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Young offenders and their crimes are becoming increasingly violent

By LYNDA COHEN Staff Writer

A gang atmosphere fueled by a young, violent culture looking to make money may have been what led to a fatal carjacking at an Atlantic City casino.

While gang activity has not grown significantly in the past few years, according to State Police numbers released in January, those who work with young offenders say they have become increasingly violent and less contained by the groups, no matter what their association.

“What used to be a clearly defined hierarchy ...  you don’t see as much of that anymore,” said acting Sgt. 1st Class Dave Smith, of the State Police Street Gangs South Unit. “It’s more of a loose federation, with a bunch of sets operating on their own as far as criminal activity for profit.”

That may have been the case when three young men from Camden — believed to be members of the Bloods gang — allegedly forced a Middlesex County couple from the Trump Taj Mahal parking garage at gunpoint, and shot them in an alley off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard last month. Sunil Rattu, 28, was killed. His girlfriend, Radha Ghetia, 24, was left wounded.

“Without talking specifics, that act itself was not motivated by the gang,” said Sgt. Christina DeCristofor, of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. “These were three kids who took a ride and did some awful things. It wasn’t necessarily because of a gang.”

“In the old days, Bloods were Bloods,” Smith said. “You didn’t whack somebody without getting permission.”

But now, it can be about anything: disrespect, anger, or maybe fear after something goes wrong.

“That’s the danger of a younger offender,” DeCristofor said. “They don’t think, they act: ‘I want money, I’m going to go out and get it. I want a car to go to the movies, I’m going to go out and get it.’“

Phillip Byrd and Eric Darden, both 20, are accused of coming to Atlantic City with 18-year-old Raheem Simmons looking for a “crime of opportunity,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said.

They already had a car — a silver Saturn ION reported stolen from Haddonfield, Camden County.

After apparently trying two other casinos with no success, they walked up the stairs to an unspecified floor of the Taj’s parking garage just before 8 a.m. Sept. 18. At least one had a gun, forcing Ghetia to drive to the alley, officials said. Gunshots were heard less than a half-hour later. Ghetia was wounded. A small amount of money was taken, but the couple’s car was left behind with Rattu dead inside.

“I’m sure it was for profit,” DeCristofor said. “They get scared or whatever the case may be, and they’ve taken a life and harmed someone. That’s the danger of a young offender.”

Affirmation, protection

Young people live for now, Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Tim Chatten explained.

“They live for the next 24 hours,” he said. “Most don’t expect to live past 21. They’ll tell you that.”

Many join a gang for affirmation, Chatten said. They’re looking for a role model, or protection from the streets.

But earning respect from a gang comes from negative acts.

Atlantic City Detective Lonell Jones said it can be something such as pointing to a woman walking down the street and telling the member to hit her in the face and take her purse. Or, maybe shooting and wounding a rival.

It might even be used as discipline.

“You do something wrong, you go over there and rob that store,” Jones said. “You get his money and we’ll forget what you did.”

A few years ago, rehabilitation was the focus for youth offenders, with incarceration a distant second, Chatten said. Now, it’s a “very close” number two.

“The state is realizing there is an overwhelming crime problem with juveniles,” he said, sitting in his Camden office where a two-foot stack of files on juveniles sat awaiting review for the day. “They are committing offenses that far surpass their age and life experience.”

This past week, there were 40 alleged offenders in the Camden County Youth Center.

“That’s low for us,” said Johann Arnold, chief of operations at the center.

Three are there on homicide charges.

“We’re seeing kids coming in at 11 years old now, unfortunately,” Arnold said. “We’re seeing an increase in aggravated assault, aggravated sexual assault, and, of course, homicides.”

Brief chance

at a turnaround

For most, the center offers a better educational experience than they get from their neighborhood schools, with Smart Boards in every class room, tutors and one teacher to every eight students — with an aide as well.

“We attempt to shape behavior, educate, and show love and compassion to what the state says are the most difficult kids in the state,” Arnold said.

Juveniles include ranking gang members, but within the center’s walls, “they change back to a child,” he said. “You have to remember, on the street they’re forced to be adults, to show no weakness, no fear. You have to be ruthless and aggressive. You have to be smart to stay alive.

But the average stay at the center is just 30 days, a small amount of time to turn it all around. And then, they are back on the street, where whatever they did to get put in the facility has earned them more respect.

Simmons — the youngest of the men arrested in the fatal Atlantic City carjacking —  was just 12 when he first entered the center in October 2005, records show.

Arnold could not say what the charges were, but he did say it wasn’t the teen’s last time there. Simmons was back twice in 2007. By October 2008, the then-15-year-old was sentenced to the New Jersey Training School for Boys. Now, three months after the system would recognize him as an adult, he is jailed on $1 million full cash bail on charges that include murder and felony murder.

On his left hand are tattooed the letters FTB, which stands for Fruit Town Brims, a Bloods gang that started in Las Angeles’ Compton area where the streets have fruit names.

Both Byrd and Darden already had pending cases before they allegedly stole the Saturn ION from Haddonfield and headed to Atlantic City. They were arrested a week apart last November, in unrelated incidents. Both allegedly had sawed-off shotguns.

They, too, had been through the juvenile system.

“They’re getting initiated a lot younger,” Jones said of kids joining gangs. “Some are in junior high, but definitely at the high school age. The high school age is when they get really serious about it.”

The average age is 12 or 13, DeCristofor said.

“There’s no rule anywhere,” she said. “It’s not like under a certain age is not allowed.”

Escalating violence

Beat-ins are the usual form of initiation: The gang members form a circle and take turns beating the recruit.

It’s unusual to initiate older teens, the experts say. By then, they are pretty well involved in the gangs.

What exactly may have brought the three Camden men to Atlantic City is unknown.

But it’s not unusual for gang members to travel, said Jones, who has been working with gangs for 15 years. The intelligence network gang investigators use finds that Atlantic City members often get arrested in places such as Camden or Newark. And Atlantic City finds some from Camden.

“We do see a lot of other gang members come to our town to hide out, sell drugs, and commit crimes,” Jones said.

The Internet has made that easier. It’s called “net banging,” Jones said. It began on MySpace, but now has extended to other social networking. Gangs call on one another to meet up.

The coming together isn’t unusual DeCristofor said — even within neighborhoods. Just like everyone else, the gangs are in a recession as well. They need to get money from drug sales and thefts.

“We have groups that were separate and are now forming allegiances down the block to expand their territory and get more profits,” she said. “The gangs may have colors, but, ultimately, what bonds everybody together is green, and it’s money.”

And often, that comes with weapons.

“Kids are definitely getting way more violent,” Jones said. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of them are just 18, 19 years old, and they’re getting these big guns.”

Big guns such as a TEC-9, a high-capacity, semiautomatic, 9 mm assault pistol, described in a flier circulated among law enforcement as the possible weapon used in the Sept. 18 shooting.

After Feb. 22, 2010, Camden saw how violent young offenders could be.

Ten members of the Bloods gang were accused of torturing and killing a couple — with alleged Crips ties — inside a home on Berkley Street. Eight were teens. The youngest, Shatara Carter, was just 14. She lived in the house where the pair were killed, stripped, and buried in the backyard. In August 2010, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her admitted role in the beating, choking, and suffocation of Muriah Huff, 18.

“It was horrific,” Chatten said.

With more than two decades dealing with young offenders, Arnold is not surprised by the violence. But he is affected by its toll.

“I have seen plenty of our kids dead,” he said. “I’m a pastor and I’ve done funerals for them. I take it personally.

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