Gangs today don’t operate as overtly as they once did.
Maybe it’s to blend better in society or to shake police involvement, but it’s not all about colors, clothes, gang symbols or graffiti.
“The days of seeing somebody and going by what they’re wearing, their colors … those days have gone long by. We have guys throughout who are dressing normal … and what they’re doing is going against that typical stereotype, and it’s harder to track them that way,” said a Gang Task Force agent.
But while gang style has shifted, they’re still just as present on the Grand Strand and across the country
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Local gang task force team members stress gang activity and violence isn’t just a local issue, but one that’s widespread that impacts the entire nation with approximately 1.4 million gang members in the U.S. within 36,000 different gangs.
Though they haven’t been thoroughly documented by authorities until recent years, gangs have been in Horry County for decades, authorities said.
A local law enforcement Gang Task Force official said 54 different gangs — ranging from hybrid gangs, to groups with national ties, to motorcycle gangs — exist within the area.
“Our main goal is to identify, document and track these gang members within our city and surrounding areas in order to further any investigations we have involving those gangs,” said a Gang Task Force detective, who asked that his identity be shielded for worry of jeopardizing cases and possibly endangering family.
A small group of Gang Task Force agents, who all asked that their names not be listed for those reasons, sat down with The Sun News last month at the Myrtle Beach Police Department and discussed some of the details of gang activity in the area.
It was June 18 when the community and region were shaken when a teenager fired into a crowd and injured six people outside of the Wayfarer Motel on Ocean Boulevard following a fight in Myrtle Beach.
City police say the shooter, who they’ve identified as Derias Little, of Mt. Gilead, N.C., was involved in gang activities in North Carolina.
“The incident stems from another conflict that originated in North Carolina where (the shooter and his first victim) … are from and as you know, guns were involved,” Myrtle Beach police Chief Amy Prock told city leaders after the shooting.
Four other teenagers have been arrested, but three still wait extradition from North Carolina.
Gang task force agents said the majority of gang violence in the area comes from outsiders visiting the county for a range of different reasons, like vacation, temporary work or gang business.
“Gang activity has no boundaries. They don’t just say ‘there’s a county or city line or state line — let me stop,’ which is why we use all the resources we can to hold these individuals accountable,” said Lt. Joey Crosby, spokesman with Myrtle Beach police.
The task force is constantly working with outside agencies and organizations to determine who’s in our county, or may be coming in, an effort to stop crime before it happens.
Former longtime gang member Yandell McKenny told The Sun News gang violence happens here. However, he claims it isn’t always as police say, and that gangs are sometimes scapegoats in the violence.
In 2015, numbers revealed that nine out of 19 murders investigated by Horry County police were related to gang activity.
Horry County police and the gang force said they do not have numbers illustrating the amount of crimes stemming from gang violence during 2016 or so far in 2017.
And while it may be hard to plainly identify, graffiti still exists and is used to mark areas in the community. Once that happens and Gang Task Force agents document it, they ensure it’s covered so as not to lead to a mural of gang art and fuel a potential problem.
The Gang Task Force boasts 26 indictments with another 17 coming up, and said hard time is coming down on those involved in gang criminal activity. Federal enhancements are used and now can be used locally to give more time to the accused, authorities said.
Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said many gang members have been through local court systems.
He said not just gang members, but many young people don’t think or care about consequences of their actions before committing a crime. However, he said he’s seen many youthful offenders buckle under the weight of lengthy prison sentences.
“They won’t get worried about it [until] they’re standing up there and their knees are knocking and they’re crying because they’re fixing to go to prison for 15-18 years and then it gets real,” said Richardson. “I wish it would get real to them earlier.”
Pastor Stephen “PB” Brown is leading a group called the Warehouse Project, which strives to help those formerly incarnated, as well as at-risk youth.
Brown, who also does work with the Solicitor’s Office Intervention Program, said while some youth have that knee-knocking moment when the hard time is given, others simply see serving prison time as a natural part of the life they lead.
One man’s story
A 10-month stint in the Horry County jail when McKenny was about 17 rattled him. Unknown to McKenny and his friends, who paid to use a vehicle, they were riding around in a stolen car that had drugs inside, he said.
McKenny said he was shaken by jail life and wanted to change his ways. But without any job prospects or mentors, he was sucked into the opportunities street life offered when he was released. And at 18, he joined a division of the Bloods.
“If you run with a bunch of negative people, you’re gonna get negative influence. You’re never gonna get anything positive, so it’s best to just run with positive people,” he said. The people he associated with at the time were in a gang, so joining the group was a natural step.
After years behind bars, McKenny wanted a different life.
“I done tried the other road my whole life, and it ain’t got me nothing, so I gotta try a new road and get out and do something different,” the 34-year-old said last month.
He grew up in the Homewood Community within Conway, mainly living with his grandparents, but also staying with his mom a lot, too. He described his teen years as a tumultuous time, filled with arrests, trouble in school and bouncing around different places — sometimes staying with his dad in Georgia or briefly living in New Orleans.
Now, he’s no longer involved in the gang life. Instead, he said he’s fueled by God and determined to stay on the right road while trying to help others avoid a dark path that cost him so much.
Only three weeks out, after spending about a decade in state prisons, he’s been working with Brown and the Warehouse Project.
While McKenny said the robbery and assault charges that cost him about 10 years behind bars weren’t related to his involvement in the gang he was with, the former member who has been both shot and stabbed, said gangs go by their own guidelines and codes that include an obligation to help if another gang member asks for assistance before or after a crime.
The bonds within those inside the gangs run deep, according to McKenny.
“It’s really just like a family,” he said. “The same thing you would do for your brother, you would do for them … your sister, your brother, same thing.”
Keeping and gaining respect also is a key principle for those involved in gang life and a violation can lead to violence.
At the root of gang violence are disputes among them, he said. The fights, he said, often are over misunderstandings.
“If you and me have a dispute and we can’t come to a level of understanding, the course is always going to be violence,” he said. “If we can’t understand each other — it’s nothing other than violence.”
The toll it takes
Being in a gang means always worrying about your safety, McKenny said. A simple walk to the store could be interrupted by violence.
“I never could live life, because I had to worry about so many other things,” he said.
McKenny said he could have been out of prison sooner, but being involved in gang activity kept him behind bars longer.
“I look at the time I lost … the time that I lost I can never get back. The things I lost I can never get back. It’s only right for me to move forward,” he said.
While in prison, he was stabbed in 2009 and again in 2012, he said. But 2010 was the toughest year of all — that was the year his mother suddenly died from a stroke.
“I swear I didn’t eat for a whole week,” he said. He wasn’t allowed out for her funeral.
McKenny was deeply shaken by the loss of his mother and said realizing the importance of time, he wanted a new life then, but felt it was out of reach.
“I wanted to change, but I couldn’t change then. I was just caught deep in things at the time,” McKenny said.
He was given support from fellow gang members after losing his mother, and felt unable to let go of that family as well, so he stayed within the group.
The way out
Around 2014 or 2015, McKenny had a wake-up call while in prison when someone on the outside informed him that a close friend of his had been shot, was in ICU and might not live.
He said he thought about his aging grandparents and how the path he was on could easily lead to more time in prison or death.
Joining a gang is for life and people usually aren’t let out, but McKenny had influence within the gang and said he went to other members to discuss an exit.
He said ending his involvement was far from easy and that there were “trials and tribulations” to go through before getting to the other side.
Now, he said there are some in his community who understand he wants a different life, but others doubt his transformation and think he’ll return to his former ways. Nonetheless, McKenny said he’ll keep trying to reach those in his community.
“I’m gonna pull on their coattails because I don’t wanna see them go through that. I got love for them, so I ain’t gonna let them go through that,” he said.
McKenny says he’s confident that he’ll walk the right path, because God is leading his way and brought him out of his old life for a purpose.
McKenny earned his GED while in prison and is getting a restaurant job, as well as giving back to the community by helping a local church do remodeling work. He said he also has hopes of starting an after-school program in the future.
Brown also said it isn’t enough to offer kids programs and activities. Kids need someone they know from their area, who speaks their language, to shepherd them toward the right path and utilize resources laid before them.
“There are others in the community. They’ve lived it. They know it, and they’re the solution,” Brown said.
For today’s youth, having a mentor to guide them is key to keeping them from becoming emerged in life on the streets, he said.
“If you don’t raise your kids and keep them out of the streets, the streets will raise them for you,” said a Gang Task Force investigator.