- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

WEYERS CAVE, Va. (AP) — Shenandoah Valley law-enforcement officials say they are seeing signs that gangs are on their way to the area, and police are not going to be caught off guard.

The law-enforcement agencies have formed special investigative units to confront the emerging problem after signs of violent gang presence showed up on high school students’ clothes, in graffiti and in a recent shooting death in Staunton.

Officials said where there are signs, the gangs either are there or are on their way.

“We don’t use the word ‘wannabe.’ We use the word ‘gonnabe’” said Randy Crank, president of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association.

The association recently held a two-day seminar to teach about 70 law-enforcement officers, juvenile justice employees and others about the signs of gang activity.

Keith Applewhite, the association’s vice president, said recognizing that there could be a problem is the first step to combating gangs. “The biggest issue we have with all of this is denial,” Mr. Applewhite said. “They don’t accept it and ignore the problem until it’s too late.”

The seminar began just days after a 22-year-old Staunton man was killed at a gas station in a shooting that police say was gang-related. Last year, four persons from Staunton and Waynesboro were convicted of the stabbing death of a man who was trying to leave a local chapter of the Crips, a Los Angeles-based street gang.

Anti-gang task forces have been established in Northern Virginia and the northern Shenandoah Valley, and Harrisonburg and Rockingham County formed a regional task force in June to prevent and reduce gang activity.

Some high school students in Winchester began displaying the colors, bandannas, rosaries and hand signs of Mara Salvatrucha, a violent gang from El Salvador also known as MS-13, said Maj. Robert Eckman, a member of the Northwest Virginia Regional Gang Task Force.

He said all the students were local, and the gang activity has been confined to spray-painting and running drugs.

Most of the activity has come in the form of graffiti. Officials said few of those involved in the recent activities have direct ties to the street gangs of Chicago, Los Angeles or El Salvador, and many don’t fit the gang member profile.

The Gang Investigators Association, which holds about 10 rural seminars each year, has focused on MS-13 and the Bloods, who have been recruiting across the state, Mr. Crank said.

At the recent seminar, officials listened to rap music in the morning session and learned about Satanism that afternoon.

“What [we are] doing is making sure [local police] are prepared when [gangs] show up,” Mr. Crank said.

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