Bangin' in L-Dub

A half mile from Lake Worth's trendy eateries, a war is under way. With guns and cyber-graffiti.

After all, the last thing Riviera Beach needs is gang members with websites, AK-47s, and big beef against one another.

"Their aim is the superiority of their group over another group," Howard says, "and it isn't that organized up here yet. [The local murders] could just be that A shoots B because C shot D. Or kids hanging out, just a group from the neighborhood, and now they call that a gang."

A tall, skinny black kid in a red Nissan Altima pulls into the parking lot and nods at Howard. "What's up, Mr. James?" he asks politely as he ducks into the restaurant.

Gang-related art confiscated from Lake Worth students
Gang-related art confiscated from Lake Worth students
James Howard juggles lawn care and gang outreach.
Colby Katz
James Howard juggles lawn care and gang outreach.

"That's one of the kids I've had over to my house," Howard says. "I'm living out in a nice place on PGA Boulevard, and I'll bring 'em up there and say, 'This is a style of life you'll never see again at the rate you're going,'" he says seriously. "Who else is gonna talk to these kids? Who's even gonna sit down with 'em, knowing they have a gun?"

A few yards from Howard's lawn-care truck is a light pole that marks the spot where a young man was killed late last year in a still-unsolved robbery/murder. "They'll tell me what's up," he says of his teenaged confidantes. "Someone will say, 'This is who did the actual shooting, Mr. James,' and I'll get that word to law enforcement — and still protect my sources."

Despite the technological innovations, Hermanson's beat is a lot like any other police beat. It involves a lot of shoe leather — or, at least, tire rubber. The web will take you only so far. Eventually, you have to hit the street.

Just a few interstate exits south of Riviera Beach, Hermanson muscles his SUV though an alleyway clogged with tall weeds and shattered bottles. Garage doors have been recently repainted with a roller in mismatched shades of beige and brown. His cell phone awakens to the sprightly melody of "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)." He studies the caller ID on his cell phone and answers, "Hola. Happy St. Patrick's Day to you too. Hey, where's all the gang boys hanging out out your way?"

It's a woman who used to be in a Lake Worth gang who now has teenaged sons of her own who are gang members. "I've helped her and her husband out over the years," he remarks as he motors past a new home, under construction, turned into a spray-painted gang billboard. "As they get older, they get away from it, and they've given me information on a lot of crimes."

The life of a Lake Worth gangster isn't terribly lucrative, Hermanson says. Rolling farm workers for cash, selling weed and coke, and occasionally stealing a car represent typical spoils. But when people are getting blown away on city streets and drive-by shooting cases remain unsolved, cops give the gangs a harder scrutiny. On April 11, for instance, a 57-year-old man was shot and killed while walking his dog near State Road 7 and Lake Worth Road, and no witnesses have come forward.

Hermanson spends an hour or so each day surfing for gang info, knowing that the clues gleaned from the web don't normally point toward big game like murderers. "The real bad guys we need to catch," he says, "they're not sitting at home playing with a computer."

But it's a start. You can bet that, when Hermanson notices something new — be it the angle some kid's hat is cocked, a new gang sign or tattoo, a new nickname or catch phrase — it's going into the Book of Knowledge. For next time.

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