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Utah gang violence, graffiti spike

Some call November Avenues homicide beginning of trend

Published: Thursday, March 30 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Detective A. Montes, left, and South Jordan policeman Jared Nichols question a man pulled over for driving without insurance or license Friday.

Mark Diorio, Deseret Morning News

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Salt Lake County sheriff's detective Lex Bell, a member of the gang unit for more than two years, knows that violence and graffiti have spiked in recent months.

"The last few months there have been an above average number of shootings," he said.

In fact, detectives say gang activity in Salt Lake County has returned to what it was five to seven years ago: Violence is up, graffiti is up and gang members are flying their colors again.

The surge is anticipated to give law-enforcement officers plenty to talk about as they meet today and Friday for the 16th annual Utah Gang Conference at the South Towne Expo Center.

Sponsored by the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, the conference's theme is "Partnerships: Working Together to Build a Gang-Free Future." The conference draws on the expertise of local and national experts — offering workshops on prevention, the role of drug courts, gangsta rap and how communities can fight gang violence.

Part of that fight, of course, includes the battle by front-line officers such as Bell.

On a recent shift, he and other officers were kept busy tackling a variety of gang crimes — from questioning suspected taggers to pursuing a homicide suspect.

Just after 10 p.m. Bell stopped a car for routine traffic violations near 3500 South and 900 West. Inside were three gang members, with one visibly flying his colors — wearing a green shirt, green belt, green shoelaces and sporting the name of his gang in a tattoo on his arm. Bell discovered drugs in the car and one man, a gang member from the Los Angeles area, earned a trip to the Salt Lake County Jail for a probation violation.

But the big score for gang detectives was identifying two others in the vehicle as notorious taggers, believed to be responsible for numerous cases of graffiti across the county causing thousands of dollars in damage.

Later during the shift, two men were shot in South Salt Lake, one fatally. The alleged gunman and the man he was seen driving away with are believed to be gang members.

Some point to the homicide in the Terrace Hills Park parking lot on 900 East and 11th Avenue on Nov. 27 as a starting point to the recent surge in violence. A 35-year-old man died after being shot with an assault rifle. That shooting was the result of a power struggle between the younger and older members of the gang, according to investigators.

The alleged triggerman in that incident, Moses Unique Ellis, 17, is still on the run. Locating him has become one of the gang unit's top priorities.

Since that homicide, there have been several other incidents of gang-related violence, including shootings and home-invasion robberies.

• Andre Maurice Thomas, 23, was arrested March 23 after a home invasion and subsequent chase with police. Thomas was believed to be at Terrace Hills the night of the homicide.

• A 19-year-old man was shot at least twice in Sandy March 21 near 9600 S. 1300 East in an alleged gang confrontation.

• Two men were shot in a gang-related incident Feb. 21 as they were leaving a store at 726 N. Redwood Road.

The problem isn't restricted to just Salt Lake County. Provo police and school-district officials have said there's an increase in that area and Tooele County police are also dealing with gang problems.

Utah County Major Crimes Task Force Gang Liaison Darcy Simmons said he is noticing an increase in gang activity especially with school-age kids.

"Where we're noticing it is in the high schools," said Simmons, who noted Utah County gangs tend to use schools as their focal point, rather than specific neighborhoods. "We're receiving a lot more information from our school resource officers. We're seeing a lot more of the taggings — that's where it's really evident."

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