Not long after being released from prison for accidentally shooting and killing a teenage friend in a botched car theft, Michael Liggins was back in handcuffs.
After a few years behind bars, he was back to the pattern he had been following for years: arrest, jail time, release, repeat.
Since 1999, the north Omaha gang leader — the latest arrested in a sweep of some of the city's most notorious names in gang crime — has been in and out of jail ever year, usually multiple times.
By the time he was picked up by police Friday morning, the 31-year-old already had 37 misdemeanor and three felony arrests on his record.
“These guys are hardball players,” said John Crank, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “They've definitely caused their share of grief.”
Liggins was the fifth reputed gang leader among 10 in custody or being sought by local and federal authorities as part of “Operation Purple Haze,” an effort to go after high-level members of the 40th Avenue Crips and 29th Street gangs.
Both gangs, police said, specialize in drug and gun trafficking across Omaha and its suburbs and are responsible for some of the metro area's violent crimes.
All 10 men are older than typical gang members, who are usually in their teens or early 20s. Eight of the men named in warrants this week are in their 30s, and the two others are in their late 20s.
Bruce Ferrell, a retired Omaha police officer and chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, said Friday that he knows most of the men involved, including Liggins. He's watched them rise in the ranks, though he said street gangs have no formal hierarchy.
Instead, Liggins and his counterparts gained power and notoriety because of the many crimes they've committed and subsequent prison terms they've served.
The younger gang members look up to them, and their neighbors, meanwhile, fear them.
“They aren't elected, but because they've done 'work' for the gang, they get a status,” Ferrell said. “Respect from gang members means fear and intimidation, and their reputations horrify people.”
Even though the men have grown older, they're not retired, Ferrell said.
“They may not be out doing the shootings every day, but they are committing crimes in conjunction with their gangs' activities,” he said.
Liggins' trouble with law enforcement dates to 1995, when as a 13-year-old he was placed in state custody and eventually ended up at Boys Town.
As an adult, he had been convicted and jailed for theft, carrying a concealed weapon, gambling, providing false information to police and a handful of other crimes before he was arrested for his most serious offense: manslaughter.
In April 2002, after a night of dancing and partying with friends, 19-year-old Liggins and two of those friends tried to steal a 1984 Chevrolet Caprice.
When the car's owner came outside to investigate, Liggins starting shooting. He hit his 17-year-old friend, Chinudi William, in the head.
Liggins pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to five to eight years in prison.
By 2005, he was out on parole. In the years that followed, he was arrested again and again, including for a felony cocaine distribution charge.
The other men arrested this week — Vernon Elmore, 30; Marcus Jefferson, 37; Lawrence McGarity, 36; and Adonis Williams, 35 — and those sought — Eric English, 29; Jerell Haynie, 30; Jabari Liggins, 27; and Carlos Taylor, 34 — all have drug possession, drug dealing or violent crime convictions on their records.
Jefferson, like Michael Liggins, has been in and out of the court system since his teen years. In total, he's been arrested for 32 misdemeanors and 12 felonies.
In the early 1990s, he was picked up for crimes such as disorderly conduct, marijuana possession and driving while suspended.
In the next decade, he was arrested and jailed for the same types of crimes, along with carrying a concealed weapon, being a spectator at a dog fight and animal cruelty, and one felony charge of possessing a controlled substance.
Then, last September and October, he was charged with 11 additional felonies, including assault and possessing illegal guns.
Those cases are still pending.
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