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Officials Fear Spread of Gang Activity From Washington

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

On the fringes of Northern Virginia, and a little beyond, gang activity flares up only occasionally and without much violence, law enforcement officials say. Neighborhood mobs and small street gangs sell drugs and spar over territory, but it is only occasionally that police in such jurisdictions as Spotsylvania County find members of more notorious gangs from Prince William and Fairfax counties doing business.

Law enforcement officials in the Rappahannock region, about 50 miles from the Capital Beltway, fear that the minimal gang activity they have seen could get worse. They believe that the crackdown on major gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in the closer-in Washington suburbs could easily push many members to move down Interstate 95, into their steadily growing exurbs.

To stanch that flow and prevent a minor problem from morphing into a crisis, law enforcement officials in the four Rappahannock jurisdictions -- Spotsylvania, Stafford and King George counties and Fredericksburg -- are banding together this summer to share intelligence and monitor gang activity. With the help of $650,000 in federal money secured by Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), the Rappahannock Regional Gang Drug Terrorism Task Force will begin work in July.

"We will now have dedicated resources doing nothing but focusing on individuals in gangs. It will create a broader sense of networking," said Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett. "Gang members know no boundaries. What we're trying to do is not wait until the horse is out before we close the barn down. We're trying to get ahead of this problem and be proactive."

The task force will be composed of one police officer from Fredericksburg, three sheriff's deputies from the neighboring counties and a crime analyst, who will map patterns and trends. Located in a Fredericksburg office building used by the FBI, the task force also will help federal investigators monitor people suspected of posing national security threats.

The Rappahannock task force was among several anti-gang agencies in Virginia to receive funds recently from the federal government, which gave $3 million to the state. In January, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced that the money would be distributed to 32 state agencies and entities -- ranging from the Bedford police department to the Fairfax County Gang Prevention Council -- with the Rappahannock task force receiving the largest chunk.

"The problem of gangs is an issue in communities large and small, and one that requires the participation of law enforcement, government, and community organizations at every level," Warner said in a statement this year.

Law enforcement authorities say they already are beginning to see MS-13 members in the Rappahannock area. They drive down Interstate 95 and think they can commit crimes without being caught, they said.

William Neely, the commonwealth's attorney for Spotsylvania County, said his office is capitalizing on a fairly new law allowing prosecutors to convene special grand juries. By compelling witnesses to talk through the power of subpoena, grand jury investigations have helped prosecutors catch a gang's top boss.

"It's the only way we can go after gang leaders," he said. "Without the grand jury, you get stifled at the street level, arresting little soldiers who are too afraid" to implicate a leader.

Sgt. Sheila Jones, supervisor of the Fredericksburg Police Department's vice-narcotics unit, said MS-13 members began trickling into the area last summer. They found MS-13 graffiti in the Bragg Hill neighborhood, a diverse, low-income area, and heard they were hanging out in large numbers at one of the city's nightclubs.

Last month, she said, after a man was arrested on suspicion of selling 41 grams of crack to an undercover officer, police searched his apartment. They found a great deal of MS-13 apparel, she said.

Inside his closet, she said, police found athletic jerseys and baseball caps bearing the gang's logo.


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