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Residents Voice Fears at Forum on Gang Growth

By Julie Feldmeier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page LZ03

Residents expressed concern at a forum Thursday night that the tide of people moving into Loudoun County was also bringing gangs and gang-related crime. Some were particularly upset when they saw a video of a gang initiation in Algonkian Regional Park, a popular recreation spot for families in eastern Loudoun.

The forum at Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn was one in a series organized by the new Gang Response Intervention Team (GRIT), formed to combat the growing problem of gangs in Loudoun.

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"We're the fastest-growing county in the nation. With this massive influx of people comes these problems," said David Carver, the program's coordinator. "We've got what could be a serious problem down the road if we don't start addressing it now."

MS-13, a Hispanic gang with an estimated 3,000 members in Northern Virginia, has more than 22 "cliques" in Loudoun, according to local officials. The Los Angeles-based Crips and 18th Street Gang have also made their mark on the county, and there are home-grown gangs committing crimes and recruiting in the area, said sheriff's investigator Frank Pearson.

Pearson presented a slide show showing gang graffiti throughout the county -- mostly variations of the MS-13 symbol, sprayed across Goose Creek Bridge, on the side of the Sterling Park Mall and on Plaza Street in Leesburg.

Recent speculation about ties between MS-13 and al Qaeda were especially worrisome to Dawn Gelormino of Ashburn.

"Are we truly prepared to handle this epidemic?" asked Gelormino, one of about 50 in attendance.

Containment was another concern of hers, echoed by others in the audience who had doubts about the proposal to extend Metrorail into Loudoun.

"What's the plan to keep crime in D.C. and Fairfax out of our community?" Gelormino asked.

Some audience members were rattled by a 2002 video clip of a gang "jump-in" -- the initiation ritual in which new members are beat up by the group for 13 seconds or more -- at Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling. The video was secretly shot by a police unit that had been tipped off about the gathering.

"I live less than a mile from the park, and I never heard anything about it," said Caroline Chase of CountrySide. She said her daughter's Girl Scout troop met at Algonkian Regional Park -- in the same pavilion in which the gang initiation was held.

Awareness is essential to curbing gangs, Pearson stressed.

"The first thing is to leave here, share this with your family, friends, neighbors, relatives -- tell them what you learned. Get them educated, get them interested. Then talk to your kids. They may not be involved in the gang, but they can tell you within their school who to . . . watch for. Then those are the things you need to relay back to us and the school."

The Sheriff's Office and GRIT team uses this information to get a better pulse on local gang activity -- where the members gather, how they dress and the symbols they use, Pearson said.

"We have to come together as a community on issues like this because it's no less important than a biological pandemic," said Leesburg resident Mark Smith. "It's an emergency, and we've got to deal with it."

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