Loudoun County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert M. Vernail has been selected to handle the office's gang-related prosecutions and to work with law enforcement officials across Northern Virginia in an effort to curb the region's increasing gang problem.
Vernail, 38, is filling one of five new assistant prosecutor positions created by the state specifically to target gangs. This month, new prosecutor slots also were added in Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Vernail, who started as a Loudoun assistant prosecutor in 1999, and his counterparts will work across jurisdictional lines and coordinate closely with each other and with local and regional police gang units. The new approach will allow each prosecutor to have a broader picture of gang activity across Northern Virginia, Vernail said.
"We'll become more familiar with the activities of a particular gang," Vernail said. "An important aspect of all cases, but particularly these cases, are the channels of communication about what evidence is being gathered and the gang's activity in the community."
The state is providing $70,217 to fund each position, and Loudoun is contributing $15,000 in local funding.
Although gang violence has plagued the Washington region for years, several recent violent episodes have refocused attention on the problem. In May, a 16-year-old Alexandria boy's hands were mutilated by machete-wielding gang members, police said. Last week, a 22-year-old Prince William man was fatally shot in what police said was a gang-related killing. Both cases were linked to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the region's largest and most violent gang.
MS-13 is considered the biggest menace in the area, but police across Northern Virginia count many more criminally active gangs. Loudoun Sheriff's spokesman Kraig Troxell said detectives believe there are about 20 gangs, including MS-13, operating in Loudoun.
Leesburg has recently experienced a burst of violence linked to a local gang known as the 434 gang, police said. Members have been linked to a July 31 fight outside the International House of Pancakes and an Aug. 4 assault at the Douglass Community Center.
Leesburg Police Lt. Jeff Dube said officers have tracked the gang for a few years. The 434 gang, made up primarily of teenagers and young men, is based in Heritage High School in Leesburg, according to court documents.
"This is one of the first times they've made themselves public as far as committing crimes this serious," Dube said.
The July 31 fight broke out between 434 members and members of a rival Ashburn-based gang, known as Ace Mob, about 1 a.m. in the IHOP restaurant parking lot, court documents state. Police said members of the Ashburn group carried cricket bats, which were taken away by434 members. Two youths suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were treated at Loudoun Hospital Center and released, Dube said.
On the evening of Aug. 4, police said, a youth was attacked while playing basketball at the Douglass Community Center. JaJuan D. Johnson, 18, and Thomas D. Ellison, 19, both of Leesburg, were charged with assault by mob. According to court records, Johnson and Ellison are believed to be members of the 434 gang.