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A casino, cash, guns and drugs. U.S. cracks down on Kennedy Street Crew.

The gunfire that for years rattled Brightwood Park often appeared random, the byproduct of squabbling street crews settling scores or petty beefs resolved with the pull of a trigger.

Residents pleaded for police to stop the shootings and what they perceived to be open-air drug dealing. Many complained repeated arrests failed to bring peace to their Northwest Washington neighborhood.

But after federal authorities last week announced sweeping indictments against more than a dozen suspected members of the Kennedy Street Crew, neighbors and officials are watching to see if the arrests will dampen the violence that has long marred the area. Prosecutors described the 12-block long stretch of street for which the group is named as the epicenter of one of the city’s largest and most sophisticated gangs, alleging its members kept ledgers of illicit transactions, laundered money through a casino and a fictitious business and shuttled suitcases packed with drugs commuter-style between D.C. and Southern California.

Prosecutors said several leaders set up a fake carwash called “Heavy Baggz LLC,” and tracked money lost and money owed to them with such accountant-like precision that IRS criminal investigators were called in to help unravel the organization’s business structure.

The initial charges filed against the 12 arrested and four others who remain at large relate to allegations of drug trafficking and firearms, not to specific acts of violence. But prosecutors said they have tied some of the 42 seized firearms to area shootings, including a spray of gunfire outside Jackson-Reed High School in November. Seven people have been killed and more than two dozen wounded by gunfire in the past four years on the crew’s turf, prosecutors said, though not all involved the crew.

Officials with the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. asserted in court documents that the crew “is a driver of the cycle of violence associated with drug trafficking and firearms that has plagued the Kennedy Street neighborhood for years.” The case appears to represent a shift in how prosecutors are trying to address street violence.

For years, law enforcement authorities in the District have played down many street crews as loosely formed and disorganized, trading gunfire over petty disputes or generational grudges. Officials have said the open-air drug markets of 1980s and ’90s crack years are largely a thing of the past. But in this case prosecutors describe a crew that resembles those of that earlier era, engaged in deadly turf battles over cocaine and marijuana with a new, even more lethal drug in the mix: fentanyl.

Facing a surge in gun violence and public alarm over fentanyl overdose deaths, U.S. prosecutors in the District are resuming large, multiple-defendant federal drug and gun gang cases, and are pushing to increase their tempo in hopes of interrupting the cycle of violence before it scars a new generation. The crackdown on the Kennedy Street Crew is the fifth large-scale operation since the department formed the Violent Crime Impact Team in 2022.

They say the execution of such major cases becomes even more critical as some local D.C. judges and politicians have made it more difficult to prosecute illegal-gun possession cases and pursue stiffer sentencing penalties for first-time offenders.

At a news conference last week announcing the Kennedy Street Crew indictments, the U.S. attorney for the District, Matthew M. Graves, said arrests by police during “incidental street contacts” have been increasingly difficult to prosecute because of court rulings on search and seizure laws.

In an interview this week, Graves declined to talk about the specific case or the defendants. But he said that while his office will continue to prosecute seemingly isolated cases, it is pursuing a more “complete strategy” against those who drive violence.

“We know that a relatively few individuals in our community are responsible for driving most of the violence that we’ve seen,” Graves said. “So rather than just simply waiting around and hoping when there is an act of violence to be able to attribute it to them, or hoping to randomly catch them on the streets with a firearm, why don’t we proactively investigate those individuals or those crews of individuals, build cases against them to hold them accountable for at least some of their criminal conduct?”

Graves added, “It might not be everything, but it will be enough that we can build to the point where they’re facing substantial periods of incarceration.”

As of Friday, several defendants had argued unsuccessfully for release in bond hearings, and one responded in writing to prosecutors’ detention memorandum in U.S. District Court.

Robert Lee Jenkins Jr., an attorney for one of the men arrested, said in a statement “there is little to no evidence” that his client was a member of the crew or connected to “any acts of violence.”

He said it appears his client “has been roped into this prosecution principally due to his residence in the Kennedy Street neighborhood.” Jenkins described his client as a lifelong D.C. resident with no felony convictions, who has a job and volunteers at neighborhood recreation center as a football coach.

Other defense attorneys did not respond to inquires.

Residents of Brightwood Park had long complained of gunfire and crime, much of it centered around Kennedy Street east of Georgia Avenue, a roughly one-mile stretch of businesses and homes. Others complained the area was over-policed, setting up clashes between newly arriving homeowners and older residents feeling pushed out and highlighting complexities in the city’s public safety debate.

Tension came to a head in October 2020 when police pursued 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown who was riding a moped on a sidewalk without a helmet. A vehicle fatally struck him during the pursuit, which police later said had not been authorized.

Two D.C. police officers were found guilty of obstructing justice, and one of them was convicted of second-degree murder. Defense lawyers argued that the officers suspected Hylton-Brown of more dubious activities, and they had been aggressively targeting the very crime residents had been pleading them to stop.

The incident sparked protests that at times turned violent.

Perry Redd, who was an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Brightwood Park when Hylton-Brown was killed, described police then as an occupying force. He said after Hylton-Brown’s death, the city promised new programs specifically targeting the young men along Kennedy Street “to get these young people into a position of productivity.” He said they were told there would be “an investment by the city in the community.”

Redd said none of those promises were kept. “When you lack the political will to invest in a community you know is depleted of resources, depleted of hope, you will get an Al Capone-like indictment,” Redd said.

A man who has lived on the edge of Brightwood Park for two decades said the raid “seems like a positive development.”

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, said that over the past several years, “We felt like we were left alone to face whatever dangers might pop up.” After the arrests, he said, “we’re not entirely alone. There is evidence there has been some action. That’s actually, to me, very comforting.”

City officials did not respond to questions about the community.

After Hylton-Brown died, the Kennedy Street Crew grew in size, stature and volatility, becoming, according to prosecutors, “one of the largest crews” in the city “based on both territory and its vast membership.”

Authorities identified three suspected open-air drug markets on Kennedy Street near day-care and recreation centers, stores and residences. In addition to shootings that wounded or killed people, police said they identified 70 instances of gunfire around Kennedy Street in two years that rattled residents but did not claim casualties. Officials did not say whether all the gunfire was directly linked to the crew.

During the investigation, authorities said police raided 17 residences in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and searched 11 vehicles. They said six firearms were found in a house in Brightwood Park, and another 10 in a residence in Northeast Washington. Eight of the firearms had been converted into fully automatic weapons, prosecutors said.

Court documents said firearms were linked to numerous shootings, including a daylight drive-by targeting a rival on New Hampshire Avenue NW. One suspect, authorities said, rapped “keep riding them bikes, get smoked like Slatt!” in a song called “Broke/Dead Opps.” Court documents say “Slatt” was a rival killed in 2019 and that the song was “ridiculing the death.”

A short time later, prosecutors said the residence of “Slatt’s” family was shot up, evidence they said in court documents that the “rap videos extend beyond mere artistic expression.”

The Nov. 18 shootout outside Jackson-Reed High School on Chesapeake Street NW, authorities now say, involved a suspected Kennedy Street Crew member firing a black Uzi, spraying 21 bullets toward a group of rivals, some of whom fired back. Police said they found the Uzi during a search of a stash house and linked it to bullet casings found at the scene.

In September 2021, prosecutors said a triple killing on Longfellow Street — in which a bystander who worked at a hospital was fatally shot — was the result of rivals targeting the Kennedy Street Crew. Two men indicted last week were wounded in that incident, according to court documents.

Authorities also asserted the crew, often holding tens of thousands of dollars at any one time, laundered money through a local casino and “Heavy Baggz,” the “carwash” officials said existed only in incorporation papers. Court documents say the company existed as a “means to deposit proceeds of illicit narcotics sales.”

And the crew apparently kept records. One ledger police said they obtained shows an estimated loss of $53,000 after police confiscated drugs, along with amounts owed: $50 from “Bird down 5th”; $860 from “Justo”; $12,000 from “Dre House.”

Prosecutors said they traveled frequently cross-country, mostly to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Last year, authorities said they tracked three members near a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. Prosecutors said airport police at Dulles, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and in San Francisco had on separate occasions confiscated luggage filled with up to 195 pounds of marijuana.

D.C. police said they responded repeatedly to calls from residents demanding action and increased patrols in Brightwood Park. The city’s interim police chief, Ashan M. Benedict, said at a news conference announcing the indictments that police “kept going up there, and kept getting guns and drugs, but the perpetrators kept getting out” from custody.

A review of court records for the dozen men arrested thus far show many had prior felony convictions and arrests that were never prosecuted, either in D.C. or elsewhere. Some with other pending changes were out free when they were arrested last week.

One man had three prior arrests for guns and drugs, and one felony conviction, according to court records. Prosecutors said another man had been convicted as an adult of carjacking, assault and drugs, and four times as a juvenile for robbery and assault.

A man authorities described as Kennedy Street Crew leader had been convicted in the past of unlawful possession of a firearm and felony assault. Three other gun arrests in 2017, 2020 and 2021 were never pursued, according to court documents. Police said they arrested him again last year while responding to a report of shots fired near Kennedy Street, and found two guns, one in his pants, along with drugs and guns. Court records show prosecutors dropped the case, but don’t give a reason.

In the interview, Graves noted generally that just because an initial arrest may fall short of required evidence to pursue in court, it does not mean law enforcement stops pursuing a case. But he also noted that even a proposal to incrementally increase penalties for first offenders convicted of carrying a firearm without a license — who normally receive probation in D.C. — was denounced this week in a city hearing and likened to a return to mass-incarceration policies of the past.

“That is where we see some of our elected officials and a large percentage of our community,” Graves said. “So that’s just a reality of our prosecutions, which is part of the reason it’s become so important for us, where we can, to think about building more substantial cases if people are really, we think, either driving violence or attracting violence.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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