An incident captured on video that shows Petersburg gang members firing guns with reckless disregard for their neighborhood surroundings is emblematic of the near daily shootings the city has endured.
The security videos of the shooting were used recently to prosecute five members of a recognized criminal street gang called Z5 — also known as Zone Fif. Petersburg police and prosecutors painstakingly reviewed hours of surveillance video from a neighborhood store where the shootings occurred and compared them with cellphone photos of gang members taken hours earlier at a Z5 celebration.
The videos and photos were key in identifying and prosecuting the armed gang members in an investigation that was stymied by a street code of silence.
“In this case, without video we would never have been able to locate (the gang members) who decided it was OK to randomly shoot with no regard for anyone else,” said Petersburg Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cheryl Wilson, who gained convictions of all five, one of whom was shot in the chest during the impulsive fusillade of gunfire.
The Aug. 6, 2015, shooting outside the Wythe Food Market at 840 E. Wythe St. — where Z5 gang members pulled guns and fired multiple rounds at a car they believed was occupied by their rivals — exemplifies the gun violence being waged in the city’s streets in recent years that Wilson said frequently has components of gang activity.
“What I’m seeing now is what appears to be an everyday occurrence, that we have at least one or two shootings in some form or fashion,” Wilson said. “It’s happening daytime, nighttime — I mean, we had a shooting (last week) where two people got shot like at 8 o’clock in the morning.”
The senseless nature of the violence was illustrated Dec. 6, when a woman driving with her 4- and 8-year-old daughters and 3-year-old nephew came under attack from masked gunmen who opened fire on her car about 10 p.m. on St. James Street. Her car was struck several times but no one was hit; she managed to drive away and flag down city officers.
Wilson said that in recent weeks, she has encountered two or three cases where the shooting victim knew the assailant but chose to “let the streets handle it” instead of identifying the gunman.
“Does that mean that you’re now going to go back out and shoot someone yourself?” Wilson said she asked the victims. “Are you going to take care of it?”
Many of the shootings, Wilson said, can be linked to gang culture on some level, although the connection sometimes may be tenuous or only indirectly related. For example, a gang member may have a disagreement with a person from a rival group and take action on his own without the gang leadership officially sanctioning it.
“They have ties to gangs,” Wilson said of many of the shootings. “Most of them have gang-related components. But it may not (necessarily) be the result of belonging to a gang but the result of, ‘I don’t like this group,’ or, ‘I have a beef with this person.’”
The Wythe Food Market shooting occurred in the run-up to one of Petersburg’s deadliest stretches ever, when seven people were fatally shot between Sept. 1 and Sept. 23, 2015. The body count contributed to the city’s record 16 killings last year.
Nine people have been fatally shot in the city so far this year.
Wilson credits Petersburg police with helping tamp down the killings by being more visible and “trying to get out in the neighborhoods” and talking with people.
Last year’s market shooting was preceded hours earlier by gang members celebrating the birthday of fallen Z5 member Terrell Hobson, 25, who had been fatally shot in Petersburg on May 24, 2015.
“All of these guys were together, and they were adorned with the Z5 or Zone Fif (gang attire) in their hair and their clothing,” Wilson said. “And they were utilizing their gang signs.”
After the party, the 20 or so gang members piled into their cars and gathered at the Wythe Food Market around 12:30 a.m. In one of the videos obtained by police, a steady stream of young men — whom authorities identified as Z5 members — can be seen entering the store and buying snacks, drinks and other items before walking back out to the parking lot.
“The majority of them had their own firearms,” Wilson said. Some of the weapons were visible while they were inside the store.
At one point, as the gang members milled about outside the store, a car that authorities believe was occupied by a group from a rival gang pulled into the lot. But almost immediately, the car can be seen backing up onto Wythe Street — stopping traffic in the rush to leave — before driving a few blocks up the road and stopping.
“We didn’t know exactly all the people in the car, but we knew who the group was and they were in the wrong place,” Wilson explained. “They realized they were in the wrong place and needed to go. If they had gotten out, the shooting would have taken place right there.”
The Z5 members kept watch on the car as it retreated and drove away, the video shows. After what appears to be some discussion, several of the gang members can be seen pulling out their guns as they begin walking toward their rival’s car.
One of the gang members then suddenly opens fire — prompting others to do the same — and several can be seen retreating back to the lot as they continue to shoot off rounds. Innocent motorists can be seen driving along Wythe Street as the gunfire unfolds.
During the melee, gang member Jaquan Fisher, 20, was struck in the chest. The video shows several of his friends help him into the back seat of a car before driving him to a hospital. The other gang members then quickly disperse in their cars.
Police and prosecutors were able to file criminal charges against five of the gang members after examining store security video and comparing their images and clothing with photos of Z5 members taken hours earlier at the gang birthday party.
Investigators obtained the party photos from gang member Pernell Hobson’s cellphone. He was convicted in June of the Sept. 10, 2015, fatal shooting of Frank White on a sidewalk near the American Choice Deli in the 900 block of West Washington Street.
“I worked with some incredible detectives ... who brought me the videotape, tracked down leads for me, and brought me the videos and pictures from Pernell Hobson’s phone that helped put together ... the events that occurred the last 10 hours before the shooting,” Wilson said. The videos and photos showed the same people, wearing the same clothing, “all together in one area (at the party) and still all together at the shooting.”
Michael Duke, a gang expert with the Virginia Gang Investigators Association, assisted in the investigation. He established that the defendants were members of a hybrid gang based in Petersburg’s 5th Ward whose newer generation are now calling themselves Z5 or Zone Fif. The group doesn’t necessarily have any affiliation with nationally recognized gangs operating in major U.S. cities, he said.
“They do have some loose associations with the Bloods but they are not necessarily a subset of the Bloods,” Duke said. “It’s just a local neighborhood group that came together to represent their neighborhood. And a lot of times in Virginia — Petersburg is one — the different neighborhoods are having clashes with other neighborhoods, which they deem as their rivals.”
The convicted gang members are:
- Jamonta Crenshaw, 23, who was found guilty Sept. 13 of criminal gang participation, reckless handing of a firearm, carrying a concealed weapon (second offense) and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He is to be sentenced Jan. 19.
- Jaquan Fisher, 20, who pleaded guilty Sept. 27 to reckless handling of a firearm, criminal gang participation, maliciously shooting into an occupied vehicle and carrying a concealed weapon. He was sentenced to serve 2½ years in prison but received two additional years for drug and gun charges in a separate incident.
- Jaquan Tucker, 19, who pleaded guilty Sept. 27 to reckless handling of a firearm, criminal gang participation, maliciously shooting into an occupied vehicle and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to serve 3 years in prison.
- Travis Nicholas, 20, who pleaded guilty Dec. 6 to criminal gang participation and three counts of maliciously shooting at an occupied vehicle. He was sentenced to serve 2½ years in prison.
- Tariq Walker, who was a juvenile at the time but has since turned 18, pleaded guilty to criminal gang participation, possession of a firearm by a juvenile, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, reckless handling of a firearm and carrying a concealed weapon. He was sentenced to serve 2½ years in prison and ordered to earn a GED certificate.
“I want to make sure people can be at ease when their children are out playing, that when they drive down the streets they don’t have to be concerned about having their car shot up, and when they stop at a store to pick up an item they don’t have to worry about the parking lot being turned into a war zone,” Wilson said of the gang prosecutions.
“There is a very small element who place no value on their lives or anyone else’s.