Rural counties fight increased gang problem, with federal help

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HAMILTON CITY, Calif. (AP) - Sgt. Phil Revolinsky eases his patrol car into an abandoned lot and swings its spotlight toward a dilapidated shed.

A scrawl of spray-painted graffiti - ''Cops Must Die'' - jumps out of the darkness.

''What that's telling me,'' says Revolinsky, ''is we're starting to make an impact on them.''

He's referring to the Norteno gang that has become Public Enemy No. 1 in Hamilton City. Ten miles down a straight two-lane road in the town of Orland, it's the rival Sureno gang. Elsewhere in rambling, rural Glenn County, other gangs are attracting Latino, white, Asian and black teens.

Revolinsky and other county law enforcement officials hope an infusion of federal cash will make even more of an impact, and stem recent increases in gang membership.

And the Justice Department hopes its $400,000 grant for an experimental anti-gang program will make this bucolic county a showcase for other rural areas that increasingly must cope with what was once only an urban problem.

In Glenn County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, the numbers are startling. Gang-related violence has doubled since 1997 - including a fatal October 1999 drive-by shooting and a fatal stabbing last summer.

By big-city standards, the problem seems manageable - an estimated 300 gang members committed a reported 298 gang-related crimes in 1999. But the impact is sufficient to pry the innocence from a community accustomed to a trust-thy-neighbor comfort.

''Since we've had the gangs, people here started to lock their doors and put their fences up,'' says Revolinsky of the county sheriff's department. ''It's really sad.''

On the map, Glenn County is part of the void between here and there. Cars and trucks zooming along Interstate 5 seldom stop, save for fast food or a roadside motel room. In an area larger than Rhode Island, the county has but 26,000 residents. Orchards of fruit and almond trees, rice paddies and not much else lend a rustic charm.

It's hardly the place you'd expect to find gangs like the Nortenos and Surenos, who have well-established networks in California prisons. Local authorities believe the slow pace in Glenn County drives thrill-hungry kids into gangs. Poverty and broken homes also play a role - gangs often become a surrogate family to members.

Whatever the attraction, gangs arrived in Glenn County about a decade ago, and by 1998 were making an impact with a string of arsons.

Sheriffs blame the likes of Juan Carlos - ''Spooky'' to his associates - who fought and stole his way through adolescence wearing the red colors of the Norteno gang.

Now 19, he's still gangly, his smile almost boyish. But his rap sheet reflects a gift for mayhem: a felony for selling crack cocaine, and recent charges he stockpiled a small arsenal of shotguns at his mother's farmhouse.

Juan Carlos has traded his Norteno red for the orange pants of an inmate. His head is shaved and he has traces of acne that reveal his age.

''The youth here are capable of doing anything,'' Juan Carlos says in a jailhouse interview on condition his last name not be used. ''I'm sure the police know that. That's why they're applying for this grant.''

In September, the Justice Department chose two finalists for the Rural Gang Initiative grant. Along with Mt. Vernon, Ill., Glenn County will test whether a successful urban gang suppression model can fit the countryside.

The grant uses a classic carrot and stick approach.

Its long-term goal is to lure teens with decent jobs, and gang members seem receptive.

''Their dreams are to own their own home, have a family and drive a car,'' says Linda Shelton, the Glenn County chief probation officer who spearheaded the grant. ''It's the all-American dream.''

The challenge is finding work in a county where at 14 percent, unemployment more than doubles the state rate, and where one in six people lives in poverty. Part of the federal money will pay cooperative gang members to train as counter workers and clerical help.

''To some kids it's a fad. But if they get into it too much, they could get hooked,'' says Luis Moreno, who is starting a state-funded job program in Glenn County schools. ''If they get some work experience, get responsibilities, I think they can get out.''

But the top priority is reducing street crime by 10 percent. Gang members say they already feel the crackdown, mostly from sweeps of gang members on probation.

''We have to walk a fine line between being tough and being mean. We're trying to walk that line without stepping over it,'' says Revolinsky.

The drive to clear the streets has its critics.

''I know the police don't like to be called a gang, but I know the way it appears to these kids,'' says Richard Judkins, a pastoral assistant at St. Dominic Catholic church in Orland and member of the grant's oversight committee. ''What you're doing is taking these clients and isolating them out of the mainstream, and what you want to do is bring them back into the mainstream.''


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