MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Sixteen people suspected of leading a gang that originated out of Chicago in the 1970s are now in a West Tennessee jail.
The Department of Justice joined local law enforcement in Memphis on Wednesday to announce a major break in an investigation known as Operation 38 Special.
The two-year investigation yielded nearly 50 arrests in nine states. The focus is on stopping the Gangster Disciples' reign of terror in many communities.
DOJ members repeatedly called the Gangster Disciples the "epitome of organized crime." Leaders said the group is highly organized and sophisticated, often using front organizations like community outreach programs and "stop the violence" rallies to integrate themselves in the community and mask the crimes.
Investigators said Wednesday's indictments and arrests are significant because they strike blows to the gang's leadership.
"We're not going to stop. We're not going to give up. We're going to make our communities safer," Interim Memphis Police Department Director Michael Rallings said.
"You can run, but you can't hide," U.S. attorney Ed Stanton added.
"It's a clear sign that we are not going to tolerate gangs poisoning our neighborhoods with guns, violence, and drugs," Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said.
The men arrested in Memphis face federal racketeering and drug charges; some of them even face attempted murder charges.
"These are individuals who are calling shots and making leadership decisions as it relates to the criminal enterprise," Stanton said.
Investigators said the Gangster Disciples were pumping huge amounts of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana into Mid-South neighborhoods. They were also using fear and intimidation to terrorize communities.
"It's a hard reality that many communities across the country do not enjoy a sense of security because of the Gangster Disciples," DOJ investigator David Jaffey said.
"They also committed assaults, kidnappings, and attempted murders against individuals they believe to be rival gang members," Stanton added.
Memphis teenagers are familiar with the Gangster Disciples, even admitting they had been sought after by gang members.
"I was at lunch and he asked me, 'You want to get put down?' and I was like, 'No,'" a teenager said. "It's really just about trying to build up a rep."
The teen said gang members are still an everyday encounter for him. He was also familiar with the accusations set out in the indictment, which alleges Gangster Disciple leaders instruct them to, "assault an innocent, unsuspecting citizen in order to prove their toughness, dedication, and willingness to follow orders."
If the prospect proves himself during an unprovoked attack on an innocent person, he is admitted to the gang—something the teen refused to do.
Investigators plan to use the RICO Act to lock up the arrested Gangster Disciples leaders. RICO is a federal law that allows prosecutors to impose a harsher punishment for extremely organized crime.
The DOJ said it had not used RICO in West Tennessee since sentencing Memphis drug lord Craig Petties in 2008. He earned nine life sentences.
Investigators said the Gangster Disciples organization is extremely rigid and planned.
It's unclear how long each man arrested in this operation will spend in prison if convicted. However, prosecutors did identify some of the men they expect to face the harshest punishments:
- Derrick Crumpton, who was in charge of issuing orders to kill rival gang members and coordinating criminal activity. DOJ said he served as a sort of "state governor" in the gang.
- Robert Jones, who issued kill orders, killed people himself, kidnapped people, and sold drugs. DOJ said he led the Memphis wing of the gang.
- Henry Cooper, aka "Big Hen," was the gang's Chief Security of State. He was in charge of supervising criminal activities and for killing and issuing kill orders against Gangster Disciples who broke organizational rules.
As DOJ and local law enforcement made the indictments in West Tennessee known, investigators in northern Georgia made a similar announcement.
Click here to read the indictments from Georgia, which include more than 30 alleged gangsters and a police officer from DeKalb County.
The DeKalb County chief of police said they received multiple reports about the officer using illegal drugs. It was determined that the officer supplied information to the Gangster Disciples and protected them.
Both sets of indictments are a result of Operation 38 Special, but DOJ leaders stressed that the investigation is happening in other areas across the country. In Atlanta, leaders said the Gangster Disciples have groups, called "counts" or "decks,'' in more than 30 states, especially in the southeastern United States.