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Investigating Gang Homicides

A gang murder investigation requires your best detective skills to solve the crime and protect the witnesses.

October 22, 2010  |  by Richard Valdemar - Also by this author

Of course all of these interviews should be recorded, if possible. The suspect's interview should begin with his Miranda admonishment then at the end of the interview ask the suspect if he has been threatened or coerced to make this statement. Ask the suspect if he has anything else to add which might have not been previously asked, then record the ending time and the date.

Have some helpful officers transport the suspect for booking and have a recorder in their unit. Often the suspect will let down his guard and make spontaneous statements in transit.

If you are lucky enough to obtain a confession of some type, record the suspect's truthful statements but avoid video tape showing the suspect in jail clothing or in a jail setting as this may result in the exclusion of the confession by the court as highly prejudicial to the jury. As in the other recorded statements, take written notes.

Confession or not, monitor the suspect in custody. At the station lockup consider placing an officer in an adjoining cell, especially when multiple suspects are involved. Record the conversations between cells. At the county jail obtain documentation on who visited the suspect and monitor his phone calls and mail.

Gang members will visit and communicate with suspect gang members in jail. They will attempt to establish alibis and coordinate witness intimidation. They will try to find out how much you know. Take advantage of this predictable gang behavior and monitor their gang activity in jail.

Gang Search Warrants

Search warrants written for suspects in gang homicides are different than those for other homicides. Consider the following:

  • Gang affiliation may be the only motive for murder.
  • Gang members advertise their gang activity and affiliation.
  • Gang weapons are often retrieved after use, to be used again.
  • Gang weapons are often passed around within the gang.
  • Gang weapons are often hidden in the houses and cars of other gang members.
  • Gang weapon paraphernalia is rarely disposed of.
  • Gang members continue to communicate while in custody.

Gang members conspire to commit crimes and conspire to conceal evidence. Use police reports, investigation reports, and officer observations to develop a list of targeted suspect gang associates.

Searches must include the houses and vehicles of any close associates. To this list add secondary houses, including those of girlfriends, boyfriends, divorced parents, grandparents, and any gang safe houses or club houses.

In this multiple location warrant, request that the other locations and persons be deleted from other copies of the search warrant. This will prevent any warnings before other locations are searched.

Gang members often pass weapons to other homeboys after their use. These weapons are sometimes hidden at the residence or in the vehicle of a close associate or girlfriend and returned to the shooter later. Spare magazines, ammo, holsters, and gun cleaning equipment are rarely destroyed by gang members. This paraphernalia can tie the gang associate to the murder and provide additional identifying evidence. Gang warrants should also list gang photos, cell phones, letters to and from jails and prisons, and address books as items to be seized.

Avoid requests for nighttime service of your warrant unless circumstances clearly fall within this endorsement criterion. This only provides another opportunity for the defense to attack your warrant and might unnecessarily jeopardize the entire warrant.

Remember to seal the affidavit when the investigation is ongoing, and when criminal filing does not immediately occur. This helps to protect vulnerable witnesses.

Prosecution

The gang investigator should form a close partnership with the gang prosecutor and each must be available to the other 24/7. This ensures critical input in the early stages of the case and the swift reaction to witness intimidation later.

Gangs beg the use of conspiracy laws like the Federal RICO statutes in their prosecution. This criminal conspiracy theory can be used even if the specific conspiracy laws are not charged. As many of these aiders and abettors as possible should be charged and prosecuted. Charging and trying the defendants jointly strengthens the overall case. Also, the use of gang experts to establish gang membership can be an opportunity to educate the jury on the significance of gang membership, common criminal gang culture, and the motive for the gang's violent behavior.

In the pretrial hearings be prepared to offer testimony regarding the probability and possible occurrence of witness intimidation. You are trying to prevent the release of identifying information about critical witnesses and their addresses to defense attorneys. Offer the alternative of making the critical witnesses available at a safe and neutral site for the defense attorneys' interviews.

The conduct and decorum in any courtroom is dictated by the attitude of the judge. In one juvenile court gang trial I observed two female gang members making threatening gestures as one witness testified. The witness on the stand sat facing the gallery where the two in the back row mouthed silent threats at the witness. It was difficult for me to believe but the judge took no notice. During a break I informed the district attorney, who told the judge. But after the recess all the judge did was make a kind of general statement about intimidation in the courtroom, which didn't have much effect.

The very best deterrent to gang witness intimidation is the swift identification and prosecution of one of the members of the gang for threatening or intimidating a witness. If any form of witness intimidation occurs file it immediately, but you will need the judge and prosecutor's cooperation.

Officer and Courtroom Safety

While protecting the victim's family and the many witnesses remember that you and the prosecutor may also be targets. Review the security arrangements in the courthouse and ask the prosecutor to discuss courtroom security with the trial judge. Also brief the bailiffs or court deputies to prepare for threats. Monitor the people who attend the trial and point out any rival gang members you spot in court or in the hallways. Consider placing a plainclothes officer in the gallery to spot troublemakers. Finally, carry your firearm, and be careful parking, entering, and leaving court.

Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs. He writes the Gangs blog for PoliceMag.com and is one of the nation's foremost authorities on criminal gangs.

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Tags: Gang Investigator, Field Interviews, Gang Prosecution, Graffiti, Officer Court Testimony, Protecting Witnesses


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

SAM551974D @ 10/25/2010 8:15 PM

Well Done indeed! Forwarded to contacts for their information and use during similar circumstances and needs...

Ron Sindelar, Deputy Sher @ 3/31/2012 6:48 PM

Great article! Thanks Richard! Keep the stories coming.

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