Police here deal with the things most would expect from a rural area: cows blocking the road and drunks shooting at rabbits. But lately, authorities have been dealing with problems caused by unfamiliar culprits: the Crips and the Bloods.
"We would like to believe we live in Mayberry - that gangs don't exist here - but that's not the reality," said Uintah County sheriff's deputy Don DeCamp.Gang culture came to the area eight years ago and has changed the way of life in the area of 10,000. Church and school leaders constantly warn young people of the dangers of gangs, and volunteer groups spend hours painting over graffiti, DeCamp said.
"Everybody thinks that gangs are a California problem or a Wasatch Front problem," said sheriff's detective Keith Campbell. "That's not true. The gang problem is everywhere."
Campbell is in charge of the Uintah Basin Gang Unit, established in 1995 to examine and deal with the street gangs. Gangsters here don't commit crimes as serious as they do in metropolitan areas, he said. At least not yet.
"On a scale from one to 10, I'd put us at a three," Campbell said. "We deal with a lot of graffiti and assaults but not the drive-bys and violent crimes like in Salt Lake. It's still in its infancy here."
Law enforcement began to notice gang activity in the early '90s when graffiti began appearing on the sides of grocery stores and on the walls of schools. Taggers have also covered ancient Indian petroglyphs and rock formations around Vernal with spray paint.
The wake-up call came when a gang member pointed a handgun at the heads of several fans during a Uintah High football game in 1994. The fans were wearing red, the school's colors. The gunman was a member of a gang whose color was blue, police said. It angered him to see so many dressed in red, and he drew his gun.
That's when the sheriff's office formed the gang unit. What deputies found was shocking, said David Booth, also a member of the gang unit.
Uintah County has about 45 identified street gangs. About half are tied to larger gangs with national connections. The other half are unique to the area. The gang unit estimates about 250 gang members live in the county, ranging in age from 6 to 30.
Deputies have a room packed with sawed-off shotguns, knives, handguns and other weapons taken from gang members. At one point the unit confiscated seven bombs from one gang member, who planned to use the devices against rival gangs, Campbell said.
The gang mystique attracts young people who are bored or turned off by rural life. Kids also like to scare and shock the adults by joining gangs, Booth said.
"They want to get a rise out of the community," he said. "Gangs and graffiti are a way to do that."
A 19-year-old woman who used to hang out with a Salt Lake City-based gang remembers traveling to rural areas in Utah and Idaho to initiate new members, a ritual gang members call "jumping in." Other members of the gang will beat up on the new member for five minutes or so. After the beating, the new member is officially part of the gang.
"They (rural kids) wanted to be a part of a gang so they can say they hang out with us," she said. "We would go out and jump them in."
The woman decided to get away from gang life when she had a child two years ago. She didn't want her name published, fearing retaliation.
"I was never jumped in, but I wanted to hang out with people I could jack cars with," she said.
Gangs aren't something exclusive to minorities or kids living in the ghettos. She's proof that gang culture appeals to kids of all races and backgrounds - no matter where they live.
"I was spoiled as a kid," she said. "Nobody thought I'd hang out with a gang, but I was fascinated with it."
Some in the community say the threat of rural gangs isn't that serious yet.
"There's a few kids some of us are scared of, but most of them (gangsters) are just wannabes," said 16-year-old Emily Malouf, a student at Uintah High. "They try to be intimidating, but they're not. They're just trying to act cool."
Jamie Tovar, also a student at Uintah High, doesn't think rural gang members are nearly as ruthless, he said. Tovar lived in Salt Lake City before he was sent to live in a foster home in Vernal because of his involvement in gangs at East High School.
Tovar doesn't feel threatened by gang members in Vernal - unlike Salt Lake where he always watched his back, he said. The gang members don't commit shoot-ings, stabbings and other violent crimes.
"Out here, you hardly ever hear about drive-bys or anything like that," the 17-year-old said. "It's not like in Salt Lake, where your enemies will come looking for you."
Also, rural gangs often don't require members to get "jumped in." Another difference: Rural members are more likely to leave their gang to join another - something that often gets inner-city gangsters killed, police said.
Vernal gangsters aren't as violent as their inner-city counterparts, but it's because law en-forcement has cracked down so quickly. When authorities notice someone wearing gang-related clothing, they take it seriously.
Members from the gang unit start a file on a suspected gang member and ask parents if they can search a child's room. Deputies take away clothes and everything found that might be con-sidered gang-related.
"Some might call it harassment, but we think it's suppressing the problem," Campbell said.
That's just part of the approach law enforcement is taking to try to stop gangs from taking over. Deputies give gang education presentations at the schools and churches to discourage people from joining.
Law enforcers won't tell the media if a crime is gang related. Gangsters may read about a robbery committed by a rival gang and try to top it with a more serious crime.
"We'll tell the media about the crime," Booth said. "But we won't tell if it was gang that committed it."
Uintah High school has a zero tolerance policy toward gang activity and violence. Any student wearing gang attire, like bandanas or hats, has to go home and change before class. The administration expels any student caught with a weapon, principal Kent Bunderson said.
The gangs are still increasing in size - despite the efforts - but law enforcement's tactics have slowed the rate, authorities say. Deputies hope the the numbers continue to drop but fear there's no way to stop the gangs from growing.
"I think we can suppress it, but the only way to stop it is through education," Campbell said. "We have to take away the appeal, so kids won't have a desire to join gangs."
Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, isn't surprised gang culture has reached small towns. When something is popular in urban areas, it's only a matter of time before it spreads throughout the country.
"Small town kids always want to be like city kids," she said. "Trends filter down to the rural areas. They are living a trend."
Residents in the communities should pay attention, but the rural gangs are probably not much of a threat, Martinez said. Chances are the fascination with gangs will fade. With time, something else will become popular and kids will quit joining gangs.
"Most of the kids in rural areas are just wannabes," she added. "They just want to get together and do something `risky.' They might do some graffiti and maybe a little drugs."
Since graffiti causes the most damage to communities like Vernal, the cities should consider designating a wall for tagging, Mar-tinez added. It would give the kids a place to express themselves. Tagging is the only form of expression some kids have. Graffiti in schools and on commercial buildings would likely drop if the kids had a place for it.
Rural gangs aren't unique to Vernal, though it seems to have the most activity. Other rural communities have gang units and are dealing with the same type of problems.
- Officers in St. George have already seen some gang-related violence creep into the area.
"We've had two stabbings in the last three months," said St. George Police Chief Bob Flowers. "We have all the problems that other areas have, but on a smaller scale because of the size of our population."
Police estimate that about 10 gangs operate in the city. The more established gangs there are responsible for some of the city's drug distribution, robberies and extortion.
Gang members moving into St. George from out of state bring a certain mystique that attracts locals to gangs, Flowers said.
"Some people move here, say from Vegas, and are proud of the fact they belong to a gang."
Officers in the gang unit try to encourage gang members to give up the lifestyle. They try to give them something to fill the void left after they leave the gang.
"We're trying to create relationships with those wanting to do more with their lives than driving around on Friday nights intimidating people."
- Cache County has about 125 gang members living there, police estimate. Officers deal with graffiti most often, though officers have investigated gang-related violent crimes.
"We haven't had a drive-by, but we did have a walk-by," said Louise S. Speth, gang project coordinator for the Logan City Police Department. "A gang member shot at someone as he walked by a store."
Two teenagers in Lewiston, just north of Logan, found a high-tech way to learn about gangs. They studied various gangs on the Internet at a library. Then the boys started their own gang.
Plenty of Web sites about gangs exist - some glorify the lifestyle and others denounce it, Speth said.
- Tremonton police officers have arrested several gang members for crimes including vandalism, fighting and robbery. Gang activity peaked into 1995 but has declined since, police chief Steve Hodges said.
"It's been sporadic since then," he said. "We had a bunch of graffiti and fights, but we made a lot of arrests, and we haven't seen it very often lately."
A hard-core gangster moved from southern California to the Box Elder town in 1995, which sparked most of the activity, police believe. Most of the graffiti and gang fights disappeared when he moved from the town, Hodges said.
Graffiti shows up on buildings about twice a month, but that's been the extent of it, Hodges added.