Gang influences creep into Truckee-Tahoe
Gangs have become a fixture in the American consciousness. Rap music, MTV videos and modern gangster movies have glamorized gangs and the ghetto hopelessness that spawned them. Gangs have created their own music, fashion and attitude that can now be found in most department stores.
Despite the violence inherent in gang life-homicide rates are higher for people 15 to 34 than any other age group- it’s a lifestyle that has caught and held the attention of teens, even in Truckee. But if it looks like a harmless trend, school and law officials are nevertheless staying on their toes when it comes to gangs.
Gang activity flared up within the last three years in Truckee and around Lake Tahoe, although it’s largely sporadic.
Some Los Angeles gang members, who have identical tattoos on their faces, necks and arms, live in Truckee, although deputies won’t comment on gang-related trouble from them. A few juveniles with connections to out-of-town gangs have passed through the local legal system and caught the attention of school officials within the past couple of years.
In South Lake Tahoe, gangs were responsible for one known murder, a drive-by shooting and a stabbing, as well as some rival fights at the high school, according to a story in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Tahoe City’s high school removed some self-professed gang members from its campus, law officials have their eyes on a gang in Kings Beach and some officials suspect a white-supremacist gang is active on the West Shore, according to a Tahoe World news story.
Although intervention efforts have cooled gang activity around the lake during the last two years, Truckee has always fared better than these Tahoe towns, say law enforcement officials, and they’re determined to keep it that way.
“The gang presence in Truckee is underground. There’s a lot of dressing like gang members and a lot of wanna-bes who don’t have a clue what they’re doing. But once gangs are established in an area, it’s near to impossible to get rid of them,” said Georgene Goodstein, a Nevada County deputy probation officer in Truckee. “We need to remain vigilant. Once gangs are in place, full gang suppression efforts are needed just to hold the line. To be effective, this requires additional law enforcement officers, probation department staff and district attorney personnel at, of course, additional expense to the community.”
To deputies, gangs are a group of three or more who have a common identifying sign and engage in criminal activity, usually drug dealing, and who create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Tahoe-area gangs might display consistent color combinations, pants or shirts with heavy creases (an imitation of prison attire), expensive gold jewelry, tattoos of gang names or initials and carry baseball bats. Some more popular gang logos are the slogan “Mi Vida Loca” (My Crazy Life), the comedy/tragedy drama masks or a Raiders 81 jersey.
Gang life delivered here by I-80
But if there’s a gang problem in Truckee, it arrived via Interstate 80, say deputies. The highway is known to law officials as a drug corridor between the Bay Area, Sacramento and Reno areas where shootings and drug sales are so common they don’t make the news. Gang members apparently stop in Truckee for a bite to eat, to fill up the tank or even to fish and swim in the summer.
A photograph was confiscated from a Reno gang member showing members of his group drinking and holding pistols in the air at a location near Prosser Lake, Goodstein said. They had come here to party and target practice.
But what has law officials most concerned is that Truckee might attract Los Angeles gangs looking to expand their drug sale operations and other criminal activity. The rivalry between Northern and Southern Californian gangs is fierce, Goodstein said, which is why it perplexed her to see L.A. gang graffiti in Truckee. She asked some gang members what was going on.
“I take kids to Lassen Prison for the Straight Talk on Prison (STOP) program, which teaches at-risk kids about prison life. One or two of the STOP members at the prison are gang members, and they’re very informed about gang activities in California,” Goodstein said. “I asked one why L.A. gangs are moving into rural Northern California towns. He said if they move into big Northern Californian cities, there will be bloody wars. Their plan is to move into rural areas and get established so they’ll then have a new base for drug sales or other criminal activity without a turf war.”
Goodstein said minor indications, such as graffiti, show Southern Californian gangs might be expanding to the area, but law enforcement officials can’t say for sure. In the meantime, officials are adamant about preventing gangs from setting up shop in Truckee.
“Once it’s out and everybody knows it, it’s too late,” she said.
Like packs of wolves, out-of-town gangs leave their marks wherever they go in Truckee-in fast-food restaurant bathrooms, outside convenience stores, on water tanks and on large boulders. They spraypaint “tags” in Old English or block letters that identify the gang member and his or her gang. Most Truckee tags, which started showing up in the last couple of years, are traced back Los Angeles, Reno, Sacramento, Bay Area and Mexican gangs.
Deputies take photos of the tag, which are kept on file, and then direct the town or property owners promptly to remove the graffiti.
“We get information about gang activity in Truckee from the graffiti,” said Sgt. Ron Perea of the Truckee Sheriff’s Department. “It tells us who was here. It looks like trash, but there’s meaning there.”
Signs of Truckee-based gang activity
Tags are proof that the allure of gang life to youths has bled into Truckee from the cities.
Goodstein has a 14-year-old in her case load who had been “jumped” into an out-of-town gang in Truckee.
“Jumping in” is an often brutal initiation rite into a gang. For males, jumping in can include getting beaten bloody by the other gang members. When girls are jumped in, they are either beaten or forced to have sex with all the male gang members. Or initiates can be required to commit a crime or even a murder to prove their mettle.
The youth was pegged when school staff overheard him telling other students about his gang, and reported the information to the sheriff’s office. His parents also called the sheriff’s office with their suspicions, resulting in the tighter gang conditions, already established, being added to the normal juvenile conditions of his probation.
About a year ago, a group of Truckee girls formed their own gang as an offshoot to a L.A. gang that has members living in Truckee and North Tahoe.
One of the girl’s parents sent a picture the girls had taken of themselves to the sheriff’s office. Sheriff’s sprung into action, distributing copies of the picture to the high school and local establishments. School staff met with parents, some of whom were receptive and others who couldn’t believe their daughters were involved, said Mike Finney, Tahoe-Truckee High School vice principal.
“Their gang was just starting to form and we moved in on it right away,” Goodstein said. “They incurred consequences that they didn’t want to deal with.”
Suspected gang members follow special probation conditions that forbid them from associating with known gang members or wearing clothes that identify them with a gang.
The girls’ gang eventually fizzled out and they went elsewhere. Although not all of the girls were Hispanic, Goodstein said the high school’s bilingual program helped divert the girls and other potential troublemakers from gang life, by reducing their feeling of alienation.
“Truckee High School has an excellent bilingual program. I think that’s one reason the gang problem’s not worse. Bilingual teachers formed a more positive social club for the girls and others.”
Gang life has also seeped into Truckee, Goodstein and deputies suspect, because parents move here to rescue their kids from gangs in larger cities.
Goodstein has one youth in her case load who was jumped out of a San Jose gang. Jumping out is an uncommon practice, and he won’t say what he had to do to get out.
“He moved here after he was jumped out. I suspect his parents wanted a better life for him,” she said. “He looked at the teens here and said they would be dead in a week in San Jose.”
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