Gangs of Lake Worth: Mad, Bad, and Fricking Expensive

Lt. Mike Wallace, who heads the Violent Crimes Task Force for Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, is a "big picture" kind of guy. When it comes to fighting gang activity in Palm Beach County, Wallace looks at not just crime statistics and not just kids as young as fourth grade being led astray -- he says he gauges just how expensive the 150 gangs operating in Palm Beach County can be for taxpayers.

"Think about it," Wallace told the Juice by phone. "A gang member shoots another gang member. Police show up. The Trauma hawk is called in. They fly him to the hospital; he gets surgery. He stays in the hospital for two weeks. Then he has rehabilitation. Who do you think pays for that? The citizens of Palm Beach County."

But Wallace says that for law enforcement trying to fight gangs in Florida, the ability to apply RICO statutes (Racketeering Influenced Corruption Operation) is a dream come true. Last December 17, a Palm Beach County grand jury indicted 12 members of the MLK gang operating out of Lake Worth on racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering charges.

The next day, the PBC violent crimes task force, Boynton Beach Police Department, and  Immigration and Customs Enforcement worked together to round up 12 alleged MLK gang members. They executed eight search warrants, picking up a cache of firearms, ammunition, computers, and a safe containing stolen merchandise.

One MLK member arrested, Jose Garcia, had been involved in a shooting at a birthday party on D Street two years ago that had left a bullet in the back of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.

"Basically RICO was developed to go after the Mafia," Wallace says. "Before RICO, it was really difficult to get people to testify against Mafia members because they faced retaliation. But with RICO, you could round up many people at once. It gave grand juries the big picture about how individual crimes were connected."

RICO has the same advantages when it comes to fighting gang crime in Palm Beach County. "RICO has developed into the perfect tool for going after gangs," Wallace says. "With these gangs, we're talking about young guys who are may be in their late teens or early 20s. You tell them they're facing 30 years on racketeering and another 30 years on conspiracy to commit racketeering, And very few of these young guys want to spend the next 60 years in prison. So you can plea them down, in return for information and cooperation. And I mean real cooperation, not 'I'll tell you what I want to tell you.' "

The MLK gang bust was the third in Palm Beach County since the violent crime task force was initiated in 2006. The violent crimes unit also used RICO to round up 13 Sur-13 and 11 Top 6 members in 2008. Top 6 was also operating out of Boynton Beach and Lake Worth and was responsible for a total of 150 crimes. Wallace says with Sur-13, gang members were "lining up at the door" to take a plea deal in return for information. The information gathered allowed the sheriff's office to close two open homicide cases.

An indictment, Wallace says, is just the beginning of the investigation. Once gang members are in jail, the real work begins. Interviews with incarcerated gang members can help the sheriff's office to close or further dozens of open cases.

Wallace credits the ability to use RICO with a 50 percent reduction in gang crime since 2006. And with that reduction in crime comes big savings for Palm Beach County citizens. "In 2006, we had 100 homicides in Palm Beach County," Wallace says. "Forty-eight of those were gang-related. In 2009, we had 95 homicides in the county, our first reduction in four years. Twenty-three of those were gang-related."

That adds up to big savings. Taxpayers will be footing the bill for a lot fewer Trauma hawk flights.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd