How to confront gang violence
When a federal judge recently hammered Rashawn Long with a 30-year prison sentence, it may have sealed the coffin of what once was one of Kansas City’s most murderous gangs.
The 51st Street Crips shot their way to an unmatched level of notoriety in the late 1990s and early 2000s, authorities say.
“They were No. 1 at the time,” said James Herrington, a retired Kansas City police detective who spent years investigating the group. “They were the most violent.”
Long, a convicted murderer, served as the gang’s “enforcer.” Weeks after being released from a Missouri prison in 2013, he allegedly resumed killing in Kansas City. He’s headed to federal prison for crimes related to guns and drugs.
Most known Crips members of 15 years ago are either dead or in prison, officials say.
Back in the day, a small group, never numbering more than 10 hardcore members, was responsible for most of the gang’s criminal activity, Herrington said.
They made money selling a cornucopia of illegal drugs: cocaine, marijuana, PCP and ecstasy. They assaulted people, stole cars and committed armed robberies, often targeting other drug dealers. And they killed.
Law enforcement officials believe Long, now 35, is personally responsible for at least five murders.
He once held a gun to a girlfriend’s head and told her she would be No. 24 — implying that he’d killed 23 — according to testimony in a recent federal court hearing.
Police investigators, however, do not know if that was a true statement or bravado.
Many gangs remain active in Kansas City; police have cataloged about 3,000 members. But Long and his associates were “unique” in the level of violence and fear they generated, one investigator said.
One associate, Steve L. Wright Jr., earned a reputation when only a teen as Kansas City’s most prolific and feared gunman. Now, he spends his days in a maximum security federal prison where he is serving a life sentence for crimes that include several drug-related murders.
Another was Anthony “Fat Tone” Watkins, a rapper who unabashedly chronicled the violent ways of the streets in his lyrics, which included the phrase “Killa City,” underground slang for Kansas City.
Prosecutors accused Watkins of killing a 17-year-old pregnant woman and her baby in a 2001 drive-by shooting. After witnesses refused to cooperate, prosecutors dismissed the charges.
Tone survived being wounded in a drive-by shooting. In 2004, authorities questioned him in connection with the killing of a California rapper in Kansas City. Then in 2005, someone gunned down Watkins and another Kansas City man in Las Vegas — in retaliation for the California rapper’s murder, authorities believe.
Kansas City police formed the department’s career criminal unit largely because they needed a better way to battle the 51st Street Crips, Herrington said.
“They were the first organization we sought to stop,” he said.
The group’s victims included rival gang members. But they even killed their own to prevent them from talking to police.
Authorities say that’s what happened to Michael L. Birks in 2001. As he knelt, begging for his life, a fellow gang member shot the 24-year-old Kansas City man though the top of his head, according to court testimony and documents.
Several hours earlier, Birks had plotted with Long, Wright and a man named William L. Williams to rob a drug dealer, court records say.
After Williams allegedly shot the dealer and another man, Birks helped the victims and even took one to a hospital.
Long allegedly told Williams that they needed to kill Birks because he may have revealed their identities to the victims, according to the documents.
When they met back up with Birks, Williams shot him several times. Long fired the one final shot into his head.
Both Long and Williams later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Each was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Willis Toney, a Kansas City defense lawyer who has represented Long since he was a teen, said Birks’ killing was not about silencing a witness.
“It had nothing to do with that,” Toney said. “It was a drug deal gone bad. Literally it was a drug deal gone bad. They were young and dumb and doing stuff they weren’t supposed to be doing and he pleaded guilty to it.”
Yet according to police, the Crips grew so feared in the community, it became difficult for investigators to persuade people to step up and testify against them.
“They’d get arrested and go to jail, but then get right back out,” Herrington said.
Taking cases to federal court — where defendants would face much stiffer prison terms — finally helped persuade witnesses to cooperate.
The investigation by Herrington and other detectives into Wright’s crimes resulted in a 2002 multi-count federal indictment.
In 2006, a jury found Wright guilty of numerous charges, including the drug-related killings of Birks and two other men.
“Steve Wright was a vicious, cowardly serial killer,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Ambrose said before a judge sentenced Wright to life in prison plus 110 years.
At the time, Wright disputed much of what had been said about him.
In early 2013, Long was released from prison after serving his sentence for killing Birks.
He almost immediately began killing again, prosecutors say.
They allege that he killed four people that year, including a 28-year-old Kansas City woman and her 3-year-old daughter, before his arrest in October 2013 on drug and weapons charges.
Those victims, Myeisha Turner and Damiah L. White, were slain execution-style in their Kansas City duplex. The killings outraged the community and led to prayer vigils, marches and repeated demands for someone to come forward to help identify their killer. The case remains open.
Although Long is awaiting a state trial in a separate killing from 2013, federal prosecutors presented testimony earlier this month about all of the killings to persuade a judge to impose a harsher sentence than normal for Long’s drug and gun convictions.
Long disputed much of the government’s information. He said he was the victim of a “vendetta” and had not received justice.
Toney, the defense attorney, called using testimony about uncharged crimes to enhance Long’s sentence fundamentally unfair.
“I am never to going to say Rashawn Long is the guy you want to live next door to,” Toney said. “He’s a bad boy, OK?”
But Toney called it “a slippery constitutional slope” when someone’s sentence can be lengthened in that way.
“What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” he asked.
Alleged members of the group he has talked to always dispute the notion that they were a gang, Toney said. They said they were just a group of guys who grew up together around 51st Street.
“They were living that life,” Toney said. “They were trying to make money, hustling doing stuff they weren’t supposed to be doing, but they were teenagers trying to be tough boys.”
Members of Long’s family still live just off 51st Street, east of the Paseo.
Bullet holes pockmark the home where Long spent much of his childhood — a testament to the back-and-forth nature of the city’s street violence.
A relative says that while he undoubtedly has done things his family does not approve of, he is not the ruthless killer portrayed by police.
“He may have done a lot of dirt out there,” said his grandmother, Gwendolyn Long. “He’s not a monster. I know that.”
She particularly feels galled by authorities accusing him in the killing of the young woman and her small child.
“He loves children,” she said. “There’s no way in the world Rashawn would have. … Not him.”
Long was raised in the church. He was always thoughtful and compassionate, she said, and was taught “right from wrong.”
Toney agreed that Long did not strike him as someone capable of some of the things authorities say he did. His father was part of his life and he has a “tight, extended family.”
“I can tell you that he is very intelligent,” Toney said. “Obviously he doesn’t always make the best decisions in life but I don’t know him to be the cool, calculated killer that they are describing him to be.”
Long was barely out of his teens when he went to prison for killing Birks.
After his release in 2013, Long went to see Toney.
“We talked about what he was going to be doing, and he wanted to be a rapper and get into the music world,” Toney said.
His grandmother said he likes to write and has penned books about his life on the streets. While in state prison, Long earned a high school equivalency degree and converted to Islam.
Like many former prison inmates, he had difficulty being accepted back into society, according to his grandmother.
He went to visit relatives and friends in Colorado and Texas.
“I assume he was trying to find himself,” she said.
For one of the shattered families Long left in his wake, the fact that he served only 12 years for killing Birks was an injustice.
“He’s a menace to society,” Teresa Birks said of the man who killed her nephew. “He spent 12 years in jail thinking about who he was going to kill when he got out.”
He never showed any remorse and had no consideration for her nephew’s three children, who had to grow up without their father, Teresa Birks said.
In her view, the only way Long or Wright ever should get out of prison is in a “body bag.”
“He should have never got out to tear somebody else’s heart out,” she said.