This is not Columbia. This is not the battlefield of Mexico’s drug cartels. It’s not a backwards, third-world, over-there speck on the map.
This is Escambia County, Florida. This is where 18-year-old Sergio Moorer reportedly made an old man drink gasoline, then set him on fire.
“Lit him up!” shrieks a little girl in braids.
The kids at Eress Park off of Massachusetts Avenue know all about it. The Aug. 21 homicide happened a block away. It’s unsettling to hear children casually describe a fruit vendor being burned alive.
“He killed that watermelon man,” says another girl, as a group of kids gathered around the picnic table. “He sat him on fire.”
They can’t say why this happened, can’t explain why Deiante Elijah Graham, 17, got blown away earlier this month as he sat in a car, or why a baby got shot and killed in July.
“Teenagers around here don’t have nothing better to do,” a slightly older boy searches for a possible reason for the increasingly grim landscape.
The little girl’s aunt, a 27-year-old who prefers not to give her name, says it hasn’t always been like this. She blames teenagers quick to resort to violence.
“They’re outrageous,” the woman says.
She talks about dark streets ruled by armed youth. She talks about her niece’s father getting murdered.
“This neighborhood is not safe,” she says. “I do not even like coming outside at night.”
Like the children, this woman doesn’t know why things seem to be getting so scary. She laughs nervously in lieu of an answer.
“They fight to fight. Drugs. Money.” She throws out possibilities. “Everybody is broke, so they’re killing.”
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan thinks he knows why. He attributes the uptick in youth violence to a “societal breakdown”.
“I’ve taken to apologizing to young people when I talk to them,” Morgan says. “Kids deserve an apology.”
THE MAN FROM UTOPIA
He barely looks old enough to drive. There’s a hint of innocence behind his heavy-lidded eyes. It’s easy enough to imagine Dwayne Cordell Pinestraw, 19, enjoying some ice cream.
In the photo released by police, Pinestraw—also known as ‘Money’—is flashing a sheepish grin.
Gleaming from his mouth is a gold-plated grill, shining like a pair of knock-off Rolexes with two different readings.
Authorities have identified Pinestraw as the main suspect in a July 15 shooting at the Pensacola Village Apartments. In the middle of the afternoon, gunmen apparently fired into the window of apartment O-2 following a drug deal gone awry. Bullets wounded Vincent Dennis, 23, and killed Ty’Quarius Moultrie, 19 months old.
Within days of the incident, Shaquill J. Besst, 18, also wanted in connection to the shooting, was taken into custody in Hammond, La. His mother turned him in. Pinestraw has yet to be found; he’s thought to be in Louisiana, as well.
When the police fingered him as the triggerman in the shooting, Internet message boards lit up.
Someone suggested melting down the gold to pay for the baby’s funeral.
“I say it’s time to string people up again in the middle of town and make an example out of all these pieces of crap and quit with all the poor baby didn’t have a good childhood,” reads one post. “Who cares about your childhood you just took one from an innocent kid.”
Sheriff Morgan said he wasn’t too concerned with the upbringing of teens-turned-thugs, either.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” the Sheriff said. “From a strict law enforcement perspective, I don’t care.”
Morgan can effortlessly shed his emotions. Morgan can effortlessly shed his emotions. Like a stone in winter, or John Wayne and Clint Eastwood sipping sarsaparilla in silence.
But just minutes earlier, the Sheriff had theorized at length—approaching the warmness of a guidance counselor—about why some youth stray so far from humanity’s norms. He had referenced child-rearing guru Dr. Benjamin Spock; albeit, Morgan was suggesting the doctor’s landmark book itself be used as a disciplinary tool.
“There is just this myriad of factors that interplay with this one issue,” the Sheriff had begun. “Everybody wants a sound bite answer.”
Morgan’s office is spacious and tidy. The decor suggests a man with a stern, perhaps harsh, sense of humor. Settling into his chair, the Sheriff explained how he believed a general breakdown in society was playing out into the streets in the form of senseless violence.
Morgan painted a picture of his youth that made Norman Rockwell look like Salvador Dali. He recalled family, faith and national sacrifice. He talked about “decent society”.
Like most stories that cast post-war America as a Golden Age, Morgan’s version places utopia’s unraveling squarely at the feet of the 1960s.
“We have defined deviance down,” Morgan said.
The Sheriff described how sex education in the school system was a big step over the edge. He said the cohabitation of unmarried people was a further sign of an erosion of values.
Over the course of a couple of generations, humanity has slipped a long way from Ozzie and Harriet’s black-and-white paradise. Commercial acceptance of a song like “Cop Killer” is tough for a man like Morgan to stomach—and that 20-year-old tune now seems innocently antiquated.
“Today, we glamorize the thug culture,” the Sheriff said. “So children think that’s normal.”
And while he feels the world today fosters immoral and indecent behavior, Morgan said the ultimate responsibility of raising children lies with parents. After all, there are plenty of parents out there overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter to raise perfectly peachy kids.
Without proper guidance, though, children are left to their own devices. They are raised by Hollywood or rappers or video games.
Maybe they start to think girls really are bitches and hoes. Or pretend their joystick is a Glock as they shoot up a virtual world from the comfort of their couch. Or have “Scarface” playing on a constant wallpaper loop.
“Kids grow up with this,” Morgan said. “The killing is normal.”
The Sheriff argued that years of desensitization causes kids to make brutal decisions while wearing blinders to the consequences.
“The Army uses these techniques, they desensitize,” he said, explaining that extreme violence requires some mental conditioning. “Taking someone’s life is an unnatural act.”
It doesn’t take long for the Sheriff to tire of theorizing. It’s not the line of work he’s in.
“The thrust of this whole sociological treatise, I guess, is that children are raising themselves with popular culture,” the Sheriff said, wrapping up his synopsis. “And popular culture is in the toilet.”
It’s a catchy little ditty. A little monotonous, but you can dance to it.
Singing a sort of ode to the Pensacola area, a young man peers out into the world of YouTube. A message tattooed across his throat sets the mood: “Fuck’em All.”
With the recurring, rhythmic chant of “Trez Up! Hoes down!”, it’s doubtful the Chamber of Commerce is going to be using the tune in one of its tourism ads. Perhaps they could choose another selection from the local artist—maybe “Thug For Life” or “I Forgive U Momma”.
This is the kind of music the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office’s Gang Unit likes to listen to. They don’t dance. They don’t sing along.
“This is my Trez Up folder,” said Deputy David Brown, digging a thick binder out from behind his desk and mentioning that the unit attributes eight homicides in the past year—be it the killed or the killer—to Trez Up.
The county’s gang unit is tucked away within a pale maze of governmental offices. It’s large and open and decorated with the mug shots of alleged gang members. There’s the Trez Up wall, the Shanty Town Posse wall, the Garnet Circle Boys wall and so on.
“Every year it’s worse,” Brown said. “It’s never been like this before.”
On a formulaic television cop drama, Brown would play the tough, ex-Navy diver that would reluctantly crack a joke at the end of each episode to make sure viewers knew he had a soft spot under the gristle. Riding his desk chair in a pair of faded jeans and cowboy boots, he motioned up to the collage of mugs on the wall. Noting that he used to run with some rough crowds, he explained that he knew some of these guys’ older brothers.
“There was a street crime unit back in the day,” Brown said. “They targeted a group of Latin Kings back in the 90s, but it really wasn’t a problem.”
In recent years, however, he pointed to a rise in youth crime and specifically gang activity. For legal purposes, a gang is defined as three or more people associating and regularly engaging in criminal activity.
“When Sheriff Morgan came in, he recognized there was a serious problem, whereas others would not,” Brown said.
The deputy swivels his chair around and dives into a computer. Flipping through a series of social media sites purportedly espousing local gang culture, he pulls up photos of kids flashing cash and guns and bragging about incomes in excess of $250,000. The people Brown deals with are usually somewhere between high-school age and their early 20s. But he says they’re constantly getting younger.
“Juvenile crime is most definitely on the rise,” he said. “Nowadays to catch a 16-year-old kid with a pocket full of crack or coke, that’s not uncommon.”
Brown also contends that younger kids are getting more violent. In addition to actual arrests, the sheriff’s office assumes many of their unresolved reports of gunfire are stemming from this youth community.
“A lot of these shootings go unsolved,” Brown said. “But the word on the street is that ‘Lil’ so-and-so did this one, Lil’ so-and-so did that one.’”
Out on the street, the deputy said he encounters older criminals who want nothing to do with the younger generation. They don’t play by the rules, even street rules.
“They tell us, ‘these young JITS, they have no control, they’ll shoot anything,’” Brown said, explaining the acronym as juveniles-in-trouble. “At the end of the day they don’t care about anybody but themselves. They’ll shoot randomly.”
Brown attributes this to a lack of guidance.
“They’re either not being taught the right way, or they’re being taught the wrong way,” the deputy said, going on to describe an online video in which a young local mother teaches her toddler to throw signs while saying “Trez Up, hoes down”.
Brown said he also sees a whole new generation coming up that views the gangster culture—or, more accurately, “gangsta”—as normal.
“They think it’s cool, they’re mimicking it,” he said. “But they don’t get that they could get shot because they’re wearing a shirt or a hat.”
On Sept. 9, Deiante Graham was riding in a car with two others. He never made it to his destination. A gunman fired shots into the vehicle at Royal Crest Apartments, wounding a female passenger and killing 17-year-old Graham.
The outpouring of emotion from the community was intense. Memorial Facebook pages logged the grief. Graham’s old teammates on the Escambia High School football team held a carwash in an effort to defray his funeral costs.
The sorrow will last much longer than the shots that split those early Sunday morning hours wide open.
“When someone pulls a trigger on a gun it’s over pretty quick,” said Sgt. Chris Huffman, of the Pensacola Police Department.
As head of the department’s school resource officer program, Huffman deals with kids every day. He’s about to begin traversing the road toward retirement, but his post seems to be keeping him young.
“We’re always gonna have our youth,” Huffman said, paraphrasing a woeful tirade about the younger generation. “—it went on about the youth being unruly. It was Aristotle!”
The officer shied away from terms like “epidemic” or notions of a lost generation. But even in his glass-half-full view, Huffman said there were issues.
“We don’t see an epidemic,” he said. “But what we do see is there’s more violence.”
Huffman has been on the force for quite some time, and a bulk of his career has been spent in the schools. He said that while there has always been youth-related violence—he recalls a girl getting stabbed on the school bus, a kid beating a homeless man with a skateboard and the spree of cat mutilations in the late 1980s—today’s youth crime is considerably louder and tends to carry deathly consequences.
“We did not have the shooting, the gun-related violence that we’re experiencing right now,” he said.
And while the street may at times light up with the spark of gunfire, the schools so far have remained a relatively safe haven.
“The biggest fear we all have is having a school shooting,” said Lt. Robby Martin, who works in the sheriff’s resource officer program.
Martin said that while schools have remained relatively safe, he worries that street violence could seep into the halls of academia. After all, it’s the same kids, just different hours of the day.
“You have to think about where these kids are—or where are they supposed to be—five days a week,” Martin said. “Could that leak over to school stuff? Yeah, it can.”
Escambia County School District Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross said there’s a reason the schools are safe. The kids know better.
“Kids know if you act up on campus you’re going to be dealt with. Swiftly,” Ross said, adding that the District also seeks to squash anything interpreted as gang-related.
“We’ve taken a harsh stance against that as well. Gangs are not tolerated. Any hint of gangs—we deal with that pronto.”
Once students leave campus—or school-related events, such as a ballgame—Ross admits the District has little control to curb delinquent behavior. Additional homework assignments probably won’t do much to curtail drive-bys.
“There’s not very many things that are gonna start at that ballgame,” he said. “Now, a couple of blocks away, a mile away?”
THE NASCAR GANG
Cruising slowly through the neighborhood streets, Lt. Martin spies a pair of cats wrestling in Saturday’s sun.
“Cat fight,” he says casually, firing a quick blast from his siren to scare them off the street. “See you later.”
Martin’s participating in one of the department’s Operation Clean Sweeps. Before he started working with schools, the officer worked the street. He’s given considerable thought to why today’s kids seem to lack the inner steering mechanism that guides most people, criminal or otherwise.
“It comes from the kids being desensitized,” Martin says. “These kids, they don’t see the bad anymore. They’re so used to violence, they’re so quick to amp things up.”
For years, the officer worked to curb the activities of the Garnett Circle Boys gang. He decides to take a drive through their old neighborhood. En route, he discusses how most of the community remains oblivious to the gang culture.
“I don’t know if you know anything about racing,” Martin says, explaining a Shanty Town Posse fashion trend, “but we got all these kids walking around here wearing these STP jackets—they don’t know anything about Richard Petty.”
With an AR-15 assault rifle resting securely beside him, he describes the stereotypical gang member as a teen “with just no aim in life”.
“They’re going to sleep all day and stay up all night and play ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or whatever they do,” Martin says.
Swinging the car onto a side street, Martin weaves through a collection of boarded up town homes. This is where he worked the streets, where he “lived and breathed”.
“I knew everybody,” he says. “I knew their mamas.”
Cold, suspicious stares are cast from front porches. The officer says there is a culture of opposition to authority, particularly law enforcement. He doesn’t know why.
“It’s society,” Martin concludes. “There’s a deep-seeded hatred for us. We could go on and on about this. It’s society.”
LET GO MY EGO
Back in the Gang Unit office, Brown described local groups of neighborhood kids as “hybrid gangs”. It’s not the Bloods or the Crips or the Hells Angels. There is no multi-million dollar illegal trade to protect.
These gangs are based primarily on geography, with a neighborhood locality being the unifying factor. Brown pointed to FBI statistics, which attribute 80 percent of overall crime to such hybrid gangs.
There’s an argument that connects this demographic’s increased violence with the greater availability of guns. Sheriff Morgan doesn’t buy into that argument. There have always been guns, but drive-bys are a more recent phenomenon.
“We knew the value of life and we knew the value of death,” Morgan said, recalling how all his classmates would bring their firearms to school to hunt during recess. “You’d give your gun and ammunition to Mr. Reynolds. You’d see a 410 and a couple of 22s…there was never a thought of shooting a teacher or shooting another student.”
Sgt. Huffman has another theory.
“It seems more and more that it’s based on personalities,” said Sgt. Huffman.
Brown agrees. He described a community of thugs consumed with ego for ego’s sake. He recalled a conversation with an older inmate who told him this generation was lost, told him to start working on the 5-year-olds.
“I think, sadly, that’s probably true,” conceded Sheriff Morgan. “We’ll save some. There’ll be small glimmers of hope, but very few. And I find that very sad.”
The Sheriff said that despite the at-times disheartening landscape, he remains guardedly optimistic.
“I’m not a fatalist in that I think all is lost,” he said. “That’s why I do what I do. If I thought the fight was lost, why would I care?”
Back at the park, the kids just hope somebody cares. One of them points to an older uncle, says he’s there because of there have been reports of a “kid raper”.
A guy walking past the park finishes up his cell phone conversation. He’s 23 years old and prefers to remain anonymous. He says it’s getting worse and doesn’t know why.
“A lot of crazy shit happens, man,” he says. “I dunno.”