FORT WAYNE — If there is a tagline for 2012 in Fort Wayne, it might be the year of the bullet.
Shootings, homicides and assaults – many involving guns – are more frequent occurrences.
Victims include those who were riding in cars, pedaling their bicycles or simply walking down the street. Even a baby was grazed by a bullet when gunfire erupted at a southeast-side house party this summer.
And just last week, two men brazenly fired at least 30 rounds at a moving ambulance and another car, leaving a paramedic and three others injured.
For law enforcement, identifying what’s behind a good portion of the violence is easy. Solving it is another matter.
“We’re seeing a proliferation of gangs,” Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said.
To combat the situation, York said his department is forging even stronger partnerships than it already has with the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. attorney’s office to combat gang violence.
Police are looking beyond state laws and trying to bring federal charges that carry longer prison terms against those who are involved in criminal gang activity, according to York.
But with the number of people joining gangs rising – not just here but nationwide – it’s unclear when results from such a strategy can be seen.
“Gangs are expanding, evolving, and posing an increasing threat to U.S. communities.”
Those words come from a threat assessment released by the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center last year.
In that assessment, the FBI estimated there are 1.4 million active street, prison and outlaw-motorcycle gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs in the country.
These gang members are responsible for an average of half the crime in some police jurisdictions and nearly all of it in others, according to the FBI assessment.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the reason for the rise in gangs, York said.
One theory for a rise in Chicago is that the gentrification of some areas broke up some gangs and scattered various members throughout the city. That led those scattered members to start their own gangs or join different ones. Essentially, the number of gangs multiplied after the initial gang was broken up, York said.
York does not have a similar theory for the rise in Fort Wayne’s gang activity. But he is confident it’s happening.
The level of violence has not quite reached that of the early 1990s in this city, when in one year there were 42 homicides. Still, the names of 25 organized gangs are listed in the Fort Wayne Police Department’s 2011 annual report.
Also for the first time, city police saw a rivalry for territory because of an increase in Hispanic gangs, the report said.
Aiming to combat the increasing number of gangs is the department’s Gang Unit, which consists of four officers, one sergeant and a special agent from the ATF. The department’s year-end report indicates the unit has limited manpower and resources.
Much of today’s gang activity remains similar to that in previous decades.
“They are primarily based on narcotics sales and distribution as well as various other crimes,” according to the department’s annual report. “Establishing true hierarchy and leadership within these groups is difficult and constantly changing.”
Many gang members interviewed by police said the “unofficial” leader of a gang is usually the member who has committed the most recent and most violent crimes, according to the report.
And serious crime is up by 9 percent in the city through July, according to the latest statistics available from police.
While it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly which crimes might be gang-related, York said many of the 23 homicides this year – there were 24 in all of 2011 – involve gangs.
But solving such crimes becomes an even bigger problem when people don’t cooperate with investigating officers, York said.
More than 50 rounds were fired during a gun battle on Spatz Avenue in May in what police called a gang dispute. A 50-year-old man who had nothing to do with what was going on was killed in the crossfire.
Despite the public location of the shooting, no one has provided police with enough information to make an arrest.
In July, a shooting at Eden Green Apartments left two teens injured – an 18-year-old critically, a 17-year-old seriously.
Police, who were at the apartment complex just before the shooting, reported that at least 12 shots were fired and that multiple witnesses were in the area.
Still, everybody interviewed said they saw nothing.
“That’s the problem,” York said. “They have nobody coming forward, and it makes it very hard to prosecute.”
When gangs are involved, fear may override people’s willingness to talk to police.
One man apparently feeling the full weight of what happens when you speak to detectives is Alfonso Chappell, a 27-year-old accused of being involved in the high-profile ambulance shooting last week.
According to Allen Superior Court documents, Chappell spoke to detectives about the shooting, which began with a man being stabbed inside Piere’s nightclub and ended with shots fired at the ambulance taking him to the hospital.
In court documents, Chappell told detectives he drove the car that chased the ambulance and that 24-year-old Traneilous Jackson used a handgun to shoot at it as well as a car trailing behind the emergency vehicle.
Chappell, who called 911 while driving, said he was forced to drive out of fear of Jackson and others, adding that he’s affiliated with the MOB street gang, according to court documents.
Initially, police arrested Chappell on a felony charge of resisting law enforcement, while Jackson was arrested for aggravated battery. In the week since the shooting, the charges against Chappell were allowed to expire and no additional charges have been filed.
Jackson, however, and another passenger in the car, Dontray Martin, each face four counts of attempted murder, two counts of criminal recklessness, one count of battery, one count of carrying a handgun without a license having a prior conviction, and one count of criminal gang activity.
Evidence found at the scene links both Jackson and Martin to a pair of 9 mm handguns found during the early stages of the investigation, according to court documents.
In the ensuing days, Chappell was bombarded on the social media website Twitter with people calling him a snitch. In some of his tweets, he said he never spoke to police, contrary to the court documents.
He also felt threatened by some in the community, according to some of his online responses.
One read: “them (expletive) talking about killin me and the homies aint (expletive) with me … my back is on the wall.”
Another read: “pray for me im going to war ... i don’t care who is with me or not.”
In two others, he wrote: “My family don’t want (expletive) to do with me” and “My life will never be the same.”
By Friday, Twitter posts were still full of comments about “snitching” and comments about how every group has a rat.
York said the people involved in the ambulance shooting are known to police and are suspects in other violent crimes.
“We’re very familiar with them,” York said. “And you know, to be willing to shoot at an ambulance, these guys were kind of hardcore.”
While York said Fort Wayne police are intensifying relationships with federal agents, in many ways that’s already happened.
For the past two years, an FBI Safe Streets Task Force has been working in the city. It involves officers from state, municipal and county departments working alongside federal agents to target street gangs and drug trafficking rings.
The investigations can take time, however. The task force follows the “enterprise theory,” meaning it targets entire organizations rather than an individual who commits one crime.
Modeled after programs started in the 1990s to combat rising street gang violence, the Fort Wayne task force came about after FBI officials reviewed the city’s violent crime statistics a few years ago.
And it can be an effective way to combat the gang violence, said David Crawford, the FBI’s supervisory senior resident agent in Fort Wayne, who added that federal investigators are willing to help combat crime in the city.
“The FBI is working for the Fort Wayne Police Department, conducting investigations with the intention of eventually prosecuting these gangs under federal racketeering statutes,” he said. “For years, the FBI has combated gang violence nationwide, and we have every intention of doing the same thing here in Fort Wayne.”
York added he would like to use federal statutes to the department’s advantage.
Federal sentencing statutes differ from state sentencing statutes and leave defendants behind bars for greater percentages of their prison sentences.
Longer prison sentences keep gang members off the streets for longer periods of time and could dim the luster of the life for others.
And that could lead to fewer bullets flying in the Summit City.
Journal Gazette reporter Rebecca S. Green contributed to this story.