Police Use Web To Track Down Gang Members

By Mike Reicher

 Soon after Nicholas Donaldi-Subero, the 18-year-old son of a Metropolitan Opera singer, was fatally stabbed in Queens, New York in January, some self-declared members of the Latin Kings gang took to the internet to boast about their prowess.

“We shut plenty of clicks down in the past and Corona Queens is not even an exception,” someone named ‘Farrocking’ from Far Rockaway wrote on the site thehoodup.com.

More and more social networking users like Farrockking are boasting about gang exploits, making threats about future activities and posting photos of themselves in gang colors. And increasingly those sites have become helpful tools for law enforcement officials who have used this material to prosecute alleged gangbangers. States like Ohio and California have introduced online evidence to link suspects with street crimes. Meanwhile, Florida has made it a felony offense to post gang-related material online. But this increased presence of both gang activity and law enforcement surveillance online raises questions about how to determine the line between youthful braggadocio and true bad behavior.

 “If you’re a kid who wants to look cool by posing in gang colors and flashing a sign on your MySpace page it’s pretty chilling that the government can go after you,” said Rebecca Harrison Steele, the Regional Director of the ACLU Foundation of Florida.

Richard “Richy” Figueroa-Santiago has experienced the chill. Sheriff officers in Lee County, Florida, arrested Figueroa-Santiago and 13 others last November on charges that  they were violating a new state law against online gang activity. Figueroa-Santiago has pleaded not guilty.

In an interview, Figueroa-Santiago, 22, said that police singled out one image out of 200 pictures on his MySpace page. He described it as a cartoon of a car with the words “Kings drive-by” (for Latin Kings) written on the body of the car. A spokesman for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, John Sheehan, said that Figueroa-Santiago was targeted for online gang recruitment as part of the office’s Operation Firewall program.

A Florida law passed in May 2008 makes it a third degree felony for someone to post electronic communications “furthering the interests of a criminal gang.” One of the ways he or she can do this is “to advertise his or her presence in the community” or to “intimidate or harass other persons.”

“It’s nonsense because I’m not in a gang,” said Figueroa-Santiago. “I was just having fun.” He claims he used to befriend members of the Latin Kings but was never involved in their crimes. Sherriff officials, in the record of his November 2008 arrest, listed his aliases as King Taco and King Richy.

Florida lawmakers passed this online statute and other gang measures in response to a growing presence of street gangs—a trend also seen nationwide. The 2009 FBI National Gang Threat Assessment report said that 58 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies reported that criminal gangs were active in their jurisdictions in 2008, compared with 45 percent in 2004.

Lee County Court records show Figueroa-Santiago had no prior charges against him besides traffic and vehicle code violations. Unlike some of the other arrestees who have other pending charges such as cocaine possession, he is only being tried for his online materials. His case and the cases of the others arrested in Operation Firewall are working their way through the court system. At least four have plead not guilty; six of the arrestees were juveniles so their cases are sealed.

Figueroa-Santiago faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Additionally, Florida is one of only three states where convicted felons lose their voting rights for life, even after they complete their sentences.

Police in other states have successfully investigated gang crimes with clues gathered online and provided prosecutors with web-based evidence for their trials. Cincinnati police last November arrested over 20 members of the Northside Taliband gang after tracking its members’ activities on Facebook and MySpace. The suspects were implicated in robberies, burglaries, assaults, firearms and drug trafficking, and at least one homicide, police said.

In 2006 a Northern California judge ruled that two teens charged with beating a boy into a coma could be tried as adults, after prosecutors showed MySpace.com photographs of them flashing local gang hand signs.

MySpace has a law enforcement team that works with police departments and prosecutors to identify gang members, according to a confidential MySpace law enforcement training presentation viewed by the NYC News Service.

One example from the MySpace training materials is about a member of the “Rollin 20’s” gang from Los Angeles who was suspected of murdering a rival. An expert witness needed evidence to prove gang association (which usually carries a harsher sentence). The prosecutor found photos on the suspect’s page in which he was flashing gang signs, holding weapons and hanging out with known gang members, the training materials say.

“It used to be, if you were threatening a rival, it had to be on the street, at a club or, some way or another, in person,” said Professor David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “The net just lets it come out in different ways…in websites, rap exchanges and still photos of them brandishing guns.”

Identifying gang members through social networking sites is one of the main responsibilities of the modern gang officer, said Louis Savelli, a retired 21-year veteran of the NYPD gang unit who now trains officers in online investigating. He said law enforcement personnel troll these sites for intelligence on gang activity and to gain corroborating evidence to bolster criminal prosecutions.

“You hear something happen like a stabbing, first thing you do is hit the street, then you hit the Internet,” said Savelli.

New York gang members aren’t online as much as those in other cities, said Savelli, because they’re more focused on drug-dealing than in other parts of the U.S. and avoid this attention. “The real hardcore guys who have a business to run don’t want the pressure,” he said.

Most of the kids at the Queens Police Athletic League are not hardcore. They attend a youth employment training program coordinated by Larry Green, who at 37 is dismayed by gang violence in his hometown of South Jamaica. Green hears about street fights started by online rivals, like the one that claimed Nicholas Donaldi-Subero’s life.

Many teens claim affiliation with a gang just for their own safety, even if the group’s not known for its violence or crime, said Green. “It’s rare to find a kid who’s not part of a clique or a group.”