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'The Triangle': Inside Hempstead's gang wars

"The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with

"The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York's Bloods and Crips" by Newsday reporter Kevin Deutsch (Lyons Press, December 2014). Credit: Lyons Press

THE TRIANGLE: A Year On the Ground With New York's Bloods and Crips, by Kevin Deutsch. Lyons Press, 200 pp, $16.95.

Newsday crime reporter Kevin Deutsch's "The Triangle," a work of brave and detailed immersive reporting in the tradition of "The Corner" by David Simon and "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, opens with three reference pages: a list of characters, a glossary of terms and a map of the part of Hempstead where the action unfolds. The reader will be glad to have them, because this story takes us into a world so unfamiliar and inhuman, we need all the help we can get.

Of the nine Bloods and eight Crips listed in the cast, less than a third make it through the annus horribilis 2012 alive; the first death occurs on page 17. The second is on page 36 and it never lets up. In fact, one of Deutsch's challenges is to make sure we can tell the characters apart before they are killed. It is a testament to his writing, and to the nightmarishness of their fates, that a few of them -- Devon "D-Bo" LaFleur, Leticia "Black Widow" Lewis and Michael "Ice" Williams -- end up permanently etched in your mind.

Deutsch's contention is that what's happening in this blighted spot in Nassau County, so unlike its affluent neighbors, is a war. Based on his research, he draws a startling numerical comparison: "More than 6,500 U.S. troops died in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013. In that time, at least 6,700 Americans were killed in violence linked to Bloods and Crips sets in 37 states."

To explain how this crisis began, Deutsch traces the history of the two gangs, which goes back to Watts, 1969, and interweaves it with the history of Hempstead and the economics of the drug industry. "In a community where 21 percent of residents live below the poverty line . . . a drug corner is the rare local business that generates large cash profits day after day. . . . It's a system so successful that its participants risk just about everything -- their freedom, their families, their lives -- to be part of it." Yet these risks almost always result in shattering losses.

Devon LaFleur is a promising high school student, respected by neighbors and police. He worked at CVS and Dunkin' Donuts, but barely made enough to take his girlfriend to dinner. To thicken his wallet, he takes a weekend dealing gig with the Bloods, and soon after is pressured into joining the gang and becoming a supervisor. This involves a horrifyingly violent initiation ceremony.

Once in the gang, Devon cannot enter any area not controlled by the Bloods -- even riding his bike to his friend Lionel's will surely result in getting shot. Trying to leave the gang, however, is just as dangerous. Unlike others in the book, Devon is not dead before we can even root for him. But that is not to say things turn out well.

One of the most horrible aspects of the story is the use of violence against female family members as a means of revenge. "The gangsters see sexual violence as a strategic and tactical weapon, as important to their arsenal as guns and blades," Deutsch explains, and includes two examples to illustrate this point. In one of them, a gang member's sister, a woman who lives in Yonkers with her family, is tracked down and gang-raped in her home. Though she hasn't done drugs for years, a few days later, she buys a bag of heroin. It is cut with fentanyl, and it kills her.

But she almost seems luckier than the other woman.

It is obvious from the level of detail in "The Triangle" that Deutsch was deeply invested in this story and deeply involved with its participants. It must have broken his heart to write it, because the misery never stops, and there is no end in sight.

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