Tariq “Reek” Brown from the Bailey Boys gang thought he spotted rival gangsters at a picnic in Martin Luther King Park last May. Holding his pistol-grip assault rifle, police say, he sprayed bullets at the crowd of more than 100 people, killing 26-year-old Marquay Lee and wounding four others.
Street justice demanded swift retaliation. Just hours later, as partygoers spilled out from a Minnesota Avenue house, a suspected associate from the rival LRGP gang fired into the crowd, killing Samantha Cothran, an aspiring 23-year-old pharmaceutical student who had nothing to do with gangs.
For years, the Bailey Boys and LRGP Crew carried out business at the end of a gun. When someone dared to encroach on turf where each felt they had exclusive rights to sell drugs and rob people, the result was terror and sometimes death.
Eleven months after the two shootings, police say the Bailey Boys and LRGP are in shambles, the result of an intense effort by Buffalo police, the FBI and federal prosecutors to break the gangs.
Eighteen members of LRGP and 10 of the Bailey Boys are in jail awaiting trial in U.S. District Court, including Tariq Brown, charged with murder last week in the Martin Luther King Park shooting.
The campaign against the Bailey Boys and LRGP is the latest front in a three-year war on gang violence in Buffalo. It started with targeting the notorious 10th Street and 7th Street gangs fighting each other on the West Side, then a West Side gang known as the Loiza Boys that attempted to fill the void, and now the Bailey Boys and LRGP.
In all, 160 Buffalo gang members have been put behind bars over the past three years. The top federal prosecutor calls them “the worst of the worst.”
Because they are charged or already have been convicted of federal felonies, these gang members face stiffer penalties than under state law. And, as with the Bailey Boys and LRGP, the government has swung its heaviest hammer designed to decimate organized crime – the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
No one believes the gangs are gone for good. Residents know that dismantling gangs is like a deadly carnival game of whack-a-mole. When one gang is taken down, another pops up.
But the focus on gangs has made neighborhoods safer. This is how the police took down the Bailey Boys and LRGP.
When William J. Hochul Jr. became the U.S. attorney in 2010, he took his staff on a tour of the city’s worst neighborhoods.
“We took a bus tour with 15 assistant U.S. attorneys and the clergy. I wanted my staff to have a sense of urgency. It’s one thing to prosecute day in and day out, but it’s another thing to feel the urgency,” said Hochul, who grew up on the city’s East Side.
Hochul then took a second tour with Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who had appealed to him for help and also grew up on the East Side.
“When I took the U.S. attorney on a tour,” Derenda recalled, “a drug dealer approached our unmarked vehicle thinking we were looking to make a buy. He ran when he saw my uniform.”
Those two also teamed up with the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force.
They count their progress on the war against the gangs:
“We have solved 21 homicides to date involving gangs, including killers in the Bailey Boys and LRGP Crew,” Derenda said. “I can think of another 10 to 15 murders where there’s a high probability that they too will be solved.”
Out in the neighborhoods, there is gratitude that gang members are getting locked up, though it is tempered with reality. And to avoid becoming a crime statistic, they say you need to be viglilant.
View from the streets
Consider the plight of Randy Zawadzski, who lives in the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood, home of LRGP, which stands for Lombard Street, Rother Avenue, Gibson Street and Playter Street, which roughly defines the boundaries of the gang’s turf.
“Three years ago, I got caught in the gunfire. I got shot in the left leg. Fragments from an AK-47 bullet hit me. It was a horrifying experience,” Zawadzski said. “It was a case of mistaken identity. After that, I wouldn’t ever go outside after dark.”
Another Broadway Fillmore resident said that when he sees a gang coming down the street, he heads indoors. And when gunfire breaks out, he takes added precautions.
“We have a family ritual in my house. I have four children, and if we hear gunshots, it’s routine to go to the back of the house and lie on the floor,” the father said.
Mary Chambers said she moved out of the Bailey Kensington neighborhood in 2011 because of gangsters’ warfare.
“The gangs drove me out. I couldn’t even let my grandkids play on the porch,” said Chambers, who now lives in Cheektowaga. “My house on Shirley Avenue had been shot at three times.”
It’s no wonder.
Chambers lived on the 200 block of Shirley where Anthony Skinner, a member of LRGP, tempted fate by sometimes staying overnight at a house on that same block right in the heart of the Bailey Boys’ territory.
Skinner’s affront to the Bailey Boys went from bad to worse. In broad daylight on July 21, 2011, he allegedly shot Rayshod Washington of the Bailey Boys.
The attack was caught on a city surveillance camera. Mayor Byron W. Brown, who happened to be in the camera room at Buffalo Police Headquarters at that moment, watched the shooting in real time.
“I was shocked by the total disregard for whoever else was on the street and the fact that he started shooting with a surveillance camera right there,” Brown said. “There was a total lack of regard for human life.”
Eight days later, Skinner got some payback.
On July 29, Tariq Brown – the same man charged last week in the Martin Luther King Park shootings – spotted Skinner in a maroon car at the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Orleans Street and began shooting, police say. Skinner survived the attack but just barely. A bullet struck him in the chest.
That summer of 2011 was a busy one for Tariq Brown, authorities said. In addition to Skinner, Brown also was involved in shootings on Shirley Avenue and at a block club party on Dartmouth Avenue, police said. Residents on the side streets running off Bailey and Kensington avenues were beside themselves. Something needed to be done.
A couple of fortuitous events occurred in the bloody summer of 2011. Buffalo police and the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force began investigating the LRGP Crew, and Derenda had a meeting with a Bailey Kensington block club leader.
“I met in the evening with the block club president in the living room of Bonnie Russell’s home,” Derenda said of the meeting arranged by University Council Member Russell.
The block club official, who asked that her name be withheld, recalled telling the commissioner how gang members in Bailey Kensington had taken over street corners outside delis and sold drugs, committed shootings in broad daylight, and intimidated residents to the point that they were afraid to leave their homes.
“I gave that woman my word we would do something,” Derenda said, who was also worried about the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood.
He assigned two city homicide detectives to work with the FBI’s task force, which started gaining an inside view of the Bailey Boys and the LRGP Crew by developing sources, making undercover drug buys and receiving intelligence from city police patrol officers and district detectives. They also were listening in on gang members’ cellphone conversations.
Investigators got an earful, according to FBI supervisory Special Agent James A. Jancewicz.
They were able to identify an LRGP drug house at 42 Memorial Drive, not far from the historic Central Terminal. Gang member Franklin Richards supplied the house with cocaine, which was then sold to street dealers, police explained.
More digging determined that Richards obtained his drugs from Earl Brown of Houston, and Brown dealt directly with the drug cartels of Mexico, according to Jancewicz.
LRGP members, Jancewicz said, were covetous of their turf. If anyone dared to move in on them, they could expect retribution.
“It’s believed that the gang members made a pact that if anyone else sold drugs in the Lombard, Rother, Gibson and Playter area, they would be killed,” Jancewicz said.
Advantages of federal charges
Early in the course of that investigation, he said, the task force also learned that LRGP and the Bailey Boys had been at war for a few years, which helped explain why there were so many shootings.
But to nail down who was responsible for pulling the trigger and make arrests that would stick in court, a methodical approach was needed.
“You take a retrospective look and start putting pieces together, dates of shootings, deconstructing piece by piece. The key is actually to have witnesses who will testify. Human beings who will say, ‘I shot that guy’ or ‘That guy was shot for this reason,’ ” Jancewicz explained.
One of the advantages of making arrests at the federal level as opposed to the state level, Hochul explained, is that individuals charged with serious crimes are usually detained until their charges are resolved, usually at trial.
In the long months leading up to a trial, time weighs heavy and investigators say there is a greater chance that the individual may end up assisting authorities by appearing before a grand jury and offering testimony that can lead to additional arrests and the solving of other crimes.
That scenario has played out over and over in the investigation into the LRGP Crew and Bailey Boys.
In fact, when Tariq Brown was charged last week with the murder of Lee and the attempted murder of four others picnickers, it was part of the fourth superseding indictment against the Bailey Boys gang. And Brown already was behind bars awaiting trial on three other attempted murder charges.
The same strategy was used in taking down the 10th Street and 7th Street gangs, according to Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards, who said such an intense effort was needed because the gangs were so entrenched that they had become “generational.”
Check back this summer
Rooting out the gangs has resulted in improvements to West Side and East Side neighborhoods, which authorities say is the end game – to help these neighborhoods make a comeback.
But in these neighborhoods where the different gangs have flourished for so long, optimism among residents is guarded.
The Broadway Fillmore father who gathers his children into the back of his house when gunfire rings out says the coming warmer months will tell whether the joint police effort has made a difference.
“Come back in the summer when it gets hot and crazy,” he said, only identifying himself by his first name, Mark, for fear of making himself a target. “Come back in the summer, and I’ll let you know if there are less shootings.”