Sweep against the Hilltop Crips included serving a series of early-morning search warrants Tuesday. Officers arrested 11 suspected gang members without incident and confiscated guns, drugs and stolen property.
Investigators were still searching for five others. The remaining 16 were already in the Pierce County Jail on other criminal charges or serving time in state prison.
Prosecutors have filed 51 felony counts in the case. Charges include attempted murder, first-degree robbery and drive-by shooting. The 32 suspected gang members, ages 17 to 38, face various counts, but all are charged with one count of criminal conspiracy, according to court documents.
Among those charged are two third-strike candidates and Manuel Jose Hernandez, one of eight youths convicted of fatally beating Erik Toews, 30, as he walked down the street in 2000.
“We’ve got a big chunk of the group, and we’re not stopping,” said Steven Dean, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle office. “We are looking at this group of gang members directly correlating to an increase in violent crime in the area.”
Filing conspiracy charges is a new approach in tackling gang violence, which has plagued the city since the late 1980s and left many dead and or wounded in drive-by shootings.
County prosecutor Mark Lindquist said this case marks the first time in Washington that the conspiracy statute is being used to prosecute gang violence. It’s being modeled after successful gang prosecution elsewhere in the country.
The charge usually is used in drug and identify theft cases. It’s being used against the gang members because prosecutors allege they joined the gang for the sole purpose of committing crimes – including robberies, drug dealing, shootings and car thefts.
In general, prosecutors say, a conspiracy occurs when two or more people get together and agree to commit a crime, and then at least one of them takes a substantial step toward carrying out the crime.
The others “can be legally accountable for the one person’s follow-through,” Pierce County deputy prosecutor Greg Greer said.
Those arrested Tuesday and previously booked into jail will be arraigned on the conspiracy and other charges today. Those in prison will return to Pierce County to face the conspiracy charges.
Investigators say that the Hilltop Crips have increasingly flexed their muscle throughout the city during the last 18 months, targeting people who showed outward signs of wealth – including gold jewelry and fancy wheel rims on their cars – and working together to threaten or harm the victims to get what they wanted.
“They were active on a daily basis,” Tacoma police homicide detective John Ringer said. “Nothing slowed them down.”
Investigators contacted the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutors researched different state statutes and found that the conspiracy charge worked with the facts and cases Tacoma police detectives presented, Greer said.
“The law is appropriate for the facts that we have in this case,” he said. “We want to be a little more proactive in addressing the gang problem.”
Most members of this targeted group have previously been convicted of felonies.
Hernandez was 12 in 2000 when he and seven other youths attacked and killed Toews on North Fourth Street.
Hernandez, the second-youngest person charged, was convicted as a juvenile of first-degree murder and three robberies in the days before the Toews beating. He was sentenced to juvenile detention until his 21st birthday.
Now 22, Hernandez was charged in connection with the gang conspiracy case and was among those arrested Tuesday.
FORMED IN LATE 1980S
About 15 teenagers formed the Hilltop Crips in the late 1980s after gangsters from Los Angeles moved into Tacoma and started selling crack cocaine. The gang was the first local black street gang, claiming South 23rd Street as its turf and recruiting other local teens to join their ranks.
Membership swelled to nearly 300 in the mid-1990s. Some of the original gang members were convicted of killing rival gangsters, while others were killed in gang-motivated violence. Some of the surviving original gang members remain in prison.
“Over the course of the past 20 years, the HTCs have been a powerful criminal force on the streets of Tacoma,” Ringer wrote in a search warrant affidavit as part of the recent crackdown. “They have been the strongest black street gang in the area and have dominated the local cocaine sales.”
Throughout the years, local and federal task forces have targeted the city’s gangs, which now total nearly 50. They’ve charged members with federal drug and gun charges and with shootings, homicides and an array of other crimes.
Among the crimes allegedly committed by the Hilltop Crips recently were burglaries at two secure facilities, including a Lakewood police parking lot where a member’s impounded car was rifled through for evidence.
NEW OUTBREAK OF CRIME
In mid-2008, Tacoma police and members of the South Sound Gang Task Force began to notice a new wave of crimes involving the Hilltop Crips, Ringer said.
Police reports detailed incidents in which victims were targeted for their financial assets, especially gold necklaces. Gang members stalked and jumped their victims around popular Hilltop Crips hangouts, police said.
Among the spots were a South Tacoma gas station, a South Tacoma convenience store, a South End restaurant and nightclubs that featured hip-hop music, police said.
Victims had necklaces ripped off in the clubs, faced armed robbers or were beaten on the sidewalk while others stole their car keys and wallets, court documents state.
The documents detail three incidents in which victims were critically injured. All survived, but one was paralyzed and another suffered permanent injury.
The gang task force focused on gang members who were still committing crimes. Many of the crimes had not been investigated, or charges had not been filed.
“These guys were off the hook,” Ringer said.
During the investigation, homicides involving Hilltop Crips were investigated separately, Ringer said. Other gang members were arrested in other cases.
In addition to interviewed witnesses and victims, investigators used informants, watched surveillance video of attacks and set up a surveillance camera in a Hilltop alley that was a favorite gathering spot.
They also sent shell casings and guns to the Washington State Patrol crime lab for analysis.
The lab matched casings from shootings in December 2008 at Oakland Playfield and in February 2009 at South 56th and Tyler streets to one Jan. 26 at a nightclub in Bellevue. A matching shell casing had been discovered in the car of one of the accused gang members.
Of the 28 shell casings collected after a shootout Dec. 2, 2008, outside a South End restaurant, one was matched with a casing taken from another member’s car during a search warrant.
“We were able to establish the conspiracy,” Ringer said. “When they join the group, they join the conspiracy.”