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Web of Crime Proves Tough to Untangle

A small, changing gang cell appears responsible for some of the worst violence in South L.A.

March 22, 2004|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Det. Scot Williams sat down last year to connect the dots. His goal? To make sense of the bloodshed in his South Los Angeles division.

At first, his efforts to link seemingly unrelated cases by examining ballistics and witness reports yielded a striking result: Many of the 77th's worst violent crimes in the last year seemed to be the handiwork of a single cell of killers sharing the same stash of guns.

In fact, Williams found, one weapon -- an AK-47-type rifle -- had been used in no fewer than seven of the crimes -- including the murder of a 9-year-old boy.

But what happened next offered a sobering lesson. Police made a series of arrests. But the violence continued. Even though their efforts led to the seizure of a gun used in more street shootings than any other that detectives could recall, a shifting pool of weapons and shooters sustained the violence.

"People get arrested. But the crimes continue," Williams said. As for the guns: "There are so many out there. You feel good if you take one of them off the street. But then a couple weeks later, another pops up."

The lesson, said criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, is that even the best police techniques may yield limited results because of the complexities of gang violence.

By seeking to penetrate the networks behind gang crime, Williams "is doing exactly what police ought to be doing," Rosenfeld said. "But we have to be realistic about what even the best police work can accomplish."

The chain of gang shootings in the 77th Street division started with the murder of a prominent gang leader in late fall 2002. Police believe that the suspects identify themselves with a large street gang but that several of the victims had no gang ties.

Shortly afterward came the assault-rifle murder of Kelley Browner on Nov. 12, 2002, as he walked down a sidewalk on Western Avenue.

Two other murders followed in the next four days, including one with an assault rifle. Then came some nonfatal shooting attacks, and two arrests.

There was a lull, until January 2003, when a woman walking on South Menlo Avenue was wounded in gunfire from an assault rifle.

Then in February, 9-year-old Ishmail Durden was killed, shot inside his home, also with an assault rifle. Two suspects were arrested.

After that, there was a double murder in March in Watts, and murders in May and June. Other weapons used in some of the crimes were a .45-caliber handgun and a 9-millimeter handgun, sometimes with the assault rifle and sometimes not.

It was not until LAPD investigators and ballistics experts began sifting through the details of these and other South Los Angeles cases after Durden's death that they found the links.

Eventually, Williams produced a computer chart showing that just three guns, including the assault rifle, and a car, in various combinations, connected a dozen separate crimes -- eight murders and four attempted murders.

For police, the assault rifle soon became as notorious as any gang member.

"It was all we talked about for a while," Williams said. "That gun was doing a lot of bad things."

Police pursued the other guns and suspects highlighted by Williams' chart. They found the 9-millimeter, then the car.

Finally, in late summer, deputies working in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Century area on an unrelated search found the long-sought assault rifle hidden behind a refrigerator.

The rifle had traveled some distance. It was in the hands of a different gang, across the Harbor Freeway from the original group of shooters. In fact, the rifle was identified only by chance: Investigators thought it might be connected to still another set of crimes in Watts, and asked that it be tested.

Investigators were surprised when the ballistics tests came back identifying it as the notorious 77th Street weapon. "I was excited," Williams recalled. "I thought it would end a big portion of the street violence."

But he was wrong. A few weeks later, on Oct. 15, Keiyontate Bailey was killed in a murder involving another assault rifle. The killing was connected to the same cell of suspects. It appeared they had replaced the notorious assault rifle with a new one.

Doreen Hudson, supervising criminalist in the LAPD's crime lab, said the episode reflected the tendency for guns used by gangs to be passed around.

It is unusual for police to find one weapon involved in seven serious crimes. But the use of stashes of weapons by multiple suspects means that guns and suspects often don't match up, Hudson said. A suspect linked to one crime is commonly found in possession of a gun linked to another.

But it is not just the shifting of guns that makes solving gang crimes difficult. Suspects also are a fluid, elusive group.

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