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Gang feud in Montgomery County turns deadly, prosecutors say

Case unfolds amid rising concerns over teen violence in county

Three teens have been arrested in the killing of a 20-year-old in Germantown, Md. (Dan Morse/TWP)
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Late at night last month in Germantown, two assailants wearing ski masks walked up behind Taon “Tay Tay” Cline. One of them opened fire, striking Cline four times before he died. Now, as authorities continue investigating the case, allegations from prosecutors in a string of court hearings describe the ambush as part of something much broader: an escalating feud between street gangs in the area.

Unless proper precautions are taken, prosecutors say, the suspects arrested so far won’t be safe, even behind bars.

“There is ongoing concern about the escalation of violence,” Assistant State’s Attorney Teresa Casafranca said in court.

The case is unfolding as county leaders say teen violence is rising across Montgomery County. “I’ve never seen the volume of cases we’re seeing now. It’s a massive problem with no easy solution,” said County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large), who has been involved in county governance and youth programs for more than 20 years.

He and others said underlying social and cultural trends, exacerbated by access to easy-to-assemble “ghost guns” and the pandemic’s effect on youths, have pushed more toward violent activity.

“We are in a very tenuous situation,” Albornoz said. “It’s clearly escalating.”

Proceedings in the Cline case also have highlighted the ongoing debate over where best to hold teenagers charged as adults before their trials: an adult jail or a juvenile facility. Thus far, the three boys charged in Cline’s killing — 14, 15 and 16 — have been ordered to stay in adult jail despite arguments that doing so would put them alone in a cell for much of the day.

“Anything akin to solitary confinement is, I think, horrific,” Michael Beach, Montgomery’s head public defender, said in court. “And to do it to a juvenile is a hundred times worse.”

Gang activity in Montgomery County — the most populous locality in Maryland — has long been composed of two broad categories: local chapters of much larger gangs, like MS-13, and neighborhood-based crews concentrated in parts of Germantown, Gaithersburg and stretches of the county north of Silver Spring, according to Capt. Nicholas Picerno, commander of the police department’s special investigations division.

MS-13’s influence tends to rise and fall, Picerno said, while neighborhood gangs and their factions remain more constant. Many of their current members are the younger relatives of onetime members who have either aged out or been arrested, according to Picerno. And a growing concern, he added, is how quickly the new members will square off against rivals.

“Any potential slight or perceived slight can be grounds for retaliation,” Picerno said. “Something like disrespect online, or a public insult, could be all it takes.”

Two teens, 14 and 15, charged in fatal Montgomery County shooting

In the Cline case, it’s unclear what comment or incident may have started the animus between the Germantown and Gaithersburg gangs. But it led to a series of nonfatal shootings between the rivals, according to prosecutors, prompting the 15-year-old suspect to allegedly warn Cline on April 20 not come into Germantown’s Fox Chapel neighborhood.

If “my men see you, you’re getting upped,” he allegedly wrote on Instagram. On April 22, police say, Cline, 20, did come to the neighborhood and was killed.

The next day, a member of the assailants’ gang was shot, went to the Germantown Emergency Center, and refused to tell police what happened, said Casafranca, the assistant state’s attorney.

Detectives stitched together a case in the Cline homicide at least in part from witness statements and social media postings. On May 3 and May 5, they arrested the suspects, two of whom are brothers, who were locked into Montgomery’s adult jail.

In subsequent district court hearings, prosecutors highlighted online writings from the teens after the shooting. “Think ’fore you speak ’cus them 40 shells hurt,” the 16-year-old purportedly wrote, apparently a reference to .40-caliber bullets.

He and his 15-year-old brother also exchanged text messages, saying the correct person was “hit” and they needed to stick to their story, Casafranca said.

“All I need is an iron,” the 16-year-old wrote to his brother, with iron meaning handgun, according to the prosecutor.

Attorneys have indicated in court that police believe the 14-year-old was the shooter. But that youth’s attorney, citing police affidavits in the case, has questioned just how well they could know this.

“There’s no direct nexus with my client being associated with shooting anyone,” said the lawyer, Joseph McKenzie.

Attorneys for the other boys also have described the cases against them as weak.

“Right now there’s just a lot of guesswork,” said Beach, a lawyer for the 16-year-old.

He was 14 when he was charged with murder. He could be out of custody in less than a year.

“What you have is a complaint that’s full of innuendo,” added Mallon Synder, an attorney for the younger brother.

Snyder acknowledged that his client may have been at the scene, but while there he sent a text to his mother indicating he was a victim.

“Somebody’s shooting at us, come get me,” he wrote, according to Snyder.

Prosecutors described the same text message as the youth asking his mom to send an Uber.

Family members of the teens who attended court hearings declined to comment afterward. The Washington Post generally does not name juveniles charged in crimes until they are in circuit court. Cline’s family members could not be reached or declined to comment.

Even before the pandemic, trends showed more Montgomery youths adopting gang personas on social media to gain attention through likes and followers, according to Luis Cardona, director of the county’s Street Outreach Network and administrator of Positive Youth Development in Montgomery. The “cyber gang-banging,” as Cardona calls it, has led to violent, real-world encounters with other youths.

Then, the pandemic hit, curbing the kinds of programs — after-school sports and the Street Outreach Network, for example — that have long diverted children from gangs. Inside homes, Cardona said, many children faced increased domestic violence and tensions, no longer felt safe, and began gathering outside well past midnight.

“Kids on the cusp of being at risk fell toward criminality,” added Jessica Zarrella, a Montgomery County defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Albornoz and others added that the rise of easy access to “ghost guns,” which can be assembled from parts bought online, has made it easier for youths to be armed.

Outreach workers are encountering more teens carrying guns who have — on the surface, at least — a logical reason for arming themselves. “I know I shouldn’t have this thing,” they say, according to Cardona. “But I’d rather be caught with it by the police than without it by my rivals or someone out to get me.”

“It’s kind of, for lack of better words, a perfect storm,” Cardona said. “Cyber gang-banging is combined with access to weapons is combined with instability and lack of cohesion at home. It’s all had an impact.”

Attorneys for the teens arrested in Cline’s killing tried unsuccessfully to get their clients released from custody. Then, they asked judges to at least move them from Montgomery’s adult jail system to a facility for younger detainees within the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

The attorneys argued that at a juvenile facility, their clients would be around other teens. In contrast, because adult jails must keep juveniles separated from adults, the teens would face more isolation — a condition only magnified because, as co-defendants, they must be separated from one another.

“Having interaction with other human beings is essential for people not suffering any more harm than they normally do when they’re incarcerated,” Beach said.

He argued that the state’s juvenile facilities work with gang issues all the time and the agency could use multiple facilities to maintain separation.

But Montgomery’s prosecutors, joined by three judges over the course of six hearings, said they were more confident with protections afforded by the local, adult jail system.

“The staff has incredible intelligence with respect to these gangs, especially these gangs in Montgomery County,” District Judge Sherri Koch said. “There is already talk of retribution. And the best way to keep any of these defendants alive at this point is to keep them in a facility that has the best intel.”

A spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, Eric Solomon, declined to comment on the cases because they are pending in court. But, in general, he said, the agency follows detailed gang policies, speaks to local police agencies to get gang information on teens coming to its facilities, and knows how to separate youths who may pose a danger to one another.