MANATEE -- Each day, community leaders and law enforcement officers hit the streets of Manatee County to combat an ongoing problem: gangs.
"The thing the sheriff understands is gangs are here forever," said Sgt. Gary Combee, with the Manatee County Sheriff's Gang Suppression Unit. "It's a society problem we can't solve. We can curb it, but we can't eliminate it."
And for years, the gang units at Bradenton Police Department and the sheriff's office have been working to do just that.
"Back in the mid-2000s, in the city we'd have up to five drive-by shootings a night," said Detective Ben Pieper of the Bradenton Gang Unit. "In Manatee County, there are no boundaries for the gangs. They live everywhere. It's just one big problem."
But the war on gangs in Manatee County has made a significant difference -- and community leaders are united in trying to prevent the next generation from falling prey.
In the past six years, 55 Manatee County gang members from at least three gangs have been arrested on racketeering and conspiracy charges through five Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations investigations.
In the latest RICO case, Daniel Robledo, a member of the SUR-13 street gang already serving a life sentence for murder, was sentenced this week to an additional 15 years after pleading guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges.
"Gangs are a symptom of poverty -- that's the bigger picture," said Sean Allison, CEO and president of
Manatee YMCA. "Most of the poverty is a symptom of our society not knowing how to care."
The YMCA is one of several organizations involved in a countywide gang reduction initiative where community leaders, law enforcement agencies, educational facilities and healthcare professionals meet to discuss fulfilling needs of families with gang involvement or at-risk tendencies.
The sheriff's office's first RICO investigation involved a group of people stealing appliances from newly constructed homes and selling them for personal gain.
"A number of people were all working together and the end result was they were getting money and moving through another bad guy," said Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube. "Then we thought, 'Why couldn't we do this with gangs?'"
The sheriff's office worked with local prosecutors and the Florida attorney general to form a strategy, which soon resulted in arrests of several members of the Brown Pride Locos and SUR-13 gangs.
Ten members of the Brown Pride Locos, a Hispanic gang, were charged in January 2007. Eric Santiago received the longest prison sentence of the members at 30 years.
Seven months later, 14 members of SUR-13, another Hispanic gang, were arrested. Orlando Valenzuela is serving a life sentence after being convicted of the second-degree murder of 9-year-old Stacy Williams who was killed by a stray bullet in a gang-related fight on May 21, 2007.
In May 2008, Third Shift, a black gang with Caribbean and Haitian influences, saw 12 members charged. Ryan Simmons received the longest sentence of 60 years in state prison.
Six more Brown Pride Locos members were charged in March 2011. Jessie Fuentes and Juan Carlos Hernandez were each sentenced to 15 years, the longest of any of the defendants in that case.
Another SUR-13 investigation was completed in October 2011, resulting in charges against 13 members. Several defendants, including Robledo, have already been sentenced to prison time.
One other defendant is set for trial in April. Three remain at large.
Not without controversy
To win a conviction under the Florida RICO Act, prosecutors must prove that a defendant is involved with criminal activity as part of an organized group. Similar efforts have been used for several decades to attack the mafia and other organized crime organizations.
"We have a 100 percent conviction rate," Steube said. "Some plead. Some go to trial and are found guilty. That gets around to other gang members in other gangs. Out of all of these we've only lost one on appeal on a guy who had already spent three years in prison."
Local defense attorney Brett McIntosh represented two gang members from the first two investigations: Jose Lopez of the Brown Pride Locos; and Orlando Valenzuela from SUR-13.
"It was the first time that a law that can be rather complex to begin with had been applied in this type of manner, so you didn't have a lot of precedent in which to follow," McIntosh said. "The way it is applied is so all encompassing. Dealing with a long period of time of three or four years, there was a quantity of discovery, tons of potential witnesses, previous crimes were applied."
Since taking on the cases, McIntosh said, he has questioned if the statute is constitutional or too broad.
"Most men's softball teams would have met the criteria for a gang," McIntosh said. "My concern is always the kid that's kind of caught up on the fringes of one of these things and the overreaching that can occur. There is a certain systemic bias build into these cases. Once you throw the word 'gang' out there it becomes more difficult to get a fair trial."
In the two cases in which McIntosh was involved, only historical evidence was used. Prosecutors looked at crimes the defendants previously committed to build a racketeering case.
"Some cases were dropped or dismissed that were being applied," McIntosh said. "Some used cases somebody had already been convicted of. Most people say, 'Isn't that double jeopardy? Could you go back in and explore or reopen those cases?'"
To avoid any problems and win longer prison sentences, detectives have changed the way they obtain evidence. In addition to previous criminal activity, detectives began gathering evidence from ongoing crimes during their third RICO investigation.
"What RICO does is, it allows us to go back in time to use everything this organization has done to further itself and promote itself and its reputation, and use that against them," said Detective Pieper, of the Bradenton Police Gang Unit. "We want to show that this organization does exist and that it is a continuing criminal enterprise."
Detectives look primarily at more serious crimes, such as robberies, homicides and shootings. In the past, they have worked with statewide prosecutors to build a strong case, often looking to file federal charges.
"My target is to put career gang members in jail for lengthy prison sentences," said Sgt. Combee, of the sheriff's Tactical Gang Unit. "In federal court, they're ready to try the case the day after the arrest, and the prison sentences are more etched in stone."
McIntosh said the RICO investigations have been successful in jailing young people.
"The concept of prosecuting criminal gangs seems like a reasonable thing to do," McIntosh said. "I get calls from attorneys around the state or letters from individuals incarcerated under the RICO statute. They had a possession of cocaine charge, misdemeanor obstruction and maybe some type of battery charge -- all three of which, if you added them together, wouldn't get them more than a period in the Manatee County jail. But they're getting a sentence of 15, 20, 25 years. It's difficult to understand the logic."
To avoid those long prison sentences, McIntosh said defendants will often take plea deals. Lopez entered a no contest plea to racketeering charges and was given a seven-year sentence.
"If you're willing to testify against other people you're associated with, then they'll give you the two or three years. The ones who choose to exercise their constitutional right and go to trial gets the 60 years," McIntosh said. "The problem is that the testimony being given is questionable. It's bought and paid for. They're getting an incentive and will tell law enforcement what they want to hear."
McIntosh, who is interested in defending more cases if asked, said he is not discouraged by the high conviction rate.
"You evaluate each one on a case-by-case basis. I don't overly concern myself with what precedents are with convictions. A conviction in one case doesn't mean a conviction in another. Each case has its own merits."
Local prosecutors join effort
While local defense attorneys like McIntosh have been involved from the beginning, local prosecutors are just now joining in on RICO cases, which have always been tried by assistant attorney generals, said Ed Brodsky, who last year was elected state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee.
"Our prosecutors will be going into the courtroom to try cases with the statewide prosecutors," Brodsky said.
One of Brodsky's new initiatives is a Violent Crime Unit, consisting of three assistant state attorneys, which became active in March.
"A part of their concentration will involve gang prosecution," Brodsky said. "One of the things I think is important is we show zero tolerance for any form of violence on our streets. They will be tasked with the responsibility of not only racketeering prosecution, but also going after career criminals and making sure that we're seeking aggressive sentences."
One of the most difficult aspects of investigating gangs is the way the organizations operate, Pieper said.
"They rule by fear and intimidation," Pieper said. "When they commit a crime and a civilian is a victim, they're going to be too scared to testify for fear of retaliation. If it's a rival gang member, they're not going to testify because they feel they'll handle it out on the streets."
In 2008, state legislation was passed to provide more protection to witnesses in gang cases.
Detectives know the job is worth it when they get a conviction, help a victim or see a former gang member making a positive life change.
"Years later they come up and say, 'Hey, Pieper. I'm sorry for making you and everyone else chase me around,'" Pieper said. "Whatever we did back years ago finally sunk in, and now you just hope he stays on the right path and nobody catches up with him down the road.
"We've had neighbors testify that before RICO they couldn't have barbecues, their kids couldn't play outside. Now the kids can run around and play. They don't have to practice drive-by drills. That's always good when the community feels safer."
That sense of safety can help fuel the local economy, as well.
"You shouldn't fear being the victim of a mugging or robbery or shooting," Brodsky said. "That impacts not only those who live in the community, but also those who visit. We want to do everything we can to foster a safe environment here so people want to live here, come visit and spend their dollars here."
As attorneys and law enforcement continue their partnership to arrest and convict gang members, the thought remains that many of those serving prison sentences are already back on the streets or nearing release.
Said Pieper: "They're slowly starting to trickle out, so we'll see what happens."