The Calhoun County district attorney targeted them in a speech on the courthouse steps, flanked by county police officials.
Two Anniston High students lounged on a front porch last week in Norwood Homes while discussing who was in them and why they were dangerous.
A worker at Jess’ BBQ on West 15th Street took an afternoon break on Thursday as she described the special clothing they wore and handshakes they used.
Earlier that morning, a Jacksonville State University student who says he’s one of them talked about handshakes, too.
All of these people are talking about the same issue: gangs. But no one speaker meant the same as any other.
“So what exactly do you mean by gangs? So far what’s been talked about has been vague and unspecific,” said Telesa Stanford, a Hobson City native and mother of the JSU student. “That’s dangerous. I go through all of this, and it doesn’t add up.”
A new buzzword
In a matter of months, “gangs” has been transformed into a buzzword, a touchstone people reach for when discussing the recent rash of homicides in the Anniston area.
District Attorney Brian McVeigh identified criminal gang activity as a focus of law enforcers for the first time during a September press release. In a follow-up interview with The Star, he identified two area groups as gangs and said the crackdown stemmed from increased public concern in the wake of the shooting death of an Anniston police officer and other high-profile crimes.
But McVeigh also emphasized this in that September interview: There is no indisputable evidence that ties gang activity to Officer Justin Sollohub’s shooting death or to any of the other 15 homicides in Calhoun County this year.
And despite recently arresting more than 46 people in a gang-focused warrants roundup, McVeigh and police officials have been consistently tight-lipped about the specifics of these so-called gangs, including how they’re connected to the recent spate of violent crimes.
McVeigh said after the Oct. 6 roundup and courthouse press conference he would no longer publicly comment on the ongoing investigation into gang activity. There would be no further discussion specifically of Norwood Homes’ Taliban Clan and Hobson City’s YNTO, the two groups the district attorney labeled as criminal gangs in September.
Instead, McVeigh directed questions to Anniston police, whose Street Crimes Team is “taking point” on the gangs crackdown.
“We’re trying to gather what (intelligence) we can about these gangs, so we’re reluctant to say much,” said Anniston Sgt. Jay Whisenant, the commander of the Street Crimes Team. “Because it’s much harder for us to gather intel if they know we’re looking for them and what exactly we’re looking for.”
But just as Whisenant is concerned that divulging too much information could hurt his investigation, Stanford worries about the lack of clarity surrounding law enforcement’s public discourse on gang activity.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Stanford said. “If you say you’re going to crack down on gangs — say it’s because of the homicides, but then say there’s no evidence that the homicides were gang-related — that’s very concerning.”
Whisenant said police use the Alabama criminal code to help them determine which groups are gangs and which people are suspected gang members.
“As far as what we’re considering a gang, we’re looking at a group of people who conspire together to commit criminal acts,” the sergeant said. “A lot of the gangs here have numerous identifiers.”
Those identifiers include certain clothing styles and colors, tattoos and hand signs, but Whisenant declined to elaborate on specific gangs or identifiers police are investigating.
Stanford, other residents and business people in the west Anniston neighborhoods where police have focused their gang crackdown all defined “gangs” similar to the way police have.
“I picture a gang as people who are killing other people, setting up people to be killed, committing crimes, constantly fighting with other people,” an Anniston High School freshman said. “They’ve got hand signs … and they’re always making chaos.”
Split on specifics
But the concurrence between law enforcement officials and these residents ends where that rather general definition does. The specifics — which groups are actually criminal gangs, what crimes they commit, who’s in them and whether they have anything to do with the year’s homicides — cause the breakdown.
McVeigh has flagged YNTO and the Taliban Clan as two of Anniston’s criminal gangs.
But Stanford and her 19-year-old son Deonta Allen — a self-proclaimed YNTO member — dispute the notion that YNTO is a gang, instead calling it a group of young black men whose founding members were focused on recording rap music in Stanford’s attic. The 15-year-old Anniston High girl and her 16-year-old sister also think McVeigh publicly named the wrong groups.
“The police, they’ve got the wrong guys,” the 15-year-old said as the sisters enjoyed a rainy fall break at Norwood Homes. (Although the girls and their mother gave The Star permission to print the sisters’ names, The Star chose to withhold the identities of the minors.)
The girls said a group of young men who live in and around Cooper Homes on West 15th Street call themselves West Side and BD for “baby danger.”
BD and West Side members are “creating the problems,” the 15-year-old said. “I just stay away from them.”
Aretha Vaughn, a 35-year-old west Anniston resident and employee at Jess’ BBQ on West 15th Street, also mentioned this West Side group as one of the primary names she heard associated with gang activity. But Vaughn said she’s also heard customers mention YNTO and the Taliban Clan as gangs, too.
A criminal behavior expert at the University of Alabama said the wide array of differing opinions is normal, especially when law enforcement officials decide to publicly address gang activity.
“The gangs are part of the neighborhood; they’ve got a distinct territory,” said Mark Lanier, a professor at Alabama who spent three years studying criminal gangs in Chicago and Detroit. “So a lot of the community members don’t perceive the so-called gang the way the law enforcement officers do or even others in the community do.”
Labeled too soon?
Still, Stanford said, specifically labeling the Taliban Clan and YNTO as gangs without offering any support for the claims is endangering her family and distracting the public from the city’s more pressing problem of rising homicide numbers.
“Don’t mention specific groups if you’re not going to say specifically these groups are gangs and here’s how they’re connected to these crimes and why we arrested these people,” said Stanford, an advocate at a local domestic violence shelter. She noted that many of the year’s homicides have been the result of domestic violence incidents or arguments between acquaintances.
Indeed, only a couple of cases — the July murder of Adrian Estelle near Hobson City and the August killing of Oliver Jackson in Norwood Homes — involve suspects who police publicly have tied to gangs.
Whisenant acknowledged police are still in what he called a preliminary investigation phase. He said police are not attempting to link the recent homicides to gangs so much as they are trying to determine exactly which crimes in Anniston are gang-related.
“You have to prove the elements of a criminal street gang membership first,” Whisenant said. “It’s not as easy as seeing three men out on the street wearing red shirts and saying, ‘That’s a gang.’”
Young Negus Taking Over
But if it’s not as easy as that, Stanford wants to know why McVeigh called YNTO a gang without backing up his claim.
In September, the district attorney identified the group as a criminal gang with about 25 members based in Hobson City.
Stanford agrees YNTO is a Hobson City-based group of about 30 members but stops far short of calling it a gang.
All five of her sons are members of YNTO, which stands for “Young Negus Taking Over,” Stanford said.
(“Negu” is pronounced just like a six-letter racial slur used to describe blacks, but Stanford said its spelling comes from an African term for “king.”)
Deonta Allen, Stanford’s 19-year-old son and a student at JSU, said his oldest brother started the group two years ago to support friends’ efforts to produce rap music.
Allen said the group has grown into 30 young men who are mostly related and live or have lived in Hobson City. Some continue to record rap songs.
The group also has a hand sign: Allen stuck out his pinky and index fingers while curling his ring and middle fingers and thumb.
“It’s the letter ‘H’ and the letter ‘C’ for Hobson City,” Allen said. “But we don’t go around as a group committing violent crimes.”
‘Coming … to shoot us up’
Allen said that’s not to say some members of YNTO don’t get in trouble or have criminal records. Some — including one of his brothers — do.
None of the 46 people named in the warrants roundup were YNTO members, Allen said.
The only person close to the group who was arrested was Hobson City resident Tara Monroe, picked up on a second-degree theft charge. She’s the mother of some of Allen’s relatives, and YNTO members used to hang out at her house, Allen and Stanford explained.
Still, Allen stressed, YNTO does not have a group mission or goal to commit crimes, act violently or fight other groups.
“Honestly, YNTO is not a gang,” the 15-year-old Anniston High freshman agreed when asked about it during an interview at Norwood Homes.
She and her sister said they wouldn’t call the Taliban Clan in Norwood Homes a gang, either.
“They’re just like family to each other,” the 16-year-old said. She gestured outside in the direction of the apartment lawns and basketball court. On this day, the rain kept people indoors. But even when it’s sunny, Norwood residents rarely venture outside anymore, the older sister said.
That’s because they’re afraid of West Side, she said, the group she, her 15-year-old sister and Vaughn called a criminal gang.
What’s West Side?
The sisters said West Side is a gang based near West 15th Street that is responsible for much of the violence that occurs in West Anniston.
The girls believe at least three suspects named in a recent homicide were West Side members. It’s a scary time to live in West Anniston, the girls agreed.
“Now when I go outside, I stay close to something I can dive behind,” the 15-year-old said.
Vaughn, the West 15th Street BBQ restaurant employee, said she doesn’t even let her 8-year-old son play outside anymore.
Vaughn lives on McArthur Drive, one street over from Norwood Homes, and spends most of her days working at Jess’ BBQ, near Cooper Homes. She also sometimes serves barbecue at the company’s mobile unit on Noble Street. She gets a lot of business there from people who are scared to go to West 15th Street.
“There are guys who come to the mobile unit who say they can’t come here,” Vaughn said during a work break at the West 15th Street store. “They say they can’t go to West Side, because they’re East Side. And they don’t want West Side to start trouble with them.”
Specific names, vague details
Other than McVeigh’s mention of YNTO and the Taliban Clan, police have refrained from discussing the groups they’re focused on, toeing a hard line about not wanting to jeopardize their investigations by tipping off potential gang members.
Law enforcers said that although the public discussion about gangs is new, their existence isn’t.
“We’ve been aware of them for well over a year. The group you refer to as the Taliban Clan has changed names over the years; it’s more of a new name than a new gang,” Whisenant said. “There has never ... been a time in the past 22 years that someone in this department wasn’t working criminal street gangs.”
But then why all the hype now, Stanford wants to know, especially if the recent homicides aren’t necessarily related to gang activity?
“I understand the district attorney wanting to do something about violent crimes. But you are not explaining it, and you are leaving it up to people to interpret on their own,” Stanford said. “It’s unreal the amount of fear that has developed.”
Whisenant said he thinks the police department’s focus on gangs was made public because the people who live in the neighborhoods where suspected gangs are based “began to be more vocal, more aware of this type of activity.”
“Because we want to work to protect the citizens from gang problems … we’ve made an extra effort to pull all of our intelligence together,” Whisenant said.
But Stanford remains adamant: It’s not okay to link specific groups to homicides and criminal gang activity, she said, while in the same breath saying you can’t or won’t provide specific evidence to back up those connections.
“That’s what ticked me off: They’re saying YNTO is a gang, but it’s really just my family,” she said. “Don’t label my sons as gang members.
“Don’t label my sons as murderers.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.