BANGOR, Maine — The sequence of events that led to 19-year-old John “Bobby” Surles’ death last week was like a scene out of “Romeo and Juliet” or its modern equivalent, “West Side Story.”
It started with an argument whose origins no one can recall. One group of teenage males teetering on manhood called out another to a “rumble” spot, in this case a funeral home parking lot. The first group showed up carrying whatever weapons they could find — a baseball bat, a broken broom handle.
The second group didn’t meet at the appointed hour, so the rivals went looking. They eventually converged outside a Cumberland Street apartment. A confrontation led to taunts. Eighteen-year-old Zachary Carr, police said, pointed his Glock 9 mm and a gunshot echoed the harsh reality.
Surles clutched his chest and fell. The rest scattered.
There were no Capulets and Montagues, no Sharks and Jets. There was no Shakespearean prose, no catchy Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
But there was just enough resemblance to the age-old drama or the 1960s musical for some Bangor residents to wonder: Is gang activity creeping north from Portland and Lewiston to the biggest small town in Maine?
While the victims’ grandparents and some friends believe Surles’ death was gang-related, Police Chief Ron Gastia was not ready to make that leap.
“I think it’s a matter of perception, but perception is reality for a lot of people,” the police chief said in an interview this week. “I don’t want to minimize what others are seeing or say they are wrong. They may be seeing things that we are not. They may also be making assumptions that may or may not be entirely true.”
The assumptions may or may not be true, but the result is undeniable: One teenager is dead and another is behind bars accused of killing him.
“It’s a scary, scary world out there being a kid today,” said Mary Ann Suddy. She and her husband, Allen, are Surles’ grandparents, who also adopted him as their son nine years ago when he was in third grade.
Shortly after Surles’ death last week, the Suddys said Carr is part of a Bangor gang called “The Bloods” who hang out together wearing red bandanas and carrying guns.
Indeed, Carr’s MySpace page and those of his friends show pictures of him and his friends dressed in red making gang signs with their hands. In those, Carr is dubbed “Little Prince” and in several the word ‘Bloods’ is seen, along with the initials GKB, which stands for “gangsta killa blood.”
Although those gang references are clear, Carr’s friends say Hollywood and the music industry, which glorify the gangster lifestyle, is what influenced their friend.
“They’re just taking pictures to show off,” Chantel Nielson-Ashby, twin sister of Dakota Nielson-Ashby, who was part of the group fight, said on Thursday. “I think of them more as a little clique.”
And if he was a real gangster, he’d be bragging, she said, adding, “He’s crying. He did not mean to kill Bobby.”
Carr’s mother, who spoke to the Bangor Daily News after her son’s first court appearance on Monday, said her son, who spent part of his youth in Rhode Island, was not a gangster and does not have a criminal record.
“This is scary,” Holly Carr said. “It needs to stop. One young man has lost his life and my son has lost his life. It’s inexcusable.”
What is a gang?
If Surles’ death was not gang-related, how long before Greater Bangor experiences the problems that Portland’s police chief recently said are a top priority in that city?
“I’m not optimistic that we’ll never see gangs; I think we will,” Gastia said. “They have to start someplace and we may be moving in that direction.”
Arlen Egley Jr., a senior research associate with the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla., said it’s important to distinguish gang activity from full-fledged gangs.
“Just because certain gang graffiti or tagging shows up in a public park in Bangor does not mean the Crips have set up shop,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Frequently, gang names are copied, adopted, or passed on, but in most instances, there is little, if any, real connection between local groups with the same name other than the name itself.”
According to the National Youth Gang Center, there is no single, generally accepted definition of a gang.
State and local jurisdictions tend to develop their own definitions.
But there are some generally agreed upon traits: a shared identity, typically linked to a name and often other symbols; members who view themselves as a gang, and are recognized by others as a gang; a group with some permanence and a degree of organization; a group that is involved in an elevated level of criminal activity.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said gangs are in the eye of the beholder.
“It really depends on your definition,” he said “What we’re seeing now is more associations than gangs, but we probably are seeing more of that in the last five years or so.”
“We’ve started keeping tabs on certain groups, but most are not affiliated with the groups they think they are,” he said. “Until you cross certain bridges, it’s just a group of thugs.”
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are approximately 30,000 gangs, with 800,000 members in 2,500 communities across the country. Egley said, in general, gang activity peaked in the mid-1990s and started to diminish by the early part of the 2000s. In recent years, activity is starting to ramp back up.
“Each area has its own cycle, though,” he said.
Gangs tend to dominate inner cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, but over the years, some have migrated to smaller communities.
“There is substantial movement in some cases, but it’s not always for insidious reasons,” Egley said. “Many move with family and try to take the gang culture with them.”
Carol Whitney, executive director of the Shaw House, a youth homeless shelter in Bangor, said police detectives have talked with her staff and some regular visitors in the wake of Surles’ death. She agreed with the assessment that any gang-related activity in Bangor is copycat behavior.
“As with any segment of the population, these kids love drama,” she said. “They are going to follow it until it plays out.”
Threats of violence
Today, on the day of Surles’ funeral, there is some suggestion the incident has not played itself out.
The story behind the shooting death of Surles did not start on Jan. 24 when he was mortally wounded; it started a year ago after a group fight and has escalated ever since, members of both groups say.
“They planned to put one of us in the hospital,” Dakota Nielson-Ashby said of Surles and his skateboarding friends, “the skate park kids.”
“Now that I look at it,” he said, “it was either going to be us getting severely hurt and put in the hospital or them.”
Police have taken reports this week of cars filled with youths driving by Carr’s apartment yelling threats, and Surles’ friends using text messages and the Internet to intimidate and threaten Carr’s friends.
The MySpace pages of Surles’ friends show them smoking marijuana — in memory of him — and promising to get revenge.
“WERE GENNA GIT THOSE FAKE ASS GANGSTER[s],” a 16-year-old friend of Surles wrote on his MySpace page. “MAN NOTHIN WILL EVER STOP US CUZ WERE NOT SOME FAKE GANG.”
Police say they have dealt with Surles and a number of his associates dating back to 2004.
The same can be said for Carr’s friends, three of whom are accused of breaking into a store the day after the shooting, police say.
Surles’ mom said the family has been torn apart by the death of her son, who they called “Little John,” but say the healing cannot begin until the two youth groups create a truce.
“Let’s get the violence under hand,” Mary Ann Suddy said.
Gang history in Maine
Portland Police Chief James Craig said publicly last month that one of his primary goals for 2010 is to dismantle two established gangs in Maine’s biggest city — one made up primarily of young Somali men and the other composed of young Asians.
Similarly, Lewiston has seen gang activity recently from a group of young Somali men. The crimes have been petty thefts and strong-arm robberies, but the attacks appear to be at least somewhat organized and often involve sticks or rocks to intimidate and even assault.
A Lewiston official said there are no gang names or colors to investigate and he characterized the behavior as gang mentality versus gang activity.
John Surles’ death is not the first incident to prompt the public to wonder about gangs in Bangor. In the early 1990s, a group of Bangor High School students made headlines for featuring initiations that involved beatings. In 1995, a random stabbing led to chatter of gang activity. The discussion was revisited in 2000 with reports of a gang whose members called themselves the First Street Crips, a nod to a predominantly black gang founded in Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
None of it has endured, Gastia said.
Paula Silsby with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maine said her office has not seen any organized gang activity in the Bangor area. However, there have been some cases involving out-of-state gang members who claim they are trying to get a foothold in Maine.
Last May, a Massachusetts man was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Bangor to nearly six years in prison for setting up an illegal gun-buying operation.
According to federal court documents, James Damon was part of Gangster Disciples, a gang in Brockton, Mass., and came to Bangor as part of an “advance team” because the gang wanted to expand and sell drugs in the area.
After what Judge John Woodcock called a “run-in” with an unnamed existing gang in Bangor, Damon and two others decided they needed guns to protect themselves.
The men persuaded a Bangor woman to purchase the guns for them at a Bangor pawnshop.
All involved since have been charged with federal crimes.
A closer look
Bangor police were aware of fledgling gang activity long before Surles’ death. Last September, Chief Gastia met with members of the City Council to discuss a number of incidents in the community, including a homicide involving a young woman on the city’s waterfront and several assaults involving knives.
At the time, Gastia said there was evidence of some “pseudogangs” or wannabes but said Bangor has not seen what Portland and Lewiston have.
Still, to prepare for the future, Gastia sent a detective to a recent training workshop to learn about gang colors, graffiti and other identifiable signs.
But the chief also said that the amount of graffiti seen in Bangor recently doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in gang activity.
“A lot of the graffiti is meant to be artistic rather than symbolic,” he said. “We can’t automatically make a link that’s not there.”
Surles’ death, while tragic, hasn’t changed the dynamic dramatically in Bangor, the chief said.
“In this instance, it appears we have one group of young people angry at another group,” Gastia said. “I wouldn’t consider that gang activity in the traditional sense.”
A recent Associated Press story examined the role that social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace play in gang activity. Dean Johnston with the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement said the use of such sites has increased and has made it easier for gangs to expand. While networking sites allow for easier communication among gang members, they also provide rival gangs and law enforcement with the same easy access to information.
From a resource standpoint, Gastia said he’s not going to direct significant staff time to a problem that hasn’t surfaced. Similarly, if there was one instance of prostitution in Bangor, the Police Department wouldn’t create a separate prostitution unit.
“We can’t seize on this one event. As tragic as it was, it’s irresponsible to jump to conclusions,” Gastia said. “When we get to that point, I will be the first to stand up and tell people if there is a bona fide gang problem in Bangor.”
BDN writer Judy Harrison and Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.