A North Bellport street gang that calls itself the "Natural Born Killers" is recruiting children as young as 9 years old to join the group, said residents and the head of the Suffolk County Legislature's public safety committee.
Police investigators believe that the gang's older members have sought out young neighborhood kids who "show potential" for membership, said Insp. Aristides Mojica, commander of the Suffolk County Police Department's Fifth Precinct.
The gang's youngest recruits do not appear to be participating in crimes, but are most likely being groomed for such acts in the future, Mojica said. He declined to say what those activities might be, citing limited intelligence on the group. He did say that in general, well-organized gangs often engage in drug trafficking, drug dealing and gun violence.
"It's almost like a baseball farm team, with little minor leaguers hoping to make the big leagues one day," Mojica said. "It's like future gangsters in training."
Suffolk Legis. Kate Browning, the public safety panel chairwoman who also represents the area, said the gang's recruitment of children is disturbing.
"We have 9-year-olds being forced to join [the gang]," Browning said at a June meeting of the committee. "It's scary . . . kids are not able to walk in their own neighborhood without being attacked."
Street gangs have long used threats and the promise of protection to entice new members, but the recruitment of young children in North Bellport represents an intimidating new step for gangs in the area, Browning and concerned residents say.
The recently reported trend in North Bellport -- where the Bloods street gang also is active -- has disturbed the community and its leaders. "It's very sad," Mojica said. "They think this is a family for them, but it's the wrong kind of family."
Gangs targeting schools
Malik Preston, 16, who with his mother, Patrice, attended a June community meeting in North Bellport called to address the gang issue, said he was recently punched and slapped by three gang members. They also stole $10 from him.
"They hit me because I told them I wouldn't join" the gang, said Malik, who spoke with Newsday about the incident with his mother. "A lot of little kids are joining."
Police said they had no specific intelligence on the gang's recruitment methods. But in general, gangs recruit most heavily in and around schools, National Crime Prevention Council experts said.
Such groups seek children as young as 9 -- but typically no younger -- knowing that the judicial system is more lenient on them, the organization says.
"Kids have been utilized by gangs for many years, in part because the older members know the kids won't be prosecuted as adults and the penalties will be minimal," said Joseph Pollini, a former NYPD homicide inspector and deputy chairman for the Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The most prominent example of child gang recruits are the "Pee Wee" members of the Latin Kings gang, who are indoctrinated into gang life before fully joining the organization, Pollini said. "The process of bringing kids in can begin very early," he said.
Several older suspected members of the Natural Born Killers gang -- known to investigators as NBKs -- have regularly been arrested on drug and weapons possession charges, according to the police.
And many children in the area have recently reported being beaten by gang members, many of whom are just 14 or 15 years old themselves, said Browning. She heard the concerns of several victimized kids and their parents at the neighborhood meeting last month.
Cops 'aware' of recruitment
The Suffolk Police's Fifth Precinct was told of the gang's existence and its apparent recruitment of elementary school-aged children in May or June and has been investigating since then to try to prevent criminal activity.
"Our gang team's aware of it and so are our patrol officers," said Mojica, adding that the gang appears to be a "loose federation of kids" from North Bellport and East Patchogue.
The exact number of members is unclear and the young recruits haven't been identified, Mojica said.
But according to reports from residents, they are having a "disproportionately negative impact [on the community] based on their numbers" because of their intimidation and assaults on other children.
"It's my impression that the youngsters have been pushing their weight around" by beating up or intimidating nonmembers in the area, Mojica said.
'They have no shame'
Gloria DeJesus, a North Bellport beautician and mother of two teenage sons, said she regularly sees the gang's older members using and selling marijuana alongside children who appear to be no older than 11 or 12 years old. She has also seen the letters "NBK" scrawled on sidewalks and walls with marker.
"They proudly tell you they're NBKs," she said. "They have no shame. They think they belong to something important."
Suffolk already has its share of gang issues. After a spate of gang-related violence unrelated to the Natural Born Killers, Suffolk police last month said they would rejoin a federal anti-gang task force less than a year after withdrawing from the unit.
The department said it would also team with State Police and U.S. Marshals to patrol troubled areas. The moves came a week after the killings of three men in a Central Islip neighborhood less than two days apart.
The redeployment initiative follows the indictments of five Brentwood-based alleged members of the MS-13 street gang on federal murder, assault and robbery charges in the 2009 shooting death of 15-year-old Christopher Hamilton in Brentwood.
Gangs like MS-13, the Crips, Latin Kings, the Bloods, the 18th Street and Sur 13 have been behind numerous instances of street violence on Long Island in the past decade, fighting turf wars, carrying out revenge shootings, selling drugs and trafficking weapons, police say.
Now, the Natural Born Killers have presented gang investigators with another problem.
"Their presence alone brings about an air of intimidation that isn't a pleasant thing to live with" for children and parents in the neighborhood, Mojica said. "In the long run, they'll [gang members] probably wind up paying a bigger price than anyone . . . as victims of homicides or by ending up in prison."