Gang-related tattoos and graffiti.
A pattern of robberies of aggravated assaults.
Weapons and drug violations.
In 2008, details gathered through arrests and investigations started to form a pattern for police in Lebanon.
When the city’s detectives pooled their information with the county sheriff’s office — and evidence they had gathered in jail — it seemed to point to a larger, more organized criminal element behind the scenes.
“We just started seeing some things, whether it be tattoos, [certain] people that were arrested, graffiti, that kind of stuff,” Bowen said. “There was a decision made at that point for us to go in with the [Wilson County] sheriff’s department and the FBI to start this [investigation].”
It was a necessary partnership, Bowen said. “I don’t think any single agency has the resources to dedicate to doing this, and that’s why it’s so important that we all come together.”
The effort soon launched a three-year, multi-agency investigation culminating in the message law enforcement officials hope they sent gangs last week with the announcement of a 13-count federal indictment and the arrests that followed.
The arrests highlight the continued expansion of gangs from cities into suburban and rural Tennessee, activity that authorities have seen increase in the last several years.
Seventeen people were charged in an alleged conspiracy to distribute cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana while at times selling weapons and committing violence and murder. Two weeks ago authorities began rounding up the indicted, so far arresting 15, including 11 Vice Lords gang members.
According to the indictment, the gangsters and illegal drug dealers associated with them sold firearms and ammunition, regularly held organizational meetings, robbed rival dealers, and used drug proceeds to
pay bail amounts and attorneys’ fees when members were arrested.
While Lebanon, as the home turf of 11 of those charged, apparently saw the majority of the alleged criminal activity dating back to at least July 2008, the trail of these alleged Vice Lords members stretched along the Interstate 40 corridor from Davidson County through Wilson County and into Putnam County.
The investigation would eventually rely on law enforcement resources from the Tennessee Highway Patrol, police departments in Nashville, Lebanon, Sparta and Cookeville, sheriff’s offices in Wilson, Putnam and White counties, as well as from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the FBI.
Vice Lords were first documented in the state in the early 1980s, according to Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. She said it’s hard to say exactly when the rural gang presence popped up, as there was no measure of such in the state prior to 2009.
In 2009, a TBI report on gangs across the state found that 60 of the 95 counties reported the presence of gangs, with 27 counties reporting a Vice Lords presence.
Information developed in 2009 and offered by local agencies and the Tennessee Department of Correction immediately after the release of that report led the TBI to focus on the Vice Lords because, as Quin put it, they were doing things “a little differently.”
Last year, the TBI released the “Vice Lords in the Volunteer State” report showing a presence of 695 documented Vice Lords in 35 out of the 95 counties, including all but one county west of the Tennessee River (Lake).
What the TBI found within the Vice Lords ranks was not only a strong presence inside the prison system but also a high level of organization and communication on the outside.
“You might find an individual in East Tennessee committing robberies in order to raise bond for a Vice Lords member in West Tennessee,” Quin said.
Suburban organized gangs operate much the same and engage in the same activities — drugs, violence, robberies, graffiti — as their urban counterparts, Quin said, but at first they might do so more freely because the local police don’t yet know they’re there yet.
Bowen said his department has identified sets, or branches, of several different gangs — Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, etc. — in Lebanon, but as this investigation shows, the problem is widespread, stretching from Nashville to Sparta.
“Not only do they commit narcotics transactions, but they commit violent crimes, robberies, that kind of stuff,” Bowen said. “So it’s important from our side of it to identify those folks and the problems they cause and then find the best way to have them prosecuted.”
That’s where U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin hopes his office and the threat of federal prosecution will be successful.
Martin told The City Paper the federal threat is meant to deter and disrupt organized crime, particularly by targeting the most violent and influential gang members, who if convicted could face prison sentences in a federal system without parole and could serve their sentences in prisons far from their home turf.
“The idea is to get the worst of the worst off the streets,” Martin said.
And with limited resources from local to federal agencies, Martin said it takes collaboration and the distinctions between each agency become arbitrary. “We’re going to work with sheriffs, police chiefs … [and] local law enforcement because they’re going to have the best on-the-ground intelligence,” he said. “These cases don’t come together unless there’s that kind of collaboration.”