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Welcome to Newburgh, Murder Capital of New York

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One morning, I visit Melanie Zachary at the pink wooden house on Dubois Street where she still lives, around the corner from where one of her sons was murdered and directly across the street from where the other was. In the meager light afforded by a TV in the corner, Melanie shows me a makeshift memorial to Trent, with signatures and little notes from his friends. From her wallet, she pulls an old school photo of Jeffrey. She tells me stories about Jeffrey, what a cutup he was, how you always knew when he was lying because he would blink uncontrollably. She takes off her glasses to demonstrate, letting out a chuckle that turns into a sob.

“Your kid is gone five minutes,” she says, trembling, “and you wonder, where’s my child at? Is he dead or alive?” She’s sobbing now, swaying slightly, looking at me searchingly, as if I might possess some answer. “It’s like I’m living in Vietnam or Iraq or something. It don’t make no sense!”

“You get a Blood, he goes to jail on drug charges,” Gagliano says to me one day. “When he’s in jail, what does he do? He’s recruiting other guys. They get out of jail, and they’re all coming back to the same area.”

This is a tragic paradox of law enforcement in Newburgh: Incarceration, which is designed to deter crime, may actually be accelerating it. Several years ago, a criminologist named Todd Clear studied communities in Tallahassee, Florida, and found that when a large enough proportion of people from a given neighborhood is locked up, the impact on the community can be dangerously destabilizing. Families are sundered, ex-cons with felonies on their records are excluded from gainful employment, and a certain culture begins to take hold. Children who have a father or brother in prison are statistically more likely to commit crimes. In Clear’s view, imprisonment “now produces the very social problems on which it feeds.”

This phenomenon is exacerbated in Newburgh, where many juveniles have an early opportunity to imbibe gang culture behind bars. Kids in Newburgh often start selling drugs and robbing people before they hit puberty, and the recidivism rate for male juvenile offenders who are detained in New York State is an astonishing 81 percent. As a result, Lieutenant Arnold allows, “we’re kind of building this monster along the way.”

Gagliano fully appreciates the unintended social consequences of locking up so many young people—he’s seen those consequences firsthand. But when he arrived in Newburgh, the solution he proposed was to lock them up for longer. Gagliano believes that one explanation for the revolving door between the streets of Newburgh and the prison system was the comparatively short sentences that gang members were serving on state charges. A six-month bid allows a kid to marinate in gang culture just long enough to become dangerous before returning to the streets. So what Gagliano proposed to do was identify the most hard-core offenders, then send them away not for a year or two but for decades. To do this, he would employ an unlikely but powerful tool: the racketeering act of 1970, or RICO.

Gagliano had first witnessed the power of RICO as a young case agent battling the New York mob. But during the nineties, federal prosecutors in New York started using the statute to go after violent street gangs as well. The great advantage of a racketeering case is that authorities can arrest the entire membership of a criminal enterprise and bring murder charges not just against the bagman who pulls the trigger but also the don who orders the hit. Gagliano was convinced that major RICO cases against the Bloods and the Latin Kings could effectively dismantle the gangs.

At a bunkerlike FBI office in Goshen, not far from Newburgh, Gagliano’s task force began assembling poster-board dossiers, delineating the identities, nicknames, and residences of each gang member, along with their roles in the drug trade. Whereas a RICO case against the Mafia might be constructed by installing a wiretap at a social club and simply sitting back to listen, in Newburgh the investigators were forced to hit the streets, working undercover and cultivating informants. “The hardest part that first year was just identifying the players,” Gagliano says.

To prosecute street gangs as racketeering organizations, you have to prove that they were actually organized. The Latin Kings, the task force discovered, were small but coherent. In fact, they made an almost comical fetish of organization. Each chapter was governed by a “Crown Council” that ran regular meetings and collected dues. Members adhered to an exhaustive handwritten manifesto. (“No smoking of drugs,” ran a typical prohibition. “With the exception of weed or hashish.”)


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