Newburgh's powerful gangs crushed, but is city safer?

Police Chief Michael Ferrara listens to Mayor Judy

Police Chief Michael Ferrara listens to Mayor Judy Kennedy as the Newburgh City Council holds a news conference at City Hall to address the recent violence and criminal incidents stemming from the fatal shooting of Michael Lembhard by police on March 7, in Newburgh. (Aug. 31, 2012). (Credit: John Meore)

With an infusion of resources, law enforcement has accomplished what it couldn't for more than a decade: It has dismantled Newburgh's most dangerous, most disruptive gangs, sending 30 members of the Latin Kings and dozens of members of the Bloods and other gangs to prison for federal crimes ranging from racketeering to murder.

But whether three years of intense police work translates to long-term progress for the city depends on how long federal agencies continue their efforts in Newburgh, how committed the community is to improving quality of life in the city and how vigilant authorities remain in preventing new criminal organizations from filling the power void left by the obliterated Latin Kings and the Bloods.

Just two years ago, Newburgh led the state in homicides per capita and was racked by violent crimes law enforcement authorities attribute primarily to the Latin Kings and its rival Bloods. Although authorities won't declare victory, they take pride in the fact that there have been fewer homicides in the city of 28,000 people -- from 11 in 2010 to four in 2011 to five so far in 2012, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Despite that, police say they're uncomfortable with gauging success in year-to-year crime stats and say their efforts will be better assessed five or 10 years from now.


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Det. Steve Bunt, a Newburgh cop and member of the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force that cracked down on gang crime, said infamous corridors like Lander Street -- once a blatant, open-air drug market -- now have children playing outside.

"It used to be, you'd drive down at 6 a.m. and there were people selling drugs and hustling," he said.

City leaders say progress has been slow but steady.

"Even though we've had our issues this year, it's not what it was," Newburgh Mayor Judy Kennedy said. "Things are starting to shift. There is more of a sense of hope in this city in the last year."

From 2010 to 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the violent crime rate remained virtually the same, with 522 violent crimes reported in 2010 and 527 reported in 2011. Along with a drop in the murder rate, there were fewer aggravated assaults in Newburgh in 2011, with 258, down from 309 in the previous year.

Robberies, however, were up -- there were 254 reported robberies in 2011, compared with 195 the year before.

Bunt acknowledges, however, that much more has to be done before Newburgh becomes a place outsiders want to visit.

"It is safer, but it's not your bedroom community in Cornwall."

THE FEDS TO THE RESCUE

For four consecutive nights in March 2010, gunfire echoed through Newburgh as long-simmering gang violence boiled over.

Two eager Latin Kings recruits -- Jerome "Rude Boy" Scarlett and John "Tarzan" Maldonado, both 20 -- were ordered to shoot a rival on Lander Street. They became casualties of the gang war within 24 hours of each other.

Scarlett died in the botched hit, and gang leaders suspected Maldonado of working with the rival Bloods when he returned unscathed. Latin King "warlord" Osman Nunez led Maldonado into a trap, where he was gunned down, then stood over him as he lay dying in the street, according to witnesses' testimony in the trial against Nunez.

In September, more than two years after Scarlett and Maldonado were killed, Nunez was convicted and the gang he once ran was essentially dismantled.

Nationally, Newburgh had more per capita violence than 95 percent of U.S. cities in 2010, the statistics show. The city had four homicides in 2011, which is still an alarming rate for a city of its size, but police are quick to note that only one was gang-related.

The biggest impact on curbing Newburgh's crime and gang problems came from an infusion of resources, including the creation of the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force -- a team of federal agents and local detectives -- the addition of State Police and the cooperation of half a dozen neighboring police departments, which contributed manpower to the raids that were the largest in the city's history.

It wasn't until late 2009 that a combined federal-local task force started to become a reality, and in 2010 an FBI representative told Newburgh's City Council that help was coming after the city's violent reputation had become so bad that President Barack Obama was personally briefed on the situation.

PREDAWN SWOOP NETTED SCORES OF ARRESTS

When the federal and state governments finally flooded Newburgh with law enforcement resources, hundreds of patrol cops and investigators fanned out across the city, knocking on doors before sunrise and arresting alleged gang members. The first of those raids, in May 2010, netted 78 arrests, including members of the Latin Kings, once primarily a Hispanic gang born in Chicago; the Bloods, an African-American gang that first emerged in Los Angeles; and gang associates.

The feds brought manpower, and they also brought tools -- hefty charges more commonly associated with mafia takedowns than gang prosecutions, such as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and federal conspiracy charges. It marked the first time alleged gang members in the city were prosecuted for things like racketeering and gun trafficking in federal courts.

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who has worked closely with city police and federal agents on the ongoing gang crackdown, framed the successes as increments in a longer-term effort, letting detectives and investigators know federal prosecutors were committed to the cause and wouldn't allow short sentences that put gang members back on the streets.

Faced with longer prison terms and more severe penalties, previously defiant gang members started to buckle, detectives said.

T-shirts printed with "Stop the Snitchin" were once popular in Newburgh. Not anymore, Bunt said.

"You may have two or three open homicides from a few years ago and you're at a dead end, and then you hit somebody with a federal charge. They know they're not going to get a two-to-four and be out ... they know they're gonna get 80 percent of their time and take a 14-year hit. They're going to do things to cooperate."

Bharara described Nunez's conviction as "one step closer to dismantling an organization that left a trail of blood and destruction in its wake" after the September plea.

Nunez will serve a minimum of 30 years in prison, and the federal system will not allow him to shorten his sentence through legal wrangling or good behavior.

After Nunez was convicted, Bharara repeated a variation of the same message he has been sending since 2010: "We are not finished."

In addition to the 30 convictions, five more alleged Latin Kings from Newburgh are slated for jury trials in January in U.S. Southern District Court in White Plains.

Like Bharara, Newburgh police admit they've got a lot of work to do. Law enforcement efforts are counterbalanced by community work -- downtown restoration and blight removal, a community center with programs for kids and meetings with people from neighborhoods where cops are distrusted.

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY

From the outside looking in, if the city is indeed safer, perception must catch up to reality, said Chris Anderson, who was filling his tank with gas on Route 17K in nearby New Windsor on a recent Thursday.

Anderson said he hadn't ventured into the City of Newburgh in "years" since the first restaurants on Newburgh's revitalized waterfront opened. He said he hasn't had a reason to -- aside from St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital, Newburgh has no major draws, its main stretch is peppered with shuttered storefronts and its fledgling waterfront night life scene is frequently marred by outbursts of violence. Few are willing to risk spending their time -- and money -- in Newburgh when they can find better stores and restaurants outside the city without worries.

The much-touted waterfront businesses have been hurt by the violence -- and the reputation for violence. In May, a Newburgh man was shot outside of the X-Kandalo Nightclub, where a reggaeton act was performing. In November, a police officer was stabbed in the neck while trying to break up a brawl outside The Dry Dock, which occupies a rehabilitated building on Broadway.

Is the city really safer?

"It's hard to say if it is" safer, said Lamont Eversley, who lives in the Town of Newburgh.

At the same time, detectives, State Police investigators and federal agents must keep a new wave of would-be gang members from stepping in, said Det. Lorenzo D'Angelico.

"Do people feel safe? That's hard to say, because there is so much crime that still goes on, which we're not proud of," Lorenzo said.

According to Bunt's estimate, each jailed gang member represents 100 fewer calls each year for shootings, thefts and assaults. Slow but steady progress relieves the pressure on the understaffed police department. Newburgh has about 80 officers, and the city cannot afford to hire more.

"You take a bunch of guys who have pleaded guilty already in Newburgh cases; those guys over a period of time are responsible for so many crimes, and there's so much manpower responding to crimes these guys have committed," Bunt said.

Detectives said there are no longer people "flamed out" -- wearing the Bloods red from head to toe -- or people decked in the black and gold of the Latin Kings. Though that's a good sign, and the ranks of local gangs have been decimated, police know the remnants of those gangs are laying low, waiting for the right time to re-emerge.

"We know the Bloods still exist, the Latin Kings still exist," D'Angelico said. "They're not as obvious, but we know they're there."

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