aThe short life of Andrew “Lucky” Galligo came to a sudden end June 18 in a parking lot near 24th and Vinton Streets.
Around 8:30 p.m., the 19-year-old man exchanged gang hand signs with a woman, according to court testimony. He lifted his shirt to show he was unarmed.
Minutes later, Galligo was shot in the chest.
Within days, police made two arrests.
Rufus Freemont, 24, is charged with second-degree murder. The woman, 22-year-old Claudette D. Loera, known as “Bear Claw,” is charged with being an accessory to a felony.
Galligo's relatives say he wasn't in a gang. He had described himself on Internet sites as a member of the Lomas gang. Prosecutors said Freemont had ties to the Lomas gang, and court testimony called the woman a member of the Indian Nation Klick gang.
So the case has become “gang-related” — a phrase that's been heard often in connection with recent violence in Omaha. According to police and prosecutors:
-- Two-thirds of the city's 18 homicides this year are believed to be linked to gang activity.
-- The city is home to at least 73 gangs.
-- Those include an estimated 2,987 members and associates.
“We recognize there's too much violence in town,” said Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes. “It's never going to be good until it's gone.”
Police keep relatively detailed records on suspected gang members, their groups and activities. But the department declined to share much of that information with The World-Herald.
To obtain a picture of gang activity, the newspaper reviewed each 2010 homicide case and interviewed more than two dozen law enforcement officers, public officials, researchers, former gang members and at-risk teens.
What they said:
-- Though gang members live and operate throughout the city, much of their most violent activity is concentrated in neighborhoods in northeast and southeast Omaha.
-- Authorities from suburban areas and smaller Nebraska cities also have seen increased gang-related activity. Across the river, Council Bluffs officials say gang members may live there for a time. The officials said that they occasionally see gang graffiti but that there have been few violent incidents.
-- The majority of Omaha gang members are males between the ages of 15 and 25.
-- Though only a small percentage of the city's at-risk youths join gangs, recruitment can start early, occasionally in elementary school. The youngest known gang member, according to police, is 12.
-- A relatively small number, probably 10 to 15, are those whom police consider the most violent members and consistently involved in shootings.
-- Gangs initially relied on drug trafficking and burglaries to finance their activities. Today they've added more crimes, including identity theft.
-- Gang-related shootings are sparked by many causes, ranging from long-standing disputes to drugs to something as seemingly meaningless as a dirty look.
-- Most shootings aren't lethal. There has been an increase in the number of gang-related drive-by shootings that left one or more victims wounded. Police recorded 22 such incidents in 2002. Last year, there were 56.
“That doesn't surprise me,” Chief Hayes said of the increase. “More people on the streets with guns.”
Gang activity is a citywide problem. Gang members can live anywhere, authorities said.
But much of this year's gun violence — and all but one of 2010's gang-related homicides — occurred in a northeast Omaha area bounded by Newport Avenue south to Nicholas Street, and Florence Boulevard west to 49th Street.
Omaha police use a computer system to manage the intelligence that's collected.
In compiling their list of 2,987 gang members, “We look at objective standards that may include but not be limited to tattoos, self-admissions, and associates, etc.,” Police Lt. Darci Tierney explained in an e-mail.
Police put gangsters into three categories: associates, members and hard core, she said, adding that the majority “are at the associate level.”
Police officials would not explain how they define each of those three categories, but others familiar with gang intelligence said a person typically is considered an associate if he frequently hangs out with known gang members.
If someone wears gang tattoos or claims to belong to a specific gang, he is categorized as a member.
Hard-core members are those frequently linked to violent crimes, who have extensive criminal histories and close ties with other gangsters.
Police track between 10 and 15 of what they describe as active shooters in the city at any given time.
That number fluctuates depending on who's dead or wounded, who's in jail and who takes their place, police say.
Often, one shooting brings another.
“Blood for blood” is how Lt. Kerry Neumann, head of the Omaha Police gang unit, describes the gang attitude. “ ‘If one of our guys goes down, that's the only way to settle the score.' … Their term is ‘It's on.' ”
The intelligence system, along with efforts from community groups like the Empowerment Network, is working and has helped authorities identify many of the key players, said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, who also works as a gang-intervention specialist.
Several have been arrested, helping create a recent lull in gun violence.
Omaha's gangs are mostly loose, decentralized networks, authorities said. They are not Mafia-style corporate structures, with godfathers, capos and soldiers.
Many gangs are named for streets or landmarks, but authorities say they generally don't operate in rigid, permanent territories.
Some are more interested in narcotics trafficking, or establishing a reputation through violent acts. Others are simply interested in partying. A few gangs indulge in all three.
Hispanic gangs tend to be larger, slightly better organized and — recently in Omaha — less violent than their counterparts who tend to gather in the northern part of the city, said Pete Simi, who studies gang activity as an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The U.S. Justice Department said Hispanic gangs in the region are assuming a larger role in wholesale drug distribution.
In search of money, some gangs have branched out from drug dealing, said Bruce Ferrell, one of the city's first gang unit officers and now chairman of the nonprofit Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
Gangs may support themselves with home invasion robberies, burglaries, debit card thefts, bad checks, counterfeiting and identity theft.
Omaha police say it is almost impossible to quantify how many of those different kinds of crimes are committed by gang members.
Proceeds usually aren't divided up among all members of the gang. Rather, those who commit the crimes typically keep the money, using it for food, clothing, guns and drugs, Ferrell said.
Gang members have been forced to adapt because it's not as easy to make big money selling drugs as when crack cocaine first arrived on the scene, he said.
There is no easy way to anticipate who will join a gang, researchers say.
But there are factors that put youths at risk. Those include living in poverty, dropping out of school and growing up without parental involvement.
“What we do know is if a child has greater exposure to various risk factors and fewer protective factors, the odds are higher that (those) children … are more likely to join a gang,” said Dawn M. Irlbeck, assistant professor of sociology at Creighton University.
Gangs often begin targeting recruits in middle school, or even as they finish elementary school, said UNO's Simi.
Potential recruits see gangs as offering the possibility of excitement, protection, a de facto family, self-respect, drugs and guns — and excuses to use guns.
“Gang membership is about identity, and that's a powerful force for adolescents,” Simi said.
“The rivalries, turf and territories and other disputes are makeshift efforts to infuse something magical, although perverted, into an otherwise dismal life.”
VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE
Joining a gang increases the likelihood a member will carry a gun and eventually use it, Simi said.
Though not all gangsters are involved in violence, some use it to build a reputation, he said.
Many shootings are linked to simple things: a cheating girlfriend, drug disputes, old beefs, even a dirty look — known as a “mean mugging.”
“The drugs play a role, but it's not the driving force,” Simi said.
Gang members have long memories. Shootings often are tied to old arguments, using raw street justice to settle a score.
“Retaliation is a must, especially if you're a shooter,” Ferrell said.
In early February and March, three members of one of Omaha's largest gangs — the 40th Avenue Crips — were shot and killed and another was critically injured.
Those shootings and other violent acts prompted stepped-up efforts by law enforcement agencies and community groups . There hasn't been a gang-related homicide since the June 18 killing of Lucky Galligo.
Hayes, Omaha's police chief, said he's hopeful the city is making progress against the violence.
“But it's still too early to tell,” he said.
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