang known as the 142nd Street Lynchmob.
The gang's rise is the story of how a handful of criminals held an entire neighborhood hostage, piling up bodies and mocking justice. Its fall reflects a growing effort by authorities to use federal racketeering laws--designed to fight the Mafia--against street gangs.
The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, requires proof only that a suspect was part of an enterprise that committed a murder, not that he was the actual killer. A conviction of conspiracy to commit murder carries a sentence of life without parole.
In the last two years, 225 New York City gang members linked to 129 murders--and suspected of committing countless others--have been indicted under federal racketeering laws.
On July 21, authorities announced federal indictments on 10 top members of the Lynchmob, including Louis Griffin, a ruthless enforcer nicknamed Homicide Lou.
The defendants allegedly played a role in 15 murders and nine attempted murders--five of the injured were innocent bystanders--in turf wars dating to 1989. The actual number of victims probably is much higher, authorities said.
Homicides in Harlem's 32nd Precinct had reached 46 in 1994 when police began arresting the defendants last summer. After that, just six people were murdered the rest of the year. Sixteen people were slain in the first half of this year.
"The random shootings and bodies found on the street--that's over now," said Detective Donald Whelan, who investigated the gang.
Before the recent crackdown, the Lynchmob was untouchable, police and residents said. The 29-year-old Griffin, for one, was arrested for--but never convicted of--murder, attempted murder and robbery in less than a year.
"We need witnesses, and these guys had a way of making witnesses decide they didn't see anything," said Detective Jay Maher, Whelan's partner.
Effectively immune to state charges, the Lynchmob distributed millions of dollars worth of cocaine--often packaged in plastic baby powder containers--to dealers throughout the Northeast and South, authorities allege. The profits allowed gang leaders to move out of Harlem and into expensive homes in New Jersey.
But their hangout remained West 142nd and Lenox, where they gathered each day in luxury cars. At one point, the gang distributed T-shirts featuring their logo.
The gang's brazen gunplay and wealth both scared and intrigued a new generation, said Courtney Bennett, director of the Minisink Town House community center.
"There was 15 rounds shot into one guy right in front of my office window last winter," Bennett said. "The kids saw these things firsthand."
Police finally arrested Griffin on Aug. 29, 1994. By then, federal agents already were pursuing a racketeering case against the Lynchmob. Griffin, who pleaded not guilty, and the others were ordered held without bail until their trial.
"Word got out on the street that this time he wasn't going to see daylight," Whelan said.