Gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples might seem far off and irrelevant to the lives of most central Virginia residents, who typically equate such groups with big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
But offshoots of those gangs are living and committing crimes in our cities and counties, area law-enforcement officials say. And the degree to which those gangs have taken root here might surprise many law-abiding local residents, they say. "I don't think there's any national-flavored gang that's not here," said Mindy Grizzard, a board member of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association.
Numerous localized versions of the Bloods, for example -- one of the nation's most notorious gangs -- can be found throughout the Richmond area, including in Chesterfield and Henrico counties, Grizzard said.
"We've got Bloods. We've got Crips," Grizzard said. "Right now, the most prevalent national gang in the Richmond metro area is the Bloods."
The conviction two weeks ago of a Petersburg gang leader has drawn attention once again to the prevalence of gangs in the Richmond region, particularly those with national affiliations.
Authorities say Kalvin B. Kelley, 22, arrived here two years ago from New York to take charge of a Bloods-affiliated gang in the Tri-Cities known as G Shyne. Police say he plotted, while in jail, to kill a Petersburg detective who arrested him last year in a series of gang-related robberies in Petersburg.
Although Richmond's gang problem doesn't appear to be as large as Petersburg's, the seat of Virginia's government has its share of Bloods and a "smattering" of Crips and Gangster Disciples, said Richmond prosecutor Erik Smith, who with colleague Ann Cabell Baskervill prosecutes most of the city's gang cases.
Subsets of the national gangs operating in Richmond include the Bloodhound Pyru, the 9 Trey Bloods and the Insane Gangster Disciples, Smith said.
"It's close to an even split" between home-grown gangs and those with national affiliations, Smith said. "But the scales probably tilt a little bit more in favor of the home-grown gangs."
Most of Richmond's gangsters seem focused on drug trafficking, Smith said, although authorities have prosecuted some for street robberies.
"There are still folks out there that are gang-affiliated that are committing robberies, especially in the Carytown area and in the Fan," he said. But Smith said such crimes are sporadic. Most law-abiding residents have nothing to fear, "unless you're going into the wrong neighborhoods at the wrong time doing the wrong thing."
Chesterfield police Detective Keith Applewhite said suburban dwellers should have no illusions that gang members -- even those with national ties -- aren't operating in the counties.
"You cannot draw borders with our gangs," he said. "Chesterfield has to work with Richmond, Henrico, Dinwiddie, Hopewell . . . because our gang members cross borders. I might have a gang member living in Chesterfield, but he hangs out in Richmond."
Although gang members have been known to commit robberies in Chesterfield, Applewhite said the biggest thing residents have to fear is that their children could be recruited by a gang.
National gangs will set up "franchises" in areas like central Virginia and recruit young people to help generate income through drug sales.
"They're here to set up business, and they need the workers," Applewhite said. "And the workers can be as young as 9 or 10 years old, on up to their later teens. That's pretty much what I'm seeing around here."
Gang leaders make contact with potential recruits at parties or seek out teens who are having problems at home, Applewhite said.
"The average citizen in our area really doesn't have to worry about gang crime -- at this point," he added. "Because right now [those gang members] are building respect, and in building respect they'll commit crimes against each other."
Yet area residents can still fall prey in less-direct ways, such as when gang members break into homes and cars to steal items that are turned into operating revenue for the gang. "They have to commit crimes to pay their dues each week," Applewhite said.
As a senior probation and parole officer for the Virginia Department of Corrections, Grizzard has seen hundreds of adult gang members pass through the system. About 300 gang members currently are on supervised probation with the Richmond probation office's gang unit, she said.
"We have at least 30 Bloods alone on supervision -- just in Richmond," Grizzard said. "That's just adult probation and doesn't include those who haven't been caught."
Those 30 or so Bloods belong to six or seven different factions of the national gang, she said.
"The Bloods have different sets, and each set has its own leader," Grizzard said. "So there's multiple factions with their own leader and their own hierarchy that break off. But they are all national Bloods."
Ignorance about the prevalence of gang activity here may be due in part, Grizzard said, to the reluctance by some law-enforcement officials to talk openly about it. There's a fear that too much attention could result in an economic backlash for the region, she said.
"We couldn't even say the 'gang' word in Richmond when [Richmond Police Chief André] Parker was here," she said.
More recently, Richmond police officials denied several requests to interview the department's anti-gang unit leader, Lt. Hamlett Hood, about gang activity in Richmond.
Nevertheless, Grizzard believes attitudes have started to change in recent years, especially after the Virginia attorney general's office "made the gang-word come to the forefront."
She credited former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who was one of the first public officials to confront the problem of gangs in Virginia. A package of anti-gang laws he championed was approved by the General Assembly in 2003, and more laws were passed in subsequent sessions.
Petersburg police spokeswoman Esther Hyatt, who is researching Petersburg's gangs, said authorities have identified more than a dozen gangs operating in the Tri-Cities area with a membership of about 650. She said it's difficult to say how many of those groups have national ties.
"It's not an easy question to answer . . . because we have some groups that are a family-kind of posse that commit a lot of our crime," Hyatt said. "But we do have groups that are affiliated with the Bloods and the Crips."
Police are in the process of cataloging the Petersburg gangs, Hyatt said, "to see who they have beefs with, what types of crimes they commit, how organized they are and if they have a chain of command."
"So we have started identifying those organizational [characteristics] within these groups, and then seeing who they are affiliated with," Hyatt said.
Contact Mark Bowes at (804) 649-6450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.