SEGUIN - A long local law enforcement war on two local factions of the "Crips" criminal street gang has sent 20 to state prison for sentences totaling 227 years - and more are headed that way as authorities here work to suppress organized crime.
Christopher R. Wilson, 21, recently pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony robbery allegation and awaits sentencing in 25th Judicial District Court.
The guilty plea marks the 21st Crips-connected conviction - all but one of which came without trial - in a two-year fight mounted by 25th Judicial District Attorney Heather Miller, Seguin Police Chief Kevin Kelso and Sheriff Arnold Zwicke in an effort to curtail drug and gang-related violence in Seguin and Guadalupe County and essentially take back the streets on behalf of law-abiding citizens.
Miller ran for office in 2008 under her former, married name of Heather Hollub on a platform promising to go after drug dealers and violent criminals, and Kelso arrived from Victoria that same year to find a gang war simmering on the streets of Seguin whose traces could be found in a series of violent incidents that included home invasions, aggravated assaults, sexual assaults and drive-by shootings.
Much violent crime and nearly all property crime can be connected to drug abuse, and Miller, Kelso and Zwicke decided the time was long past to take the gangs on directly.
"It was really coming to the forefront right when I got here," Kelso said. "We had home invasions. These groups of gang-bangers were coming to homes and robbing and assaulting the people in them. It seemed like every other weekend, there was a drive-by shooting or someone getting stabbed or assaulted. We weren't getting any help because in many cases, the victims themselves were gang-bangers, and wouldn't cooperate with us. We got good response from our community and as things started progressing, we were getting intel and putting more and more cases together, and we were able to begin filing charges on them."
They also began jailing the suspects - many held on bails set by former Seguin police officer and now Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Darrell Hunter of upwards of a million dollars - in an effort to keep the most violence-prone defendants off the street for the safety of the community.
Then, Kelso's worst fears were realized on the night of Oct. 16, 2009, when what police say was a band of the Hoover 74 Crips attempted a drive-by shooting at an Anderson Street home associated with members of the Mexican Mafia in retaliation for an earlier dispute.
Garland Taylor, 21, was one of the people in the suspect vehicle in what became a violent shootout. He was shot in the head and died in a San Antonio hospital a few days later.
Among 14 people on both sides of the confrontation booked on allegations of engaging in organized crime and aggravated assault, alleged Mexican Mafia members Michael DelaGarza, 33, and David Buitron Jr., 37, were also booked on first-degree felony murder charges in warrants delivered to them in Guadalupe County Jail.
Ultimately, neither was indicted on the murder charge because investigators learned they fired back at Taylor, who authorities say was a member of the Crips, in self-defense. But Buitron pleaded guilty to being a habitual felony offender and former Guadalupe County District Attorney and now 2nd 25th Judicial District Judge W.C. Kirkendall sentenced him to 38 years in state prison. DelaGarza pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Kelso acknowledged that his detectives, led by Criminal Investigation Division Lt. Jerry Hernandez, pulled out all the stops in their investigation of the Anderson Street shooting.
Kelso took some heat for what some considered heavy-handed tactics by his officers. Some said detectives used the Taylor killing as an excuse to arbitrarily round up young men whose crimes had been relatively minor, and tar them with the "organized crime" label.
Far from it, Kelso said. All the arrests at Anderson Street came after detectives showed Hunter or other judges probable cause in accordance with the law.
"We've gotten feedback in the community that we're trying to put as many people in jail in this investigation as we could," Kelso said. "Basically, what we were doing was just the opposite. We're dealing with a community problem - criminal gang activity and the crimes that go with it. It wasn't the job of these detectives to prove anyone innocent or guilty. It was to find out what happened, and unfortunately, Garland Taylor couldn't tell us."
While the police fought the Crips in the streets, the investigation and prosecution became a top priority of Miller's office, which was forced to shift resources it might rather have used elsewhere to support the gang investigation mounted by the SPD and augmented by the sheriff's office, which participated in a number of operations and made its own arrests connected to the case.
Miller compiled a target list of 22 Crips members, prospects or associates and hung the list up in her office.
She assigned her first assistant, Larry Bloomquist, to head the prosecution team, aided by Assistant district attorneys Bill Squires III, Tom Mitchell and Dave Willborn.
Ultimately, all of the defendants save one, former Seguin High School football star Marcus Richardson, pleaded guilty to the charges.
Richardson, prosecuted by Bloomquist and Squires, was found guilty this past August of one count of aggravated robbery, but he was found not guilty on a second robbery allegation, as well as on an aggravated sexual assault charge. Jurors sentenced him to 15 years, and he subsequently pleaded guilty on a second aggravated robbery charge in exchange for a 10-year sentence.
Several other gang members cooperated with authorities rather than risk trial and face even longer sentences.
Kelso said the support of Miller's office was heartening, and would only add to the resolve of the SPD to combat gangs.
"We couldn't be happier with the sentences Ms. Miller got for us," Kelso said. "We wouldn't have been as successful without the help of her and her staff, and we'll continue to focus on gangs, drugs and weapons in the community and try to rid the community of this kind of activity.
Miller said the prosecutions succeeded because of the solid work of the SPD.
"The Seguin Police Department did an incredible job," Miller said in a written statement. "They brought us great cases; they worked tirelessly to put these people in jail and keep them there."
In her office, Bloomquist provided the leadership and determination to keep prosecutors focused on the goal of making the streets safer.
"Larry handled almost all of those cases personally, and spent most of the last year and a half working on this," she said. "Larry, Bill, Tom and Dave worked night and day to cross every name off that list."
Unfortunately, even with two Crips chapters decimated, the work isn't over.
A little before 3 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2010, Geoffrey Carrizales, 34, was gunned down in the front entrance of his mother's Magnolia Street home in an incident police believe was related to a dispute between local chapters of two criminal gangs, the IMG (Insane Mexican Gangsters) affiliated with the Mexican Mafia, and the LA Boys, or Latin Alliance, which is believed by investigators to be connected to the Texas Syndicate prison gang.
The Carrizales killing was believed to be the catalyst for a subsequent brazen daytime assault at a local tire business in which another man suffered multiple stab wounds.
Over the course of several weeks, Hernandez and his detectives rolled up a dozen suspects in Seguin, while Zwicke's investigators arrested others and still more were picked up in New Braunfels, Luling, Oklahoma and Idaho.
Those cases are beginning to wend their way through Guadalupe County's court system, and Kelso hopes the outcomes will be similar to what Miller's prosecution team obtained in the investigations into the Anderson Street shoot-out and the other incidents that preceded it.
"Our guys worked night and day on these cases to make sure that those responsible for these homicides and other horrendous crimes in our city get what they deserve," Kelso said. "As a community, we do not have to tolerate or accept this kind of behavior."
To fight it, Kelso said, everyone - not just the police - needs to get involved in what goes on in the city and the county to put a stop to it.
"We all have to take a stand to increase our quality of life and not be tormented by these hoodlums," Kelso said. "We have to band together when we see it, stand up to it, and put a stop to it."
The following defendants who authorities say are either gang members, prospects or associates have been convicted in the Crips investigations:
- Nicholas Vega, 22, 20 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Anthony Jones, 28, 15 years prison for delivery of cocaine
- Brandon Graves, 31, 15 years prison for delivery of cocaine, 10 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Marcus Richardson, 23, 15 years prison for aggravated robbery, 10 years prison for aggravated robbery
- Edmund Cunningham, 35, 15 years prison for delivery of cocaine
- Damien Ussery, 25, 14 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Corey Caad, 20, 11 years prison for aggravated robbery, 11 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Troy Cunningham, 30, 10 years prison for delivery of cocaine
- Phillip Franklin, 34, 10 years prison for tampering with evidence
- Marcus Troy, 22, 9 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Gregory McClure, 20, 9 years in prison for robbery
- Patrick Wilson, 25, 9 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Francis Baker, 23, 8 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Timothy Dailey, 20, 5 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Vanessa Graves, 24, 5 years prison for retaliation, 5 years prison Possession of Cocaine
- Jordan Sheffield, 20, 5 years prison for engaging in organized crime, 5 years prison Possession of Cocaine
- Darrell Sheffield, 24, 5 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Scott Graves, 24, 4 years prison for retaliation
- Justin Gonzales, 22, 2 years prison for engaging in organized crime
- Gregory Popham, 20, 6 years deferred adjudication probation for engaging in organized crime, 120 days county jail for motion to adjudicate guilt
- Christopher Wilson, 22, pleaded guilty to robbery, sentencing pending