New suburban residents: gangs

Affluent communities like Gilbert, Ariz., are finding themselves home to violent groups.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

These are not the ghettos of New York City. Or the mean streets of Los Angeles. This is a 100,000-person, upper-middle-class suburb southeast of Phoenix, a predominantly white community known for its family-friendly atmosphere.

Yet this also is home turf for a gang that left barking sounds on Cheri Jarvis's home answering machine and beat her son so badly that his face is disfigured.

Ms. Jarvis says all city and school leaders need to do is look at her son to see the damage caused by these supposedly clean-cut kids, who were thrust into the national spotlight as much for the company they allegedly kept as for their actions.

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The high-schoolers have been linked by authorities to an alleged criminal syndicate that peddled the designer drug Ecstasy to thousands of Arizona youths and was run by former Mafia hitman and turncoat Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.

No longer were the boot-wearing, bravado-toting Devil Dogs just local talk. Police and town leaders say they are treating the problem seriously, but add that the racist gang seems to be keeping a low profile since it has been under the public microscope. But several community members say they remain concerned.

In today's world, gang boundaries are no longer drawn by economics or geography. Thanks to new means of communication like the Internet, youths are exposed to a vast array of hate-related ideologies and lifestyles. The result: Gangs are cropping up in places like Gilbert, an affluent, largely white community.

"Unfortunately, something like this could happen any place," says John Brewer, police chief. "Somewhere in their environment they're learning this garbage."

Certainly, hate groups are nothing new. But "in the past, we didn't have the splintering," says Brian Levin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University in San Bernardino. "Now, there's a large buffet that the prospective hatemonger can pick and choose from, fashioning the one that fits them best."

The genesis of the Dogs remains unclear to authorities, but they have traced its roots to a Gilbert high school student in 1993. Members then, as today, espoused strong racist beliefs and displayed a penchant for violence, authorities say.

"It was a sickness we hadn't seen before," says Fred Dees, who retired in 1998 after 24 years as the town's police chief.

The estimated size of the gang differs widely. Police believe there is a core of about 45 members, while others claim the group's followers number several hundred. A significant number were students at Highland High School.

To date, seven gang members or associates have been brought to justice, including one of the alleged leaders, Kevin Papa, who was sentenced to prison in March for beating Jordan Jarvis in May 1999. Mr. Jarvis, who is white, was punched repeatedly after being wrongly identified as someone who beat a gang member's friend.

The list of charges brought against the seven include threats and intimidation, assault, arson, theft, disorderly conduct, and alcohol and drug use, Gilbert police said. They are known to bark as they administer their beatings.

In one instance last March, police reports say about 10 gang members repeatedly punched, kicked, and choked a youth exiting a fast-food restaurant.

Police interviews reveal a group fueled by alcohol and hate. One gang member summed it up in one word. Asked what the difference was between the Ku Klux Klan and the Devil Dogs, he replied, "Nothing."

But it took the group's alleged involvement with Mr. Gravano, the Mob henchman whose testimony helped convict John Gotti, to generate widespread attention throughout Gilbert and metropolitan Phoenix.

"It frightens me the things these kids have done," says Christine Nuzik, a nine-year resident and mother of two. "I think some of the officials continue to be in denial."

Roland Morales, a Hispanic resident attending a community meeting to address the Devil Dogs, says, "I know I get looks being a minority here. This has been downplayed for sure. [The town's] not taking this seriously."

Town officials dismiss charges that they are downplaying the gang activity, saying they have taken aggressive steps to stop this gang and others. School administrators say they've done all they can to punish Devil Dog members, and they claim that most of the violence occurred off campus.

"Not everyone here walks around with a halo on their heads, but there are not 300 kids walking around, threatening and intimidating students," says Principal Ken James.

Officials say the connection to the drug syndicate is tenuous, at best. They say no current gang members were among the 36 originally arrested for drug activity. "The gang's activity has decreased," Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham says. "It has not gone away, and we are very aware of it. And we are continuing to work to get rid of it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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