Throughout most of 2009, neighborhood cliques of mostly teens and young adults were locked in a back-and-forth feud, intensified by ambitions for respect and reprisal.
Mixed with the hot tempers and youthful indiscretions, social networking sites had become bulletin boards for taunts, and a burgeoning hop-hop video scene on YouTube bristled with boasts and threats.
Add to that, the kids had military-grade weapons.
“Assault weapons, pistols, [high-capacity] magazines, laser sightings,” said Detective Christopher Llamas. “In 2009, we had 350-plus shootings” in which people were injured or killed in Richmond.
That was the scene sketched over more than four hours of testimony Wednesday, as Llamas, recognized by the court as an expert in Richmond gangs, described the history and social context in which 2009 exploded into the bloodiest year of the decade. Joe Blacknell III, an alleged member of the Easter Hill Boys gang in south Richmond, is on trial facing 22 felonies stemming from two days of bloodshed that year, including the March 10, 2009 murder of Marcus Russell.
Blacknell, now 21, has pleaded innocent to all the charges. His public defender, Diana Garrido, says Blacknell has alibis for his whereabouts during the crimes and is the mistaken target of a prosecution desperate to produce convictions.
Llamas, a 9-year veteran of the Richmond police force, told the jury that by 2009, neighborhood gangs in North, central and south Richmond established a web of alliances that amounted to two warring sides. North Richmond’s Project Trojans linked up with the Easter Hill Boys in south Richmond against central Richmond’s “Deep C” neighborhood and it’s south Richmond allies, Llamas said, including cliques in Crescent Park, the Pullman’s, Kennedy Manor and the Backstreets, a south Richmond neighborhood that borders Easter Hill at 23rd Street.
The crime that year, including 47 homicides, followed a clear pattern. “It was just back and forth,” Llamas said, testifying that each side remained locked in a retaliatory cycle of drive-by shootings, often with deadly results.
And the violence didn’t end in 2009. Llamas told the court that the February 5, 2012 killing of Frank Potts Jr., 24, looks like a case of treading on the wrong territory. Potts died after being shot while riding a motorcycle in the 1700 block of Chanslor Avenue, Deep C territory. Potts, Llamas testified, was an Easter Hill Boys gang member and the uncle of one of Blacknell’s children.
Blacknell, who goes by the name “Fatter,” is alleged to have been in a key player in the violence, and is charged with shooting five people during two days of mayhem, March 10 and September 13, 2009. Blacknell and his subset of Easter Hill Boys gang members, which prosecutors allege dubbed themselves the “Beam Team” in a nod to laser sightings they strapped to the barrels of their guns, were arguably the most the prolific band of shooters in the city during a brief reign, Llamas said.
Prompted by questions from Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts, Llamas testified that Richmond’s gangs are “non-traditional,” meaning that they lack formal organization, leadership, profit-sharing or even strategies for narcotic sales. Instead, the loose-knit groups take pride in their neighborhoods, encompassed in just a few city blocks, and are motivated to gun violence by both a desire to build reputations and avenge the deaths of comrades. The survival of the fittest mentality is a powerful incentive, Llamas said, and keeps turnover high and gangs young.
“There is little structure or leadership,” Llamas said. “It’s violence that stands out. Those who earn reputations for being the most violent develop followings.”
Llamas said that he participated in a federal wiretap of Deep C gang members’ phones in the summer of 2009, dubbed “Operation Trident,” and served a search warrant on 22 Myspace.com accounts of alleged Easter Hill Boys gang members in January 2010.
Following a pattern that he has used several times since the trial’s January 17 start, Butts showed the jury photos and collages depicting Blacknell and his friends clutching guns, throwing gang signs and showing off T-shirts and other memorials of Sean “Shawny Bo” Melson, a revered member of their crew who was killed outside a store on September 10, 2006, at the age of 16.
The anniversary of Melson’s death, prosecutors allege, sparked a rampage by Blacknell and his Easter Hill Boys accomplices in 2009, a theory Llamas said he supports.
“A common theme within the Easter Hill Boys gang is seeking revenge for Sean Melson’s death,” Llamas said.
Testimony concluded Wednesday with Butts leading Llamas through a recitation of Blacknell’s juvenile records, which dates to a 2005 firearms charge against Blacknell, when he was 14-years-old. Over the next two years, Blacknell was caught driving a stolen car and, after a short police pursuit in San Pablo, with another gun, Llamas testified.
In a world where violence earns respect, Llamas said, Blacknell looms large. “He has a lot of respect” among gang contemporaries, Llamas said.
Llamas’ testimony was as a gang expert, and none of what he said Wednesday amounted to evidence linking Blacknell to the crimes for which he is charged. In previous weeks, Butts has called more than 40 witnesses, including a woman who was driving with Russell when he was killed. She testified that she saw Blacknell shoot and kill Russell, but under cross examination admitted that she told police a different story for more than a year, and then misidentified another man as one of her attackers before settling on Blacknell.
Llamas’ testimony is set to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.