The Newnan Times-Herald


​Inside Coweta’s gang challenge

  • By Clay Neely
  • |
  • Jan. 12, 2016 - 3:24 PM

​Inside Coweta’s gang challenge

Clay Neely / The Newnan Times-Herald

A guardrail on Calhoun Street pays tribute to the memory of Alzuavion "Squirrel” Martin, whose body was found in the creek last December.

On Dec. 10, investigators from the Newnan Police Department pulled the body of Alzuavion "Squirrel” Martin out of a creek bed on Calhoun Street.

Martin appeared to have been in the creek for several days and his body showed signs of trauma, according to police.

His death marked the fourth, and final homicide in Newnan for 2015 – ending a year of violence that seemed to have been quelled, if only for a short while.

Investigator Ryan Foles with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Martin was in fact, a documented gang member of the Crips.

Last year, Coweta County saw approximately 29 gang-related shootings, and three out of the four homicides were considered gang-related.

In March of 2014, the rise of violence in Coweta County screamed into the public eye when, in the span of one week, three people were killed and three more were injured in gang related shootings.

And while 2014 was considered to be Coweta's most violent year on record, it also showcased the severity of the gang crisis and the need for new strategies to quell the problem.

In 2015, local law enforcement and the Coweta County District Attorney's office began reaping the benefits using the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.

Prosecutors can increase a sentence if a crime is determined to have been gang-related. According to Assistant District Attorney Herb Cranford Jr., the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s a punishment enhancer,” said Cranford. “You have the normal punishment for a charge, but if it was done to benefit a large criminal enterprise, it allows us to punish them even worse."

In April, Coweta hosted its first gang trial in Superior Court. While suspects had been charged with the gang act in the past, this marked the first jury trial with the gang act in play.

As a result, several defense attorneys – with no connection to the case – came from around the state to witness the trial.

“They wanted to see the ability of the DA’s office to use the gang act effectively and how the judge would deal with the evidence,” Cranford said. “It came down to witnessing the jury’s ability to understand the gang element and bring in a guilty verdict."

In the end, Judge Emory Palmer sentenced Taurean Ka’von Morris and Dekarri Marveno Ruffin to 70 years with 55 to serve in prison for their attempt to rob a convicted marijuana dealer.

While Morris and Ruffin were sentenced to 30 years in prison for the attempted robbery and 20 years for the aggravated battery, the violation of the gang act added an additional 15 years with five to serve.

The result of the 55-year sentence handed down by Palmer saw an immediate cooling effect on the streets. With the exception of one more shooting in April, the next four months remained unusually calm, according to Cranford.

In August, the mysterious shooting death of Emilio Sanchez-Martinez would end the lull, and before 2015 came to a close, two more would die in gang-related activity.

Officers from the Newnan Police Department are among the first responders who see the impact of gang violence.

For Deputy Chief Rodney Riggs, the four homicides in Newnan are of grave concern, but he feels the extra weight of the gang act is giving citizens hope, and criminals something to ponder.

“In the past, it was hard for people to watch as these kind of criminals seemed to get out of prison so quickly,” Riggs said. “With the gang act, you can see real time added to these cases, which sends a message.”

For Riggs, one of their best tools in the eradication of gang activity is the ongoing communication with the public.

“We have to rely on our citizens and their input in order to do any kind of successful investigation, especially involving gangs,” Riggs said. “However, citizens can be reluctant to provide us with information out of fear of retaliation, which is a very real danger."

Members from the sheriff’s office and police department are involved with various efforts of community outreach – attempting to get the pulse of the communities most affected by gang violence.

“It invariably comes up,” Riggs said, citing the example of the relationship the department shared with the Chalk Level community organization.

With the amount of activity the neighborhood has witnessed, citizens have been instrumental in helping police eradicate ongoing gang activity, according to Riggs.

Foles also echoed Riggs’ emphasis for outreach among leaders and keeping ongoing communication a priority.

“Our biggest key is intelligence,” Foles said. “If we know there is a large gathering happening at a house party or a bar, we let them know we’ll be watching them. They don’t like that."

And while Coweta doesn’t necessarily have the same resources that a city like Atlanta may have, Foles believes the county is continuing to make incredible strides, regardless.

“I’d say we get more bang for our buck down here than anywhere else in the state."