The Drug War in Long Island's Hempstead Ghetto Is the Free-Market With Tec-9s

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Members of the All Saints Temple and community activists hold hands with members of the community living in the Linden Triangle of Hempstead during a midnight prayer march on June 16, 2012. Steve Pfost

Anthony “Big Tony” Sherman is 22, with a baby on the way. He served two years in prison for selling cocaine before coming home to Hempstead, on New York’s Long Island, eight months ago. His first night back, he got his girlfriend pregnant. “Doctor said it’s a boy,” Tony says. “Going to be my prince. He’ll be nothing but blessed.”

Tony is standing on the stoop of a rundown apartment building that serves as the Crips’ clubhouse while doubling as the primary location where the street gang sells and stashes its crack, powder cocaine and marijuana. He supervises The Shop—as the Crips’s main drug market is known—making sure its dealing crews throughout the area have enough coke and weed to meet the day’s demands.

Shortly after sunrise, customers begin to arrive, eager to see what the crew is slinging. All around them, students are walking to one of the two schools nearby. Most do their best to ignore the gangsters’ pitches. Others stop to cop, looking to get lit before homeroom.

“Got that Luda!” one Crip shouts to a pair of junkies walking down the block.

“Come get that Notorious!” cries another gangster at an approaching car.

“Yeah, business going to be good today,” Tony says. “Weekend coming, so we opening a little early. Fiends be getting prepared. And I gots to get this money for the baby. Crib, diapers, clothes, all that stuff. My child going to be mad spoiled.”

10_06_Triangle_02 Homes in front of which the gangs dealt drugs in Hempstead during the gang war. Kevin Deutsch

The night before, he’d passed out free samples to a couple of local junkies who serve as the crew’s product testers. They’d assured him it was some of the best crack they’d ever procured in the neighborhood, and one of them, Charlie Bones, is among the first to walk up to the Crips shop this morning when it opens for business. “Let me get that Luda, 20 hard,” he says, ordering a $20 crack rock. “That shit’s the bomb.”

He hands over a wrinkled, yellow-tinged $20 bill to Tevin “Dice” Beckles, who’s handling tout duties this morning. Touts promote the day’s drug selections, barking out product names and extolling their virtues to any potential customers within earshot. They also accept payment from each fiend and make sure all the cash is there.

Dice directs Charlie toward the side of an apartment building. Charlie waits there as Dice flashes a hand sign to Skinny Pete, a rail-thin 17-year-old handling runner duties today. Pete, seeing Dice’s hand sign, runs around the back of the building and returns with a baggie full of gumball-size crack rocks.

Savant Sharpe, an 18-year-old aspiring rapper working as the crew’s lookout today, watches the street for any approaching cops or members from the gang’s rival, the Bloods. Declaring the coast clear, he nods to Pete, who hands the baggie to Charlie. The fiend eyes it gratefully before sliding it into his sock and strolling off, whistling the opening notes to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”

“Another satisfied customer,” Tony says, watching Charlie walk off with his morning fix.

10_06_Triangle_04 Makeshift memorials for murder victims, like the one pictured here, are erected with numbing frequency in the Triangle. Kevin Deutsch

“We going to make bank off this batch,” says his deputy, Flex Butler.

Tony is the crew’s top street-level dealer and day-to-day manager. Flex handles everything from enforcement to package-price negotiations and is ranked just below him in the gang’s hierarchy. Tony, meanwhile, answers to the leader of the Hempstead Crips, Tyrek Singleton. Depending on whom you ask, Tyrek is either the most ruthless, sadistic gangster in the New York metropolitan area or a gentleman hustler who runs his drug business more like Bill Gates than Scarface.

“The man is a scary mothafucka,” Tony says. “And smart as hell, too.” Seeking insulation from his crew’s criminal activities, Tyrek typically stays off the streets. Tony sees himself as a businessman, partnered with Tyrek and other leaders in the Crips organization—Big Homies, as they’re known in Crips parlance—in a joint effort to recruit talent, maximize profits and expand their customer base. “We’re looking to market, sell and profit off drugs the way any business would handle their product,” Tony says. “Only our product is illegal, so more precautions need to be taken. It’s all systematic and planned, all the positions and responsibilities and assignments. All of that’s part of our business strategy. It’s usually real smooth and quiet, because that’s the best environment for us to make bank. But now, we at war, man. Ain’t nothing quiet these days.”

The war, he says, is all about drug territory. Hempstead Crips control the market for marijuana and cocaine in the area surrounding Linden Avenue and Linden Place—a blighted, impoverished area known as the Linden Triangle, or simply the Triangle. The local Bloods set controls a smaller drug market in and around the housing projects lining the street. Both crews want to take over each other’s drug markets. As for strategies, they seem to have settled on a war of attrition, aiming to kill or maim as many of their enemies as possible.

The gangs have two things going for them that make both unwilling to accept defeat. First, each is able to buy top-quality cocaine directly from major traffickers at wholesale prices, as little as $17,000 per kilo, compared with the average going price of about $23,000. The second is that they’re far better armed and willing to use violence than the smaller neighborhood cliques scattered throughout Nassau County. Authorities say the Crips and Bloods can compete on price and purity on their corners throughout Long Island, making huge profits even while splitting their primary market in Hempstead. They’re also able to keep out other competitors through use of brute force.

Then there’s the matter of battlefield geography. The Triangle, as its name suggests, contains three angles, meaning whichever gang controls it has unobstructed views of every vehicle and person approaching or leaving a corner. Such terrain is ideal for drug dealers, since it steals the element of surprise from police as well as enemy gangs. As a result, the Bloods want to conquer it as badly as the Crips want to hold it.

The Triangle war, devastating as it is to the community, isn’t unique. It’s one of hundreds of similar conflicts being fought by Bloods and Crips sets throughout the country. These battles breed shootings, stabbings and robberies in gang-plagued, low-income neighborhoods each day, even as overall violent crime rates continue to fall in most of the U.S.

10_06_Triangle_05 The Park Lake apartments, a low-income housing development on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, served as the Hempstead Bloods' headquarters and primary drug dealing location. Kevin Deutsch

The number of gangs and gang members reported by local authorities to the FBI has grown, from at least 20,000 gangs with at least one million total members in 2009 to more than 33,000 gangs with about 1.4 million members in 2011—the last year for which the FBI released concrete figures on gang membership. A national gang threat assessment published by the agency that year estimated gangs were responsible for about 48 percent of violent crimes in most areas, with local neighborhood-based gangs and drug crews posing “the most significant criminal threat in most communities.”

That threat is especially acute in neighborhoods with higher-than-average rates of poverty and unemployment like the Triangle, where selling drugs is often considered one of the easiest, fastest way to make a day’s wages, authorities say.  In Hempstead and other economically struggling communities across the country, the Great Recession has left lasting damage, while also spawning a new generation of Bloods, Crips and other drug-dealing gangs. They’re hungry to find their place in this reshaped American economy, and many are willing to kill for it.  

The drug markets offer steady work and same-day pay. For young men unable to find legitimate jobs because of their criminal records or lack of education and job skills, the corners also offer validation, responsibility, and respect. If there’s no room for them in the job market outside the Triangle, there’s plenty of room within it: opportunities to move up, to get rich, and to find a niche where before, none was apparent. If their lives lack meaning and purpose outside their gangs’ territories, they’re plainly meaningful and purposeful within them. These gang members are, after all, the essential human capital keeping the drug markets humming. Here, slinging crack baggies and hiding stashes, young men with no obvious place in America’s legitimate economy find that they belong, that they’re significant, that they matter. For the first time in their lives, they are defined by their work. And they’ve found out it feels pretty good.

Tony, the drug market manager and father-to-be, often contemplates his own death, knowing it could come at any time now that full-scale armed conflict with the Bloods has broken out. But he doesn’t worry much about the prospect of his son growing up without him. “If I fall, my niggas going to take care of him like he’s their own. That’s how we do. We ain’t just an army. We ain’t just a business. We a family.”

10_06_Triangle_06 Several TEC-9 style guns are seen during a gun buyback event at Los Angeles Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2014. Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

‘Do Not Leave Home Without a Piece’

Inside the “clubhouse” apartment where Tyrek, Tony and the rest of the Crips spend much of their downtime, there are few hints that it is a hub for crack dealing. It is sparsely decorated, with a Notorious B.I.G. poster hanging in the living room beside a dartboard and Nerf hoop. Wooden chairs and metal tables are scattered across the room for card playing and dominoes. Massive speakers and a 60-inch plasma TV sit atop an entertainment center in the corner. The gangsters play a continuous stream of hip-hop on the speakers via Bluetooth on their smartphones, taking turns providing play lists. The TV is tuned to local news all day, so the Crips can stay abreast of Hempstead’s latest shootings.

“Anybody gets shot around here, they put it on TV,” Flex says. “Nine times out of 10, we know the person. So we try and pay attention to it.”

There have been news reports of shootings and stabbings almost daily since the two sets began their war earlier this month. At one point, the police department’s gunfire recognition system, called ShotSpotter, registered so many gunshots in the area that cops thought it might be malfunctioning. Today’s been quiet, but Tony believes that won’t be the case much longer. “Sooner or later, they going to come for Dice,” he says.

Dice Beckles, the Crips tout, is widely thought to have shot Doc Reed, a high-ranking Bloods dealer, two weeks earlier. Tony believes a retaliatory shooting will be carried out by the Bloods at some point in the coming days, so he’s summoned several Big Homies to the clubhouse in order to talk strategy and weigh their options. “Problem is, we don’t know when those niggas coming,” Tony tells them. “That means y’all got to be ready at all times. Do not leave home without a piece. And roll out in numbers, aight?”

The others nod. Some look no older than 15. Others are 17 or 18 and have either dropped out of high school or will soon. All wear sagging jeans with shirts from top-end designers and $200 high-tops. And each carries a blue handkerchief, a longstanding Crips tradition among the gang’s thousands of sets across the country.

“Aight,” says Dice, who’s wearing a bulletproof vest beneath his blue Yankees jersey. “But 5-0 be out there in force right now. How we handling that?”

“Just keep doing what you doing and don’t worry about the police,” Tony says. “They just making a show, peacocking and shit, but there ain’t nothing to worry about as long as you stay smart. They rolling through the hood more than usual because they expect shit to pop off at some point. But they a small-ass force, yo. Hempstead PD ain’t got the manpower to be up in our shit 24/7. And they ain’t got no undercovers they can get past us.”

So as long as the gang’s members keep their mouths shut, Tony tells them, no major cases can be made. “If you get picked up by 5-0, just shut the fuck up, sit there and wait for us to get you out,” Tony says. “Tyrek will take care of bail, lawyers, everything. You just carry that shit like a soldier.”

Tony nods at Flex, who pulls out a garbage bag full of still-packaged burners—the hard-to-trace phones gang members often use to talk business—and dumps them onto a table. “Everybody take one,” Flex says. “And use them shits wisely.”

10_06_Triangle_07 Seduccion, a strip club, was used by the Bloods as a meeting spot for strategy sessions during the gang war. Kevin Deutsch

‘No Shame in This Game’

The leader of the local Bloods set, Michael “Ice” Williams, 24, has summoned Steed Wallace, Doc Reed, Lamar Crawford, and several other members to Seduccion, a Hempstead strip club used by the gang as an occasional meeting spot. Sipping on Hennessy at a table beside the stage, Ice tells his men they’ll exact revenge for Doc’s shooting by going after Dice, but not for another four nights. “Today’s Friday, and the cops probably going to be beefing up patrols tonight and all weekend,” Ice says. “Come Monday, most likely they’ll scale shit back. Tuesday, they’ll be even less of them. That’s the night we ride out.”

Doc lobbies to be trigger man for the mission, since he’s familiar with Dice’s daily routine and wants to avenge his own shooting. “Dice usually be smoking weed on the stoop of his cousin’s house after school,” he says. “We could just drive past and take that nigga out real easy.”

Steed says he’s obtained a semi-automatic TEC-9 for the drive-by per Ice’s orders. As far as Steed knows, the gun is unregistered and untraceable. TEC-9s have recently become the Bloods’ go-to weapon for drive-by shootings, mostly because they’re cheap and plentiful on the black market. They also have a 32-bullet cartridge, increasing the chances that at least one round will strike a target, however inept the triggerman.

“You ever handled a semi-auto?” Steed asks Doc. “Ain’t no fucking toy.”

“Ain’t no piece I can’t handle,” Doc says.

Steed looks to Ice, who nods in approval. The Bloods leader then turns to his protégé, Lamar Crawford, whose main job these days is running the Bloods’ prostitution racket. Ice tells Lamar that he wants him to “handle the management end” of the drive-by. “You and Doc together on this. You need another soldier or some other issue come up, let Steed know,” Ice says.

A broad-shouldered 19-year-old who recently graduated from Hempstead High, Lamar is considered one of the set’s smartest, most capable members. He handled corner dealing, lookout and runner duties before taking over the crew’s burgeoning prostitution business, and is now being groomed to take on more responsibility. Ice has made Lamar’s professional development a personal project of sorts, gradually moving him up in the gang’s hierarchy in accordance with his annual progress in school. As a freshman, he’d been a lowly messenger. Now, a few weeks after earning a diploma, he’s been chosen to take part in an important assassination mission, which will have repercussions for months after the shots ring out.

“You ready to step up?” Ice says.

“Mos def,” says Lamar.

Once their meeting ends, the Bloods watch as dancers gyrate onstage, inviting customers to slide bills into their G-strings. The young women focus nearly all their attention on Ice, who is thought to be one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the community. Unlike most of the local Bloods and Crips, he attended college and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. His education was one of the reasons he made a point of ushering Lamar up through the ranks as he advanced in school. “Intelligence is important, education is important, putting your mind to good use is important,” Ice says. “That’s why I’m bringing Lamar along…he’s got book smarts to go with street smarts.”

Ice speaks often of authors he’s read, from Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. He had plenty of time to absorb the classics while serving five years in prison for selling crack. Despite having a degree, Ice’s rap sheet is as long as those of the high school dropouts who populate most of Hempstead’s drug corners.

Like many Bloods and Crips, he also survived a gunshot wound—a bullet to his left ankle that left him with a permanent limp. “I ain’t no saint and I ain’t no genius, but I’ll sometimes give books to the younger niggas who show potential, talk to them about philosophy, history, everything,” Ice says. “Most of them won’t finish high school, because they like making money out here too much. I respect that, too. That’s capitalism. But I try to educate them when I can.”

Ice says his pursuit of an education in accounting stemmed from his long-running interest in business and a natural acumen for deal making. After graduation, he languished in a low-level job with a financial firm in New Jersey. He moved on to a similar job at a more prestigious company in Manhattan, but his bosses rarely let him do any real accounting work, instead turning him into a glorified gopher. “I believe my skin color held me back when I tried to pursue a career in accounting and finance,” Ice says. “I was not allowed to work at the level I was capable of. Because I’m black, I was seen as less capable.”

Eventually, Ice was laid off. Broke and jobless, he returned to the Park Lake apartments where he’d grown up and where his mother still lived. He quickly fell back in with his old gang, working his way up and eventually taking charge of the Hempstead set. “I knew how to run a business, and this ain’t so different, really,” he says. “This here beef we having [with the Crips] is like some corporate fight you’d read about in The Wall Street Journal, only this about our kind of business: rock cocaine.

“What you have here is a situation where both crews have a great product, and neither is open to being bought out,” Ice says. “What you think’s going to happen if neither side wants to give in? What happens is, things get messy. And that’s what you seeing now. A whole lot of mess.”

As the gang war spreads, police are seemingly powerless to stop it. Part of the blame lies in their inability to infiltrate either crew with undercover officers. Aside from developing an informant—a nearly impossible task, with snitching punishable by death—an undercover operation is the only way the gangs’ leaders can be taken off the streets in one fell swoop.

The department’s failure to infiltrate the crews isn’t for lack of trying. At every house party where Bloods or Crips might be expected to congregate, police have tried to get undercovers inside. Each time, they’ve been thwarted. “We know what cops look like, no matter what kind of gangster shit they try to dress up in,” says Lamar. “A pig’s a pig.”

“Way we see it, they ain’t shit,” Ice says, summing up his crew’s opinion of the police. “Even if they do get their shit together long enough to make a case, ain’t nobody out here going to talk to 5-0 or testify against any of us. That’s just the code. That’s law. That’s the way it is, way it always will be.”

Ice’s characterization will prove accurate two nights later, when the protracted crackle of automatic gunfire echoes through the neighborhood just after 11 p.m. One explosive burst of ammunition. Then a second, and third. Fifteen to 20 shots in all. Within minutes, police cars and ambulances are screeching up Linden Avenue, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Near the stoop of a Crips stash house, a blood-soaked Air Jordan sneaker lay in the road. Ten feet away lay a baby-faced Crips member, “Little James” Carter, with a quarter-size hole in his forehead. His other sneaker rests beside him in a rapidly expanding pool of blood.

After the medical examiner takes James’s body away, one of his fellow Crips, Savant Sharpe, picks up the pricey high-tops. Next day on the stoop, he’s wearing them. “No shame in this game,” Savant says. “Besides, they too fresh to go in the garbage.”

10_06_Triangle_08 Gang members from the Bloods, walk across a graffit covered foot bridge on 45th Ave and 94th street in Corona, Queens, New York. The yellow and white graffiti is a gang sign (right), and the 31 (in black) means to be a member you have to endure a beating from other gang members for "31 SECONDS" with your hands clasped over your head in symbolic sign of a crown. Uli Seit/The New York Times/Redux

A Wake for ‘Little James’

The investigation into James’s murder follows a familiar pattern: Cops interview everyone in the area at the time of the killing; all claim to have seen nothing. As in most neighborhoods plagued by gang violence, the residents of Hempstead typically don’t talk to police about gang shootings for fear they’ll be the next targets.

“Why should I tell the cops anything?” asks Donna Crawford, Lamar’s aunt, who, after losing two sons to gang violence, refuses to talk to police about any crimes perpetrated by Bloods or Crips. “What are they going to do for me? Witness protection? Fly me to Hawaii? Walk my son home from school every day? I don’t think so. I’ll have to live here long after they’re gone.”

Despite the neighborhood’s code of silence, detectives interview dozens of residents and gang members, pore over hundreds of hours of surveillance footage from area businesses, and prod street units to make a half-dozen or so drug arrests. The sweep, they hope, will lead someone to identify James’s killer in exchange for a deal with prosecutors promising leniency.

But not one of the collared gangsters will talk. “They think we’re stupid, but we know Miranda,” Steed says shortly after Ice posts his bail. He’d been charged with possession of cocaine, even though, he says, police found no drugs on him. “That case is good as gone,” he tells Ice. “They was just rounding niggas up and making up charges. No chance that shit sticks. We all know our rights and asked for lawyers.”

Three days later, a wake is held for Little James. His casket is ivory white and narrow, just wide enough to fit his body inside its purple velvet walls. He looks cramped in the open casket, but peaceful. A navy blue suit and oversize white dress shirt hide his chest wound. One mourner whispers that the bullet that killed him remains trapped inside his heart’s left ventricle. Some Bloods snap pictures of James’s corpse and post them on Facebook, accompanied by threats against the Crips.

James’s little brother, Horace, tries to wake him up by prying open his eyes. When that doesn’t work, he lowers his head and cries. “Why I can’t wake you?” the boy mumbles into the coffin. “Please wake up, James.”

Tyrek doesn’t attend the funeral, certain that police will be in attendance and leaning on people to snitch. But the day after James is buried, he makes his way to the graveyard to pay his respects. Standing over the mound of fresh dirt, he smokes one Newport after another, whispering prayers for James’s soul. “You a soldier, J, you a soldier,” says Tyrek. “Please, God, let him be with you.”

Tyrek looks exhausted, having slept just an hour or two since the shooting. He appears to have lost weight, too, his face gaunt and oily. He becomes defensive when asked if he feels any guilt for James’s death. “I ain’t the one who put the bullet in him,” Tyrek says. “I didn’t force him to work the corner. He asked me for work, so I put him to work. He was a good kid. But he’d grown up fast, too, so he wasn’t really a kid no more, you know? He had drive…wanted to work, wanted to make some money so he could buy his own things and help out his mom and brothers.

“I hear whispers in the hood, people saying I brought war to their blocks over a couple of corners. But the truth is, 99 percent of these niggas around here would be jobless and making no money if I didn’t do what I do in this community. Shit, who you think paid for church services, for the casket, for this plot right here?”

He points a finger at his own chest, tapping it emphatically. “My money must not stink, ’cause ain’t nobody turning it down.”

After James’s murder, Bloods involved in his shooting take precautions. Doc Reed, the presumed trigger man, stays off the streets for six weeks. The police are looking to interview him, he knows, visiting his mother’s house every day to ask whether he’s turned up. So for the time being, he’s living at the apartment of a Bloods associate in Brooklyn, along with Lamar, who’d overseen the drive-by mission. Doc and Lamar insist to their host that their intended target had been Dice Beckles, the Crip believed to have shot Doc in January.

“Nobody likes to see that type of collateral damage,” Doc says of James’s death. “But he chose sides; he wasn’t there by accident. Little nigga been running with Tyrek’s crew long as I can remember. You put yourself in that position, even if you a shorty, you know you ain’t going to be immune. If you in it, you in it. Dice was the one who supposed to get hit. But he a little bitch, so he hit the deck when the shooting started. A soldier would’ve come out and met that shit head-on, instead of letting that young nigga die. Way I see it, James done fell because his own boy Dice was a fool. People on the block mad at our crew for killing the wrong Crip? Nah, that ain’t logical.

“They started this shit, they can end it,” he says of the Crips. “All they got to do is give up them corners in the Triangle.”

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This article is adapted from The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips, by Kevin Deutsch, to be published December 2 by Lyons Press. Deutsch is a criminal justice reporter at Newsday in New York.To protect the identities of gang members and other interviewees, most of their names have been changed.