Archive for Friday, August 2, 1996

GANG-RELATED CRIMES HAVE LONGER HISTORY IN OTHER KANSAS CITIES

August 2, 1996

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Prosecutors in Wichita and Topeka, who began dealing with gang violence in the last decade, say they are empathetic to Lawrence's recent gang-related crime.

On Easter Sunday, 1989, shots rang out at Joyland Amusement Park in Wichita. One youth lay dead.

While not the first evidence of gang presence in Sedgwick County, it was the first murder involving members of local gangs.

And sorting out the facts was close to impossible.

"We had terrible difficulty with witnesses," said Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston. "They were all calling themselves names like 'Double Black' and 'Cadillac.'"

Groups of youths that were once thought to be simply hanging out in Wichita were arming themselves and engaging in violent criminal acts. After taking a look at the signs, Foulston said she began lobbying for anti-gang legislation in Topeka.

She started asking questions.

Should it be a crime for people to be involved in a gang? Should Kansas establish its own witness/victim protection program?

"The response I got was, `It's a Wichita problem,'" Foulston said. "People thought we were alarmists."

Today, Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City have separate police divisions for gang investigations.

Smaller urban areas such as Lawrence and Ottawa, once thought to be immune from gang violence, are now experiencing the big-city crime.

This year in Douglas County, four gang-related shootings have been reported to police. One injury has resulted.

A Jamestown man, believed by authorities to be involved with a Topeka gang, was found guilty this week of shooting at an unoccupied residence in connection with two recent incidents.

Last week, a Lawrence man was found guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter for an apparently gang-related shooting in March.

In both cases, attorneys cited difficulty in finding reliable witnesses as a detriment to sorting out the facts.

Michelle Hostetler, a Shawnee County juvenile prosecutor and a former prosecutor in Sedgwick County, said prosecutors dealing with gang-crime victims, or any victims, face problems with testimony.

"It's really hard for a prosecuting attorney to ensure anyone's safety," Hostetler said. "You ask people to put their lives on the line."

However, one of the keys to handling gang-related cases is expedience, she said.

"We just make sure we get them in really quickly -- two or three weeks," Hostetler said.

Foulston said the tendency is for witnesses to not want involvement, or to disappear.

"In all criminal cases, you have a modicum of problems," Foulston said. "When you're dealing with gangs, that's multiplied."

Granting immunity is an option, she said, as is jailing material witnesses who may flee. Even then, stories often change and mouths close.

"It's kind of like `I don't know nothin' about nothin' -- that's the byline," Foulston said.

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