Anarchy in Allapattah
It's late Saturday night when Doo pulls the pump shotgun out of its hiding place. A bare bulb illuminates the gun's short barrel, ventilated with several holes to cool it during repeated firing. The stock is polished wood. The barrel is painted a dull olive green. A tiny plaque on the stock reads "Made in Argentina." Doo, all of nineteen years old, holds the weapon carefully, the barrel pointing down.
He's standing in the garage of the house at 1024 NW 38th St., a squat gray stucco building on the ragged eastern edge of Allapattah. The gun was brought over to the house, Doo notes, because a rival group from another neighborhood has been issuing threats to him and his mates, who call themselves, among other things, the 38th Street Crew. Just a week ago the two groups exchanged shots outside 1024, which the 38th Street Crew uses as informal headquarters.
To the neighbors of 1024, it comes as no surprise that a young man would be cradling a shotgun and talking gang war. This, they say, is what they've been living with for years.
Welcome to anarchy in Allapattah.
It's a sunny February afternoon and the black Lincoln Town Car, burnished to a glint in the sunlight, is rolling east down NW 36th Street. Behind it are two City of Miami police cars and half a dozen civilian vehicles. The procession is making its way past the watered lawns and pruned tamarind and lime trees of the black working-class neighborhood known as Allapattah, which lies between Liberty City and the Miami River. At Tenth Avenue the Lincoln and its escort turn left. The cars make another left onto 38th Street and ease to a stop by the dirt curb in front of 1024. An aide opens the Lincoln's rear door and out pops Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, wearing a blue blazer over a checked polo shirt.
"So this is it," he says, eyeballing the place. A smashed front window is visible from the street. Two disabled cars rest on the concrete driveway next to a faded blue motorboat perched on a trailer. A sagging chainlink fence encloses the property. This is another neighborhood, almost, from the tidy white houses with flower beds and fruit trees west of Eleventh Avenue. Here, the streetlights have been fitted with bulletproof covers. The lamps arc over graffiti spray-painted smack in the middle on the street that reads "Trey 8 St. Souljahz." A police sergeant and lieutenant stand nearby, along with some of the local residents whose pleas brought the mayor to this spot.
Suddenly the front door of 1024 opens and a cluster of teenage boys amble out wearing an assortment of baggy shorts and T-shirts, track suits, and brand-new high-tops. They startle at the throng that greets them and, with a certain ruffled adolescent cool, hustle down the street. No words are exchanged. The cops glare at the kids; the residents behind them move about nervously.
"The thing is, with a crowd of people you can't get a feel for what's going on," Suarez mutters to an aide. "We'll have to come back later."
It's fair to say that 1024 does not receive regular mayoral visits. The police cars accompanying Suarez, however, know the address all too well. According to police, the house is home base to an increasingly organized burglary ring, the members of which they have dubbed the "Mitsubishi Boys" because of their proclivity for the cars with fast pickup. Members use the stolen cars to bust into stores, either driving through the front gate or ripping the gate off with a chain attached to the car. On the street it's known as a "smash and grab."
This loose confederacy has been around for years. At least ten of the core group have juvenile criminal records, according to a detective familiar with them. But recently the crew's profile has risen considerably. Police believe the Mitsubishi Boys are responsible for knocking off a string of gun shops around the city and county and selling the guns on the street. At least twelve stores in Miami-Dade have been hit in the past three months. Four Miami heists netted some 40 weapons, ranging from Glock 9mm automatic pistols to AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifles.
To local residents the mayor's visit is a nod to their growing frustration, but a largely ceremonial nod. The boys have long terrorized the neighborhood, they say. Lately it's gotten worse. Gunfire crackling through the night has turned their pocket of Allapattah into a free-fire zone. The police have been unable to make the problem go away.
What makes the situation even more frustrating for neighborhood residents is that, for the most part, the teens who hang out at 1024 aren't hiding who they are and what they're about. They may call themselves by a different name than do police, but they don't dispute that crime is their business. The attitude of a young man who goes by the handle Black is typical of his comrades. He says of the police: "Hell yeah, they getting a run for their money. They can't catch up."
So it's common knowledge that this is the house where they gather. It's where police go looking for them. It's where neighbors hear gunfire routinely. And it happens to be where Connie Anguiera lives.
Late one morning Connie Anguiera, age 40, appears at the front door of the house she bought in 1984, when she was still married. The doorjamb is splintered near the lock where police kicked it in several months ago, she says. "I'm not talking to anyone until the police fix my door," she says. She's wearing a white Nike sweatshirt, her straight black hair framing an elegant, narrow face. Her brown eyes glare under her neat bangs.
"Frankly, they're telling me I'm making the area unsafe," she says. "They want my family out of here."
Anguiera describes herself as a single mother, a former PTA member, and a Boy Scout leader. Police allege that she's a den mother to thugs. Not surprisingly, she's wary about discussing the accusations against her, the activities in her home, even her own past. "I don't have to defend myself against anything," she says, leaning on the fence bordering the sidewalk. "I haven't done anything wrong."
True enough. She is not linked to any of the crimes in which the Mitsubishi Boys are suspects. Many of the boys who have been arrested over the years don't even live at her house. "Why don't you write about their houses?" she says, cradling a bag of limes she just bought at an open market.
Figuring out exactly who lives in her house is nearly impossible for an outsider. Connie has a daughter, three sons, and three nephews, whom she took in after her sister died. But on any given night as many as fifteen teens, mostly male, will gather there. These boys, she notes, know her because she was a Boy Scout leader for six years in Allapattah. "That's me. I love kids."
Police offer a different version. "This is a loosely banded group of kids -- I won't call them a gang -- who are using this address as a meeting place," Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw contends.
"The theory is, that's a safe house," adds Lt. Albert Vila, who's in command of the section of the city that includes Allapattah. "Around Tenth and Twelfth avenues and 36th and 39th streets, they always bail out there. It's just too much of a coincidence."
"That is a bunch of cockamamie," Anguiera growls. "It is not a safe house. I let those police in. They don't even have to ask. If they see somebody go into the house, I tell them they can go in."
In fact, Anguiera recounts, she gave police permission to search her house just a week earlier, on January 29. While this may indicate she's willing to work with the police, it doesn't much bolster her contention she's being unfairly targeted. Inside police found boxes of sneakers from a recent shoe store burglary. The thieves drove a black Honda Accord through the front of the store. Police arrested one juvenile, whose name they wouldn't release because of his age, after a chase that started at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 38th Street. They say he was living at 1024.
Anguiera heads across the street to give some limes to a neighbor. When she returns, she's still defensive, but soon softens and offers a tour of her home. A floor-to-ceiling rack by the front door glistens with school sports trophies garnered by her children. Gold and silver statuettes for football, basketball, and tennis also cover a coffee table. On the far wall, over an upright piano crowded with family photos, is a picture of her son Henry Fuller, who died when the car he was riding in was broadsided in 1995. He was eighteen.
Anguiera's green and yellow cockatiel Pete sits in a large cage. "He likes to whistle 'The Halls of Montezuma,'" she says.
Connie plunks the bag of limes down on the coffee table and slumps in a chair. She picks up a cookie left on the table and nibbles. Instead of complaining about her, she says, neighbors and police should help her get jobs for these boys. Lord knows she spends enough of her time taxiing them around to warehouses and nursing homes filling out applications.
Soon she's offering some of the limes. She insists on giving them away. "Don't worry." She sighs. "Nobody has to know I gave them to to you."
"You listening to me? I don't want you to just go look at it. I want you to talk to them." Albena Sumner is working the phone in her bedroom/office. Manila file folders are stacked next to her bed. Oprah is on TV. "Do your neighborhood policing if you don't mind." She hangs up the phone. "People get so intense about their trash." Sumner is mediating a dispute between two neighbors; one is accusing the other of dumping trash on his property. She wants the city's new local Neighborhood Enhancement Team to get involved.
"I have to talk to the mayor the same way," she says matter-of-factly. "You see why they call me the mayor of Allapattah. Because I have to deal with all the damn problems."
When people in Allapattah get intense about trash, planting trees, or highway construction, they come to Sumner, president and founder of the Allapattah Homeowners Association. She's a single mother of three who works full-time fixing the neighborhood's problems.
Lately the concerns have been far more pressing. She plays back a phone message from a resident relating how police swarmed into the neighborhood recently looking for one of the boys at 1024. "Something has to get done," the voice on the answering machine pleads.
"This neighborhood has a lot of old people and they are not used to this," she says quietly.
Sumner has lived through Allapattah's recent history. She moved here from Overtown as a teenager in the early Sixties, like numerous other black Americans and a sprinkling of Jamaicans and Bahamians. Most of those who settled Allapattah were professionals: teachers, accountants, and mechanics who migrated to escape the growing blight in Overtown caused, in part, by the construction of I-95.
"It's been a very quiet, hard-working neighborhood," she says. "The majority of people are in their sixties and own their own homes."
It was Sumner who cajoled the mayor into visiting the neighborhood, and specifically the notorious home at 1024 NW38th St. But she's in a dilemma. Most of the residents complaining about the problems at 1024 are too scared to talk openly. Sumner's scared herself. Shortly after talking with New Times, she says, the Homeowner Association's board of directors asked her not to talk, fearing her involvement might provoke a violent response from the boys.
That fear is palpable during an afternoon visit with some of the residents who live closer to 1024. They gather on a tile patio surrounded by ficus trees and wandering Jews, at a residence whose address they don't want disclosed. They don't want their names used. They don't want any identifying details used.
"Gunshots? Daily. Helicopters? Police cars? This is going on here all the time. The neighborhood is under siege. We might as well call in the National Guard," fumes one woman. "We are the law-abiding citizens and we're the ones under siege!"
"This is the glorying time of my life and I can't enjoy it," says one retiree who has lived in Allapattah since the Sixties.
One man details the morning this past November when, while straightening his bed, his housecleaner ran into his bedroom and announced that a man with a gun was running through people's back yards. The police arrived in force and evacuated everyone from 36th through 39th streets. A helicopter hovered overhead; dogs were brought in. It was what police call a "perimeter search." A car stolen from 47th Street had ended up at 36th and a man with a rifle was seen running from the car. He got away.
In January police again arrived en masse, this time to search 1024 for items stolen from the shoe store. "It was like waking up to a nightmare," says another retired resident. "It was the middle of the afternoon and there were a dozen police cars out in front of the house. They cordoned off the street. I thought to myself, 'I wish this would end.' I don't need this kind of carrying on."
It's the middle of the day and Anguiera's not home. Young men are lounging on the concrete steps that lead up to the battered front door. They agree to chat, to respond to the neighbors' complaints, but only under the protection of street names the police won't recognize. There's C-Lo, 15, Frog, 16, Black, 20, and Doo.
Black can tell you how it used to be. The other boys describe him as one of the 38th Street Crew's founders, and he doesn't deny it. A tall, lean twenty-year-old who sports a knit wool cap, Black says he no longer participates in the crew's criminal activities, largely because of a two-year jail stint for grand theft auto and burglary.
"The chase, in a way it feels good; in a way it feels like your life's in jeopardy," Black says. A mouthful of gold teeth glints as he recounts his first police chase, four years ago. His tone is both wistful and enthusiastic, in the way some young men recall their glory days as high school athletes.
He and his boys had taken the Metrorail to a mall and boosted a high-end Mitsubishi Diamante with a screwdriver and pulley tool, the type body shops use to fix dents. Then they drove back to their meeting spot in Allapattah, loaded the car with homies, and drove to a Burdines. They wrapped a chain around the front gate, hooked it to the car's bumper, and popped the store open like a bank vault. They ran through the store like frantic Christmas shoppers, grabbing piles of shirts and pants and belts.
When they heard sirens, the boys clambered back into the Mitsubishi and shot over to the highway, Black at the wheel. He drove at speeds over 100 mph while his homies stuck their heads out the window taunting police, the rush of air filling their lungs like a wind sock. Tupac Shakur's "All Eyez On Me" was thudding so loud in the car's stereo that the doors shook. Black, of course, lost the cops.
"I was like, damn! I gotta drive all the time now," he recalls.
He doesn't remember how much they got from that job. They split up the goods and each boy sold them on his own. He thinks the most he ever reaped from a night's haul was about $5000, after plundering a Radio Shack of computers, radios, and phones.
The others listen to Black's story and grin. They stare at the ground and scuff pebbles. They murmur encouragement: "That's right!" and "The police are nasty!" Across the street an older man in a T-shirt and green baseball cap eyes the boys wearily as he works on his front door.
The boys insist, however, that not everyone hanging out at 1024 is in the crew. Doo, for instance, says he doesn't steal cars or go on the smash and grabs. But he is down with his friends. "I watch their backs," he says. By their own description, crew members don't belong to an organized gang. There is no initiation or strict hierarchy. They don't even have a consistent tag for themselves. Sometimes its the 38th Street Crew, the 38th Street Boys, or the 38th Street Click, other times the Trey 8 Street Crew or the Trey 8 St. Souljahz.
According to Black and others, the crew formed about four years ago as a group of idle teens looking for money and action. They got their inspiration from movies like 1995's New Jersey Drive, about kids joy riding in stolen cars. But Black insists his buddies aren't the ones ripping off the gun stores now, and Doo seconds this. He says another crew is stealing cars and driving around their neighborhood to frame his friends.
"They assume we bust the gun stores because we bust the clothing stores," Black says. "They just assume that. We never bust no gun store."
But back in the day?
Black can't contain himself: "Yeah, we busted 'em. It was more like a pawn store. Y'know." They squirreled away Tec-9's, Colt .45 automatics, and Berettas. And they didn't sell them, either, Black says; they used them for protection and enforcement. "A lot of older people we be selling to were trying to rip us off," he notes. "They're kind of scared of us now. They think twice about coming up on us."
If the crew members are adamant about anything, it's that their street credibility keeps growing. "We got a lot of rank on the street," C-Lo says, adding that it makes them a target for police and street rivals. "A lot of people around here hate to see a nigga come up."
There's no doubt, the Mitsubishi Boys are frustrating the police. After all, it's not a crime to hang out on the street, or in a private home. Unless the boys are caught with guns or stolen property, there's not much police can do to alleviate neighbors' concerns.
Complicating matters are the county's rules regarding police chases. A few years ago the Dade County chiefs of police adopted a policy prohibiting high-speed chases for anything other than violent crimes. So far the boys are linked only to property crimes, such as car theft and smash and grabs. Which means, by and large, that the cops are not allowed to chase them.
Privately, many officers say the chase policy hinders their ability to nab the Mitsubishi Boys. "Something's got to get done," one shift supervisor says in exasperation. "My hands are tied."
But Chief Warshaw stands by the policy. "I have very strong feelings on the chase policy," he says. "I don't think it really hampers us in bringing this particular group to justice. There is always going to be another day and unless someone's life is in jeopardy, I'm not going to risk bystanders getting killed. Some cops have a problem with that."
In fact, one of the boys who ran with the 38th Street Crew, Andre Mims, died in 1995 when a stolen Honda he was driving crashed during a police chase. He was fifteen and was wanted for taking part in a purse snatching in which a group of boys knocked a woman down.
"We're aware of what's happening," Warshaw says. "We have field-carded a lot of these kids on numerous occasions. We're talking to the State Attorney's Office. I mean, there's some aggressive work going on. But these things take time."
The focus is not just on the boys who gather at Connie Anguiera's house, but on Connie Anguiera herself. "I'm not sure what her interest is in all of this," Warshaw says. "We're looking into that."
Assistant Chief John Brooks adds: "She has to be aware of the crimes committed by some of the people hanging around the location and their past criminal history. And we have to take steps to hold her accountable." These steps include contacting the state Department of Rehabilitative Services, which can launch its own investigation into who lives in Anguiera's home and can remove any minors residing there.
The mayor's visit, the talk of a police crackdown -- none of it seems to matter at 1024, where life continues as before.
Doo finishes up displaying the Argentine shotgun and giddily discusses the feud that necessitates its presence.
This is how it went down, according to Doo: Exactly a week ago a crew from 58th Street went looking for trouble with the 38th Street Crew. They rolled up to 1024 in a dark blue Ford Taurus with tinted windows. But word had come back to the boys to brace for an attack, and reinforcements quickly gathered. "You should have seen it," Doo says. "There was a mob."
Someone with the 38th Street Crew pulled a .22-caliber pistol and fired a shot at the car, prompting four or five other boys to pull their own guns and fire on the car. In all, Doo estimates, five to ten shots went off. The Taurus sped to the corner and only then returned fire with the ack ack of a Tec-9 machine pistol. Then it zoomed away. No one was injured, no windows shattered, no buildings or cars hit. One of the younger boys was sent out to pick up shells before the police arrived.
Police records indicate that officers did respond to a report of "shots fired" that night. But when they arrived, there were no witnesses and not much else to go on, according to Lt. Vila. Neighbors also recalled hearing shots but were too scared to get involved.
After the firefight, one of the crew brought over the shotgun in case the 58th Street crew came back.
As Doo is winding up his story, a troop of boys bursts into the house and one of them approaches Doo. The boy has a gray T-shirt wrapped around his face and wears a multicolor leather jacket. He's angry an outsider is here and demands to know who's asking all the questions. Just as suddenly as he appeared, he leaves.
Doo says not to mind him. He returns to his story about last Saturday. Apparently a neutral party talked to both sides and now the dispute, whatever it was, is over. "It's squashed, it's over," he says as he puts the shotgun back in its hiding place. "There's no hate here."
A little after 11:00 p.m. Connie Anguiera comes home. She pokes her head in the garage door and surveys the assembly of boys with a stern gaze, then turns to leave. Moments later, she drives off with a friend, leaving behind a house full of boys and at least one shotgun.
Epilogue: At 3:30 a.m. this past Friday, a dark green Dodge pulled up to 1024. According to police, someone in the car leaned out the window with a rifle and fired off several rounds. Bullets hit two teenage boys standing in the front yard. One, an eighteen-year-old, was hit in his left arm and thigh. The other, age nineteen, was hit in his left ankle.
As of press time police had made no arrests. Investigators were looking into whether the shooting was related to the feud with the crew from 58th Street.
A neighbor who heard the gunfire said, "I just pray every day that it ends.
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