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

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."

"The violent crimes are out there," Simmons said. "They're not as prevalent as (they are) up in Salt Lake, but they're out there and becoming more noticeable."

A November gang fight at an Orem restaurant sent one man to the hospital with head wounds.

While Utah gangs have favorite stomping grounds, violence is more of an issue than turf wars. Drugs, particularly meth, is big among gangs, Bell said.

"Almost every gang is fueled by the means of making money," he said. "And drugs are the easiest way to make money."

Another disturbing trend Bell said the gang unit is seeing is the recruitment of new gang members at a young age. Recruitment in some junior high schools is a bigger focus for some gangs than it was a few years ago, he said.

Lt. Del Craig, head of the Metro Gang Unit, said parental involvement and catching juveniles at a young age before they fall deep into gangs are critical in community prevention efforts.

"They need to recognize the danger signs and the risks. They need to know what's going on in their children's lives," he said.

Parents also need to be aware of a return to the trend of gang members flying their colors — visibly wearing red, blue or green to show their membership and pride for a particular affiliation.

At the beginning of the decade, gang members began "dressing down" or not visibly wearing gang attire to make it harder for police to spot them. Now, the thought among many gang members is to let people know they're still around.

That same mind-set is also attributed to a big increase in tagging, or gang graffiti.

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"They're trying to establish notoriety," Bell said.

To combat the problem, members of the gang unit, which is now made up of officers from nearly every agency in the valley, commonly concentrate patrols in areas of high gang crime.

"We try to saturate the area," Bell said. "Let them know the gang unit knows what they're up to."

In addition, the gang unit will rotate cities they saturate for an evening to make sure every department that has an officer in the gang unit gets full use of their services.

Although Salt Lake City police have their own gang unit, both the Metro and City Gang units work closely together. The Metro Gang Unit commonly helps patrol downtown Salt Lake City late in the evening on weekends.