clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gangs use technology to silence witnesses

WASHINGTON — On a street of closed blinds and downcast glances, neighbors remember Chrishanna Gladden's final days as the beginning of the silence.

The 20-year-old office worker was a familiar face, a lifelong resident of southeast Washington's most crime-ridden housing project. A place of violence and desperate want, where some hardened young mothers push crack for grocery money.

In 1996, two policemen rattled her screen door, asking about a neighborhood party that ended with gunshots and the death of her friend. She agreed to testify against those accused — three members of a drug gang called the K Street Crew. She was promised safety and was set up in a small Holiday Inn across town.

It was not enough.

Days before the trial, gang members used a scrap of information, the Internet and police scanners to track Gladden down, prosecutors said. They allegedly ambushed her on a poorly lighted street and shot her.

Gladden was one of seven witnesses killed in a three-year period, each before they had a chance to testify against the gang.

Investigators in some of the nation's largest urban neighborhoods say the case, now on trial in federal court, is part of a phenomenon that is slowly choking their efforts to police the streets.

They say gang members are becoming sophisticated in the use of public records and technology to wage war against witnesses and thwart local witness protection programs. Gangs seem more relentless, too, in using conventional methods.

"It's getting to the point where I struggle with what to tell people who are thinking about whether they should testify," said Sgt. Ray Rodriguez, a gang unit specialist in East Los Angeles.

The result, often, is silence.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the Mafia that confounded police with inside connections, rooting out witnesses and jurors. Its method was simple: bribe police for information.

Now, police say, street criminals have perfected ways of hunting witnesses that are less dependent upon inside sources.

Nationally, the Justice Department estimates witness intimidation has been growing since 1990 and is now a factor in about two-thirds of violent crimes committed in some gang-dominated neighborhoods.

The prey: residents of their own neighborhoods.

"They use license plate numbers, whatever scraps of paper they can to get an address," said Peter Zeidenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney who is trying seven members of the K Street Crew in the slayings of Gladden and six other witnesses. "They were ruthless, they were sophisticated and they were efficient."

Much of the case relies upon the statements of those who never made it to the trial.

The hunt for Gladden began with a phone number on a scrap of paper that gang members somehow found, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors say gang members punched the number into an Internet database and matched it with addresses near their neighborhood. Many online services let people get personal information on someone by using only a name, phone number or address.

With the address in hand, getting a name was easy.

Gang members intimidated people in her neighborhood, mapped out her movements, shadowed her friends across town and bought radio scanners to monitor conversations of officers patrolling the neighborhood, investigators say.

The trail led to Gladden. She was gunned down while running errands with friends.

According to court records, the K Street Crew also found witnesses by cross referencing bits of information with voter registration cards and marriage licenses.

Gang members are using public resources and technology in other places as well.

In Los Angeles, assistant district attorney Jennifer Snyder says gang members recently took a tidbit of information about a witness and then used house and car titles to pinpoint the witness's home.

Just five years ago, such a search would have taken weeks and some amount of record searching know-how. Today, the title office operates under a CD-ROM system, which can provide computerized records in seconds.

"Technology is part of the language of youth," said Snyder, who speaks at seminars about witness protection. "They have access to public information at school and at the library. They've made the link between technology and crime, and we have to respond."

In Philadelphia, gang members have combed through police reports to extract witness names, which sometimes are included. They also use e-mail to stay in contact with their franchises in nearby towns, trading descriptions of witnesses they believe have been moved by police.

Philadelphia officials recently offered $50,000 to entice witnesses to come forward after a gang shootout left seven dead. Those who knew the most did not step up, police say.

"It is the reputation for intimidation that is keeping people quiet," said Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia district attorney. "It happens so much that it has become a part of our neighborhoods."

And witness intimidation in high profile cases adds to the fear, regardless of how the witnesses were found.

An 8-year-old boy was murdered in his Bridgeport, Conn., home in 1999 after agreeing to testify against an alleged drug dealer.

Four witnesses to the killing of a Chicago police officer reversed their testimony on the stand in February, leading to a mistrial.

With every death, with every incident of changed testimony, the silence spreads.

In East Los Angeles, Rodriguez the detective has a hard time making "the sell."

Walking toward a potential witness's home, he tallies the reasons why someone might choose to take the stand.

Civic duty. Social justice. Compassion for the victim's family.

He doesn't push as hard as he used to when told, "I didn't see anything, I don't know anything."

"How can you guarantee safety when every night there is a new story about a witness killed before a trial?" Rodriguez asks.

Of the six cases on Rodriguez's desk, only three contain witness testimony. The rest rely on police testimony and circumstantial evidence, and Rodriguez says they may be rejected by the district attorney for lack of evidence.

"You do what you can to make them believe that there is some inherent good in not being silent," Rodriguez said of potential witnesses. "You hope they believe in participating in the fight for their community. But at the same time you don't lie — you don't try to tell them there isn't a very real danger."

He laments that witness protection, offering people many nights away from family in a cheap hotel room, does little to entice people to testify.

"The problem with witness protection is that, at some point, the person wants to go home," Rodriguez said. "Gangs have long memories, and just because the case is over doesn't mean the danger for the witness is gone."

Witness murders help create neighborhoods of frightened people who won't talk — sometimes, not even to each other.

Gladden's housing project is one.

Along a street that shares nothing except a name with Washington's K Street power corridor in another part of town, residents spend as much time as they can inside their homes.

Outside, gang members and dealers posture on the corner and perch atop cars. Some smoke marijuana. Many of them sell it.

Not a single window has opened blinds. Several homes have signs hanging on the doors with messages such as "Don't smoke, no thanks."

"They are vicious killers," said Katherine Jackson, a single mother of three children. "And it just works better to keep to yourself and not talk about anything you see. It didn't always used to be that way."

Once, a street sensibility allowed mothers to feel safe about letting children play outside even with drug dealers around. "You didn't hurt your own," said Lamesha Davenport, another resident.

But that sensibility has been shattered.

The gang members revel in the silence.

"We take care of this 'hood," said Jerome, a 17-year-old selling drugs in the dusty courtyard. Jerome, who would not give his last name, says he's proud to be a member of the K Street Crew.

"We are better able to protect each other than the police," he says. "The police try to play us off each other, and we don't take that."

On the Net: U.S. Justice Department Witness Study: