INITIATION RITES MY FIRST WEEK ON THE
Gang Task Force, I was attending a Gang
Seminar in Dallas. I was pretty excited to attend; I thought that we were going to meet a lot of experts from across the nation and hopefully get some new insight into how to make an impact on the gang problem. But the reality was quite different; instead, we were surrounded by academics who were only concerned with studying philosophical, obscure theories about gang behavior. There was no representation from anyone with actual practical expertise. For example, one presenter felt that gang members joined the gang due to a lack of being able to play when they were younger. She felt that if gang members were allowed to “re-experience” childhood (playing on swings, merry-go-rounds, and teeter-totters), they’d properly develop psychologically and no longer be interested the gang life. This was typical of the bullshit that various researchers presented in an effort to validate their work. I went from seminar to seminar, looking for anyone who had something valid and useful to teach me; I found very little. Meanwhile, the crew that I went to the seminar with was only interested in playing hooky in the hotel rooms, sleeping and hitting the strip clubs at night; they could’ve cared less about trying to learn anything— but of course, they’d report back to the department that the
seminar was well worth the expense and that they’d returned with valuable tools and insight. I was transferred to the Gang Task Force to replace Detective Jim Smally, who had joined the task force about a year-and-a-half prior with some knowledge about gangs. He knew a few gang members and was really excited that he might be able to make a difference. One night after I was selected for the task force, Smally asked me, “Where do you think that the Gang Task Force needs to concentrate the majority of its efforts?” He was eager to make an impact in an area that no one had addressed before, make his mark and carve out a new trail, so to speak. I think he wanted to change the way the task force was perceived and have people in the department take it seriously. I told him that I thought the previous group on the Gang Task Force had neglected the 18th Street gang and that they were a big problem that really needed to be addressed. The previous guys working gangs had dismissed the 18th Street members as wannabes and saw them as no real threat. What we were dealing with on the streets of St. Pauls was an offshoot of the original gang in L.A., where they are considered to be the largest and most active of transnational criminal gangs. When I had expressed my disagreement with them regarding their position, I was ridiculed for it. I told Smally about how I’d noticed that gang members were especially susceptible to praise and kindness, tempered with a hard edge. I told him that this was the technique that I used to earn their trust, and I suggested he try it. Jim took that suggestion and ran with it, and for the first year in gangs he did exceptionally well in the intelligence-gathering portion of the job. He collected an amazing amount of information on 18th Street: who the members were, how the internal structure worked, and who the leaders were, and he even learned that there was more than one subset of 18th Street; he found out that there were at least two subsets represented in St. Pauls: West Side 18th Street and South Side 18th Street.
He also found out that they weren’t always on friendly terms with each other, having different leadership and different goals. He accomplished all of this in a really short period of time. Surprisingly, though, his weakness was the same as the gang members—and they exploited it. He was considered an outcast in the police department. He and I had been on SWAT together, and he’d been forced to resign because he didn’t fit in with the “in crowd” (the Leeds, Divot, and Peabody crowd). He was a former Marine, and they liked the bragging rights that gave the team, but they didn’t like that he was an independent thinker who wouldn’t blindly follow orders that didn’t make sense. When he went to gangs and started to befriend the gang members, they accepted him and actually liked him; as a result, he started to lose perspective and started hanging out with them off duty—even going to an 18th Street gang member’s wedding. He had his picture taken at the wedding and made the mistake of showing it to Mike Vetere, his partner in gangs. Vetere had made a career out of making himself look good to the brass by being their snitch; he’d back channel information to them on what was going on in whatever unit he was associated with at the time. He was instrumental in getting Dave Session and Rob Rinker removed from the task force, which he accomplished either by exaggerating things that they did with gang members or describing their activities to the brass in a way that was less than complimentary. Meanwhile, he made himself out to be the sole person on the Gang Task Force that had a handle on the street and what was going on in the gangs. He also frequently made things up and claimed to have information on cases that he never closed or made arrests on. Whenever he was questioned about this, he’d claim that the other detectives had ruined his credibility on the street or had warned a witness that he was coming. He played Jim Smally hard and had him believing that he could trust him and that they could work together, even stating to Jim that he finally had a partner in gangs who understood what needed to be done.
I warned Smally about Vetere, but he didn’t listen. He told me that he and Vetere had an understanding, a partnership, and that they were “in the fight together.” I wouldn’t associate with Vetere, and I told Jim that, making it really clear that I wouldn’t help him with Vetere in the conversation. If he wanted my help, he’d have to come to me alone—or not at all. He thought I was being paranoid (I heard that a lot), and he told me that he and Vetere had hung out together off duty, had parties with each other’s families and children, and that he trusted Vetere above anyone else in the department. When Vetere saw the picture of Smally at the 18th Street wedding, he finally had the hard evidence he needed to take Smally off the task force—once again making himself look like the only one that the brass could trust to get things done. He went straight to the brass and told them that “Smally had been compromised by the 18th Street gang” and that he needed to be removed from the task force. He then showed them the picture of Smally at the wedding—and it took about three seconds for the brass to decide to remove him. Smally finally came to me one night and told me, “You were right; Vetere has screwed me.” This was partially true; Smally had lost perspective as well. He started out on the task force convicting gang members of the crimes that they were committing, but toward the end he was letting them slide, making cases drag on and on until the victims lost interest and covering for the gang members with whom he’d formed friendships. It became so blatant that a deputy county attorney contacted the police department and complained that none of the cases being filed by the Gang Task Force were being won in court—and it wasn’t because they weren’t winnable; it was because the task force was incapable of turning in cases of conviction quality. Vetere sidestepped this accusation by claiming that he’d done everything he could to make the cases conviction quality, but that Smally had been running interference and sabotaging his cases. This did happen in detectives a lot.
Your fellow detective can be your worst enemy; it was a very competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, so it wasn’t an outrageous claim. Feeling betrayed again by the department, when he was told that he was being removed from gangs, Smally sabotaged the gang files. He removed the pictures of gang members that he wanted protected, and he purged the gang lists as well; so, when I went in as his replacement, the gang lists were incomplete, the files were in shambles, and several hundred pictures of gang members were missing. When I was selected for the task force, Vetere came to me and did the same thing that he’d done to everyone else in the unit: he claimed that he wanted to work together and collaborate on cases. He praised me for my knowledge of gangs and the street and asked that I show him what I’d learned. I made it very clear to him, though, that I worked alone. I’d witnessed how he’d fucked over his partners—and I would not be his next victim. I told him exactly that, using those exact words and letting him know that from that point on he’d be on his own. I’d help him on other cases that he’d been given if he asked me to, but I wouldn’t work with him in any other fashion—period. This really pissed him off, but he ended up leaving the unit about three months later, along with his record of zero cases closed with an arrest and conviction of a gang member. During my first week, while I was at the seminar in Dallas, the Sergeant came to me and said, “Zach! I have your first case. Councilman Young’s house was shot at in a drive by, and it’s all yours.” I didn’t mind getting the case, but I thought that this was stupid. I was in another state, at least a week away from being able to do anything meaningful on the case; meanwhile, there were other detectives on the task force who had stayed behind and hadn’t attended the seminar. They had the background experience and could’ve begun working on the case immediately. It just didn’t make any sense. Later, I found out that there had been a big battle over the case and no one wanted it, and if it wasn’t solved there would be political fallout between the city council and the police department.
Councilman Young had never been a friend of the police department, and he’d complain nonstop until an arrest was made. Giving me the case would make the task force look like it had done nothing to solve it for some time. This was how it was managed: it was a group of people who didn’t like working gang cases and didn’t understand gang members—but all wanted the title of “Detective”, the schedule, and the perks that came with the job. So, I was stuck with a case of “give this one to the new guy.”; no one else wanted it, and several flat out refused to work it.
Published on Jul 12, 2013
We had the pleasure to design a new edition of author Zach Fortier's true crime classic Street Creds. A great read about the true stories of...