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Staff photo by EMILY BARNESCharles County Sheriff's Office Detective Jonathan Burroughs of the Southern Maryland Information Center walks away from a structure with possible gang-related graffiti painted on it in Hughesville.
At the slightly spooky, abandoned housing complex in La Plata, where the grass is knee-high and the light poles have turned red with rust, people come to write and law officers come to read.
Graffiti covers many of the cinder block walls of the apartments with pictures and names. But the painting of a purple unicorn isn't what brought detective Jonathan Burroughs here. Instead, what led him to walk across the building's glass-covered floors was a black marking scrawled on a second-floor bedroom wall.
Burroughs, an investigator in Southern Maryland's gang task force, said gang members usually don't draw flashy graffiti with colorful pictures and bubble letters. It's graffiti like this, simple and to the point, he's come to the building to see.
"Crime lord," the spray-painting boasts above the word "Bloods" and a pentagram — a five-pointed star — surrounded by 5s.
"That's for the five philosophies of the United Blood Nation," Burroughs said, pointing out the letters "CK" painted nearby. "That stands for Crip Killers."
Sorting through masses of data, like the kind scrolled across the abandoned building's walls, takes time and knowledge. But collecting, analyzing and distributing facts about gangs to area law enforcement is the mission for Burroughs and his colleagues at the Southern Maryland Information Center.
"Information is power: knowing about the gang problem, knowing why there's a spike in crime, knowing who's involved in these crimes," said Burroughs, a Charles County sheriff's officer.
"If an investigator is hitting a wall, we can offer perspective from four or five different agencies."
SMIC began in 2007, when the Maryland State Police and Charles County, Calvert County and St. Mary's County sheriff's offices joined forces to track criminals across Southern Maryland. Over the years, the group, funded by grants from the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, has grown in numbers and now includes five sworn employees and four civilians.
Still, it's small enough for the team of investigators, analysts and a technician to carry on officewide conversations in the two rooms the Southern Maryland Electrical Cooperative lets them use at its headquarters in Hughesville.
The chief focus of their combined powers? "Groups of three or more people who collectively engage in criminal activity with a common sign, signal, leader or purpose."
"If someone says they're part of a gang, they're almost telling you they're committing crime," said Sgt. Andrew Rossignol, a state trooper who has been with SMIC for about two years.
That's why it's important to keep information on gangs and their members and share it with Southern Maryland's police agencies.
For example, Rossignol recently arrested a 19-year-old gang member after connecting him to a rash of Bloods graffiti that recently appeared in St Mary's County. While informants helped Rossignol, SMIC already had been tracking the man as a possible gang member, making it a little easier to solve the case, he said.
Folders filled with information and posters charting the connections among gang members line the walls of SMIC's office but don't represent the bulk of the unit's knowledge; investigators keep most of their data on a secure computer server.
But getting there involved painstaking work.
Validating people as gang members is a process governed by a point system that the Maryland Division of Correction has developed.
For example, possible gang members can accumulate points if a reliable source tells investigators they are members of a gang or if they designate themselves as gang members.
"No one ever wants a label placed on them. No one wants their child to have a label placed on them. ... So you need to be tedious and ensure you've gone through all the proper channels," said Sgt. Shane Bolger of the Maryland State Police.
To find out about new gangs, investigators gather information from jails, where people are more likely to disclose their affiliations. They also review field interviews conducted by road officers and receive tips from juvenile resource officers.
"A lot of information comes out of the schools," Burroughs said.
SMIC also keeps an eye out for vandalism.
Just because a group is painting graffiti doesn't mean it's a gang, but Burroughs said the markings can give investigators a lead. Recently, the numbers 237, sometimes preceded by the word "room," have been popping up as markings on signs and walls in Charles County. The people behind the markings could be art students who decided to designate themselves by their classroom number. Or, Room 237 could be a fledgling gang.
Once they know about a group, investigators with SMIC study it to see if members are committing crimes together. If they see the members heading toward violent crime, they'll speak with them or their parents about the patterns they've seen.
Sometimes, investigators can help put the brakes on someones slide toward participation in a gang, Burroughs said.
"Little law enforcement actions make a difference with those people who are on the cusp of what they're going to do with their lives," the detective said.
So, although there are gangs in Southern Maryland, investigators with SMIC said overall they think law enforcement has a good handle on who they are and what they're doing.
A cross-section of the gang population in each of the three counties would look similar: mostly neighborhood gangs composed of young people with a handful of outlaw motorcycle gangs and a smattering of national gang members, including the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13, the 18th Street and Dead Man Inc.
But differences in geography, population and housing across Southern Maryland have led to some variation in gang activity, investigators said.
The detectives agreed Charles County, with a higher population and proximity to urban areas, has the most gang members out of the three Southern Maryland counties. Burroughs said he'd estimate the unit is tracking about 216 validated gang members in the county.
Although Burroughs said he has seen an increase in gang activity in the county, he said it's not exploding out of control.
"These smaller gangs, we have a general hold on them," Burroughs said, adding the activity of national crime syndicates also is limited in Southern Maryland. "You are not likely to go to the mall tonight and get jumped by a bunch of Bloods."
The most recent, serious gang-related crime in Charles County was the rape of a woman by a group of men in a Waldorf home March 16. The victim reported her assailants were standing around her flashing what appeared to be gang signs as she was raped, court documents state.
Ten men have been charged in connection with the attack, and some of the defendants in the case have links to the 18th Street gang, Burroughs said.
In St. Mary's County, much of the gang activity happens near Lexington Park, with some pockets of activity in the Charlotte Hall area, Rossignol said. He estimated that SMIC is tracking fewer than 100 gang members in St. Mary's right now.
In Lexington Park, two factions, the Boom Squad and the Outsiders, sometimes cause a stir with their late-night feuds. But their activity comes and goes, and members haven't been linked to any drive-by shootings or homicides, said Lt. Christopher Medved, who leads SMIC and recently joined the task force from the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.
With fewer citizens and through-roads, gang activity in Calvert County is less pronounced than in the other two counties, SMIC investigators said.
The scarcity of apartment complexes also plays a role in the fact that Calvert doesn't have many gang members, the SMIC investigators said.
"There's nowhere to hang out on the corner," Rossignol said.
Cpl. Scott Parrish, an officer with the Calvert County Sheriff's Office, said he'd estimate there are about 50 or 60 validated gang members in the county. The largest concentration of gang activity in Calvert County is in the Lusby area, he said.
In Southern Maryland, most gangs start as groups of schoolmates or young people who live in the same neighborhood and invent a name for themselves. Burroughs said gang members can be surprisingly young; recently, SMIC identified a group of middle- and high-school individuals called Murder Mafia who were committing robberies and assaults.
Other groups come from outside of the area. For example, when performers visit a go-go club in Charles County, their following comes with them. If gang members are part of the mix, they end up gaining local recruits at Charles County shows, leading to the groups' spread.
Just because these groups mostly are loosely tied together, are short-lived and have little organization compared to the nationwide gangs doesn't mean they aren't committing serious crimes, the detectives said.
"Sometimes they're more violent because they have more to prove," Rossignol said.
But SMIC does its part in quelling the rise of gangs both large and small.
At this point, members said, the gang issue in Southern Maryland hasn't led to large-scale outbreaks of violence.
And by giving local law enforcement a hand, keeping track of gang members and watching over the graffiti, they hope to help prevent the type of problems seen elsewhere in the country.
Bolger said it's important because gangs erode the safety residents feel in their communities.
"You want your family to go for a walk in the neighborhood without being intimidated by gang members or being intimidated by people who are controlling the neighborhood,'" he said.