July 12–Big Mama Blood. Shotgun. Dread. Tater Head. Tweeze. Killer. Arsonist. Fish.
Those were nicknames of suspected Bloods Street Gang members disclosed Wednesday in a federal-state dragnet that netted indictments against 38 Columbia-area men and women on more than 100 crimes, including murder, drug dealing, interstate prostitution and sex trafficking, robbery and using the Internet to file false income tax returns.
“Gangs in this state deal drugs, carry guns and commit violence,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, who was joined by SLED Chief Mark Keel, Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, FBI S.C. Special Agent Dave Thomas, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott and representatives of other law agencies, including the IRS, in announcing the charges.
Those agencies, as well as the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the ATF, were part of a joint task force that spent more than two years investigating the gang’s activities in the Columbia area. Agents used numerous court-authorized cellphone wiretaps, video surveillance, undercover agents and informants, according to court documents. The wiretaps, especially, are expected to provide crucial evidence.
Although Nettles would not specify which neighborhoods the Bloods operated in, law enforcement sources told The State that much of the alleged criminal activity took place in apartment complexes along Broad River Road and in Gonzales Gardens, a public housing complex near Providence Hospital.
As of late Wednesday, seven of the 38 defendants remained at large. Most were arrested Tuesday in early morning raids in and around Columbia carried out by some 200 law enforcement officers.
One suspect, David “Dread” Jenkins, described in the indictment as a key leader of the Columbia Bloods, was arrested earlier this week at his house in Huntington Beach, Calif.
The 100-page, 134-count federal indictment unsealed Wednesday was the latest salvo in the multi-year drug war in the Columbia area that pits law agencies against gangs that deal in the illegal narcotics bought and consumed on the sly by thousands of local residents.
Local gangs handle much of the marijuana and cocaine shipped into Columbia from Mexico, breaking it down into smaller quantities, law officers say.
Bringing federal charges, which often carry mandatory stiff sentences for things such as firearms and tax violations, allows law officers to avoid South Carolina’s state courts, which often give lower sentences and operate under weaker laws, law officers say.
“If you get a fed charge, you pretty much aren’t getting out of it,” said Chief Scott.
From 2005-2007, a similar law enforcement task force investigation in the Midlands netted numerous indictments against members and leaders of the Gangsta Killer Bloods, a gang law officers said was related to the Bloods Street gang. One person arrested in that round-up, Torrean “Arsonist” Sims, served time in prison, and was indicted again this week. According to the indictment, Sims is a local leader.
“Combating gangs isn’t a one-arrest event — it is an ongoing process,” Nettles said.
Wednesday afternoon, 26 defendants named in the indictments sat in a packed courtroom in the Matthew Perry federal courthouse in downtown Columbia. The 20 men and six women were wearing jail jump suits of red and orange and were shackled hand and foot. Nearly all appeared to be in their 20s or 30s. No juveniles have been charged.
In a hearing that lasted several hours, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph McCrory went over the charges with them and their court-appointed lawyers. U.S. Judge Joe Anderson will be handling the cases, McCrory said. On Monday, McCrory is expected to hold detention hearings for the suspects. Federal prosecutors are expected to oppose any suspects’ efforts to be released on bail.
At the hearing’s start, McCrory asked the defendants to raise their hands when he called their names. As he worked his way through the list, the almost musical clink of their manacles could be heard throughout the courtroom as each raised his hand.
When McCrory called “Stewart Stroman” and got no answer, a woman sitting in the court audience — apparently his mother — yelled out “Stewart!”
On the prisoners’ back row, Stroman — accused of drug dealing and managing prostitution — looked up and raised his hand.
Six search warrants were served in the course of the operation in South Carolina and California, yielding drugs, currency, firearms and a bulletproof vest. Prosecutors said information developed during the Columbia investigation also led to the federal indictments of some 28 North Carolina Bloods and associates in Charlotte in May.
–Detailed the origins of Columbia’s Bloods Street Gang, also known as United Blood Nation. It is descended from a Los Angeles gang called The Bloods, which was comprised of seven street gangs whose operations expanded across the nation in the 1980s during the early years of the crack cocaine epidemic.
–Delved into the secretive culture of Columbia’s Bloods, which — to deceive police — has its own lingo, initiations, gang color (red), rituals, chain of command and rules. No one should “snitch” or cooperate with police, and “a red bandana must always be worn on the right side of the body.” The gang even has membership dues, some of which is used to help the families of gang members who are in prison. The phrase “baby love” means money, and “wisdom” means crack cocaine.
–Gang members were engaged in a racketeering enterprise, protecting their turf and profits through the use of intimidation, robberies, home invasions, threats and forced prostitution. One female used for prostitution was a minor.
–Ten of the 38 people indicated were involved in filing false federal income tax returns via the Internet to get illegal refunds. Nine defendants who had served previous stints in prison were charged with possessing firearms in violation of the law.