Cracking the Gangbangers’ Code of Silence

Informants are blowing Seattle murder cases wide open.

Despite the threat of gang retaliation against snitches, and the gangbangers' own legendary code of enforced silence, cooperation from both witnesses and gang members has been key to charges filed in two January killings and a string of earlier gang murders, according to police and prosecutors. "In those cases," says Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb, "we've received instrumental assistance." Assistant Police Chief Nick Metz says detectives have identified persons of interest in three other January gang murders, suggesting sources are aiding in those cases as well.Officials are guarded when talking about cooperation in gang shootings, and won't characterize recent developments as a breakthrough. But—the popularity of those gangsta "Stop Snitchin'" T-shirts aside—mum is not necessarily the word, authorities have discovered of late, and nothing bolsters an investigation like an informant dropping a dime. Court records indicate witnesses have also aided in developing motives in the Seattle gang cases, which include drugs, disrespect, and geography—a vengeful turf war between Central District and South End gangs, particularly the CD's Deuce 8s and the South's Low Profiles (LP).In one of the January shootings headed for trial—the murder of Perry Henderson, 18—witnesses helped identify the suspect, Jonathan J. Hall, 18, who allegedly fought with Henderson over a girl. In the other case, the impulsive killing of Central District restaurateur Degene Dashasa, 32, suspect Rey Alberto Davis-Bell, 23, a Black Gangster Disciple (BGD) member now charged with murder and attempting to kill three others, was tracked down with the help of witnesses and family members.Additionally, gangsters provided details that led to charges in a Seattle gang-feud slaying last August in which a Deuce 8 is accused of shooting a LP and leaving two other LPs wounded. Damario Dilliard, 19, was identified as the gunman who killed Antwon Horton, 19, and who later admitted he got "caught up" in the exchange of gunfire, King County prosecutors allege.In January, a member of the South End's Down With the Crew gang, Kafoa M. Hefa, 21, got 28 years in prison for the Rainier Valley dice-game murder of Randy West, 23, of CD's Pyrus gang, pleading guilty after numerous witnesses and family members aided in the investigation. (Two days after the killing, Hefa's parents and grandmother had just left their home in SeaTac when four carloads of rival gangsters pulled up and fired at least 80 rounds into the house, authorities say.)Gang cooperation also aided the filing of charges in a current high-profile case dating from 2005. The accused killer of BGD member Terrell Milam—who was a suspect in the Pioneer Square assault that put then-Seahawks player Ken Hamlin in the hospital—was ratted out by at least two LP members. Prosecutors have charged Omar Norman, 23, who they say is a fellow LP gangster.Police are continuing to develop leads, says Whitcomb, in the three other January murders. In just over three weeks, Allen Joplin, 17, was shot at a downtown party; DeChe Morrison, 14, was killed in Rainier Valley; and Maurice Allen, 25, was shot outside a Capitol Hill nightclub. All had records and gang ties, prosecutors say.Since then, a squeeze by Seattle police's gang unit has brought pressure and some quiet to the streets after a year-long killing spike. There were 17 gang-related murders from January 2007 through January 2008, police say, along with numerous shoot-outs and drive-bys. Gangs number more than 100 in Seattle, though some have but a few members; there are almost as many in the county, where the King County Sheriff's Office recently reformed its once-disbanded gang unit.Seattle gang expert Gabe Morales says girls increasingly are joining street gangs, and he's aware of children of preschool age spotted at gang hangouts. He and others cite glorification by the media and the use of the Internet as spurring a growth in the number of gangland teens and adults armed with easily accessed guns. "It's a safe city," says Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, noting the overall crime rate is down. "But it's not a safe city for these kids. It's easier to get a gun than a driver's license."But talk, too, can be a weapon used against gangbangers, and the slaying of Milam, 31, speaks loudly: It was a puzzling case that relied on gang informants to send investigators in the right direction. Milam's body was found around 6 a.m. on October 16, 2005, dumped on a street near Seward Park; he had been shot multiple times in the head, arms, and torso. About four hours earlier, Milam reportedly had brawled with Seahawks safety Hamlin outside a nightclub, fracturing Hamlin's skull and ending his season. Among police and media speculation was the notion Milam was killed to avenge Hamlin.Hamlin fully recovered, returned to the Hawks, and then, as a free agent in 2007, went to Dallas. Some worried the head injury would undercut his game, but he had a Pro Bowl season last year and was recently designated the Cowboys' franchise player, preventing him from being snatched away by another team.Though police had DNA samples from a cigarette butt and a shell casing found at the death scene, they had no match. The break came in February last year when SPD detective Paul Takemoto spoke with a member of the LP gang who fingered fellow member Norman. Another gang member in a later interview gave police a corroborative account. Both LPs indicated the assault on Hamlin was unconnected, and that Norman had admitted that he and a second man had killed Milam in a rage.Prosecutors now say the second man was at the wheel of a car that early morning when Milam, a few hours after the Hamlin assault, bragged about another conquest—having shot and wounded a rival gangster a week earlier. Unbeknownst to Milam, the driver was the brother of the man Milam wounded. The outraged driver pulled his gun and suddenly began firing into the backseat, hitting Milam four or five times. Norman then fired a finishing shot into Milam's head, according to Det. Takemoto's recount of the witnesses' statements.Norman, who has been locked up for most of the past two years for a drive-by shooting at Seattle Center (and, by law, had to supply a DNA sample when imprisoned, which proved to be an evidence match in the Milam killing, police say), is now in jail awaiting trial. His story, according to court records, is that he witnessed the killing, but blames members of a rival Crips gang for it. The driver who allegedly fired the first bullets into Milam is now in prison for another crime and has not yet been charged.Police won't say why gang members are talking, though some are facing charges in other cases and may have sought sentence reductions. "All I can say," says spokesperson Whitcomb, "is that some gang members, when faced with violent retribution for not remaining silent or [an opportunity] to assist law enforcement, will make the right decision."randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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