DANVILLE — In his 31 years in ministry, the Rev. Frank McCullough has officiated hundreds of funerals. While no loss is easy, those that weigh heavily on him are the young people — usually in their 20s, even teens — whose lives were taken by violence.
Whether long or short, "you can celebrate a life well-lived," said the pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Danville. "But these kids are dying on the street from guns. It's senseless.
"I see the pain it causes the families. It's crushing," continued McCullough, who knows that if the perpetrator is caught and goes to prison, another family will suffer, too.
"Still, when some people leave the funeral home, all they're thinking about is retaliation," he said, incredulously. "They hurt us. Now we got to hurt them."
In Danville, homicides and other violent crime have been on the rise the last few years. And, police say more are being committed by so-called gangs.
"Unlike traditional gangs, these hybrid gangs ... have no hierarchical structure," said Danville police Detective Patrick Carley, a 12-year veteran and gang expert. "They have no code of conduct or discipline."
Therefore, he said they can be more unpredictable and reckless.
"Many members have a disregard for the rules and take matters into their own hands," Carley said. "They don't worry about consequences from police or society, and now they don't worry about consequences from fellow members of their own gang."
According to police, there were four homicides in the city in 2014. One — which occurred when someone opened fire on a porch full of people at a house on Kentucky Street one hot night in June, injuring a 46-year-old woman and her 16-year-old son and killing their 44-year-old cousin, Cecil Mullins — was gang-related.
In 2015, none of the three killings, stemming from two incidents, were.
However in 2016, three of the six murders — Devon McClyde, 16, of Danville; Mary Thompson, 30, of Terre Haute, Ind.; and one that remains unsolved — resulted from gang violence.
In 2017, four of the 10 homicides — including Ollie Williams, 27, of Danville; and two unsolved shootings — were gang-related. And in 2018, five of the 12 — a double murder outside of the Untouchables Motorcycle Club, which is still under investigation, and three unsolved murders — were.
Police say the first two homicides committed this year aren't gang-related. They're still investigating a third, which happened Saturday morning in the Fair Oaks public housing complex.
Those are the more high-profile incidents.
But "in the last five years," Carley said, "there have been roughly 80 people who've been shot that we link to gang violence. Last year, we had around 40 people shot, and at least 20 can be linked to gang violence."
In addition, he said, police believe gangs have been responsible for many of the robberies at gas stations/convenience stores and of food delivery drivers, as well as vehicular hijackings.
Known by many names
Over the years, police encountered people who identified themselves as Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, Black P. Stones or other traditional gangs, said Public Safety Director Larry Thomason, who's served on the department for 49 years, almost 12 years as its top administrator. But, he said, gang activity wasn't to blame for a lot of the violence.
That started to change six or seven years ago.
"Around 2012 to 2013 is when we started seeing this rash of violent shootings and robberies that we could connect to certain groups of people," Carley said, adding many stemmed from an ongoing feud between two main rival gangs and their offshoots.
McCullough and his brother, Ed Butler, both longtime community leaders, said these gangs popped up on their radar about 10 or 15 years ago, when more people began moving to Danville from Chicago.
"Groups from Chicago came down and started claiming their territory," said Butler, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. He said they called themselves So Icy, Rude Boys and other names.
"The Danville gangs said they started because of them," Butler continued, adding they went by the 450 gang, Honcho and other names. "They said, 'We have to get these guns to protect ourselves and our families.'"
On Jan. 31, Carley shed some light on violence that's erupted from their feud when he testified at the sentencing hearing of Latron Cross. In November, the 25-year-old Danville man was convicted of gunning down on July 7, 2017, one of the rival gang members who was responsible for his sister's death five years earlier.
Carley said a lot of the violence dates back to two murders in 2013. On Feb. 5, Deandre Dunbar of Chicago was shot to death in the 900 block of Lewis Lane, at Fair Oaks, a week before his 24th birthday.
And on May 21, Latifah Cross, 21, of Chicago, was killed when a house at 912 Moore St. east of Fair Oaks was sprayed with bullets. Two other men who were inside the house, then 18 and 24, received non-life-threatening injuries.
In October 2016, Ollie Williams, 27, and Kevin Marshall, now 28, both of Danville, each pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the young woman's death in exchange for a six-year prison term. Three weeks after Mr. Williams was released on parole, he was shot as he rode his bike in the 1400 block of Eastview Avenue, near the Holiday Hills subdivision, by someone in a passing car.
During Latron Cross' trial, Vermilion County State's Attorney Jacqueline Lacy said he killed Mr. Williams to avenge his sister's murder and tried to pin it on his cousin, Alfred Gardner.
Mr. Gardner, 23, and Tahji S. McGill, 17, both of Danville, were the two men who were killed outside of the motorcycle club.
"A lot of these members that are doing these shootings don't even know what these two gangs were fighting for originally," Carley told News-Gazette Media recently. "They're just retaliating for the last violent act."
In some cases, he said, people became casualties simply because they were relatives of a rival member. In others, it could be as senseless as "somebody wrote something bad about them on Facebook."
And at least one homicide victim — Mr. McClyde — was an innocent bystander. The Danville High School student had just finished playing a basketball game at Garfield Park when he got caught in the crossfire of two gangs who were shooting at each other and was struck in the head by a bullet.
Social media's role
Unlike traditional gangs, Carley said hybrid gangs don't necessarily wear certain colors or use certain symbols or other identifiers, making it harder for police to detect them. And they don't write or draw graffiti.
Like their peers, members — who typically are 13 to 25, but have been as young as 10 and as old as 30 — are tech-savvy and use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and post videos on YouTube to publicize themselves and intimidate or call out their enemies.
During Cross' sentencing hearing, Carley identified the defendant in a YouTube video, showing him throwing up gang signs and flashing a gun. He also identified an image someone posted on Facebook, illustrating Mr. Williams' death with emojis on the day he was killed.
Butler and McCullough — who have mentored young people through their churches, youth sports organizations and their latest role, The Three Kings of Peace — said they monitor kids' social media to prevent fights from breaking out in school.
"It starts on the weekend. They're Facebooking each other and getting all G'd up," McCullough said. "On Monday when they're in school, someone will text, 'This group is on that side of the building. Let's go.' Before you know it, you've got these two groups and everyone else who saw (the text), and it's getting ready to go down."
Butler said that's how kids used to resolve their problems on the streets.
"Fist fights. But when this Chicago gang came in, they came in shooting," he said.
"Unfortunately, music and the media glorify money, drugs and violence, which is common in these gangs," Carley said.
He said members steal weapons, get them off the street or pass them around among themselves and use them to commit "robberies, burglaries and shootings, which they thrive on."
Some community leaders, including Lacy, believe beefing up community policing efforts would help curb gang activity.
"When I came to town (as the county's public defender in 2010), there was an active POP unit," Lacy said, referring to the police department's Problem Oriented Policing unit, which focuses on high-crime areas. "They weren't bogged down responding to calls and doing reports. They were out in the community, speaking to people, building relationships with them, preventing problems before they escalated. ... And I don't think we had as many of the problems we've been seeing lately."
When Officer Travis Spain joined the unit in 2012, there were three officers and a supervisor. Over time, it shrunk as members retired or took different assignments.
Spain said he's pleased to see a proposed city budget includes money to bring the unit up to full staffing.
"I definitely think it would help us be more proactive," said the 10-year veteran, adding he saw value in getting out of his car and walking the neighborhoods.
"When you're out of your car, people feel more comfortable coming up and talking to you," Spain said, adding the majority of residents aren't causing problems and want their neighborhoods to be safe. "You have a presence, and they look forward to seeing you. You can have conversations with them and understand their issues and point of view. That helps build trust with them."
UI research findings
Thomason said the department is down four officers. But the city is testing potential candidates, and "appointments will be asked for as quickly as possible."
But Thomason said more staffing isn't the only solution.
"You can put an officer on every corner, every street ... but if we want to break this cycle of violence, we need the community's help," he said, pointing to a Nov. 18 shooting that left Daniel R. Jackson, 34, dead and a 19-year-old injured. "There were 50-some people at that party, yet no one saw a thing.
"I understand people fear retaliation, but you can call Crime Stoppers and leave a tip anonymously," he continued, pointing out a tip led to the Jan. 25 arrest of 18-year-old Deontae Bright of Danville, who was wanted for the killings outside the motorcycle club. "Some people think the information they have is insignificant.
"All we ask is they share that information and let us determine if it's valuable. So often in our investigations, that little piece of information was all we needed to complete the puzzle."
While enforcement is vital, a University of Illinois professor who's researched gang activity said that alone won't address gang involvement and activity.
"It is a solvable problem," said Monika Stodolska, a professor of recreation, sports and tourism. "But it requires collaboration from all different types of organizations and groups within the community — police, parents, schools, government, churches, businesses, organizations that provide academic, athletic, music and arts to children. And there really needs to be a will to address the problem. Community apathy is actually the worst enemy."
Stodolska and two colleagues, Professor Kim Shinew and Assistant Professor Liza Berdychevsky, interviewed former gang members from Chicago and the Champaign area to get an in-depth understanding of what drives criminal behavior and how sports, recreation and leisure activities can be used to create more effective prevention, intervention and rehabilitation programs.
They found that some participants were born into families where children learned and were even expected to participate in criminal activity by parents and other relatives. Some were looking for a substitute family.
"Some came from perfect middle-class families, but they still turned to crime," Stodolska said. "But many came from broken homes and were looking for a sense of belonging. They eventually realized what they expected to get was a myth. After they were incarcerated, the gang was not there for them."
Stodolska said some participants had dropped out of school, while some attended only occasionally. If there were no recreational opportunities around, it was easy for them to turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, fighting and criminal activity to satisfy their boredom.
"For some of them, it was a thrill," she said. "When they did these crimes, they would get a rush of adrenaline. They got excitement and enjoyment out of it."
She said others did it to fit in and win the approval of other members.
"I remember one man describing the first crime he committed," she said. "He said he was in a car, and someone gave him a shotgun and told him to shoot. He was afraid, but he pulled the trigger. He said, 'I came back to a cheering crowd.'"
The researchers recommend developing comprehensive programs that have counseling and other pieces to address things like past trauma, substance abuse and mental illness and promote healing, Stodolksa said. Other pieces include educational, enrichment and job opportunities; sports and recreation and arts and music; mentors who can teach and model appropriate behavior and values and build self-esteem.
Activities must be affordable or free and long term.
"A lot of these youth are very vulnerable," Stodolksa said. "They've been let down many times. So, if they can develop a relationship with a mentor through a program, that relationship has to be sustained so you can build trust."
'Pump them up'
McCullough and Butler said many churches and ministries like the Hope Center in Fair Oaks and organizations like Peer Court, the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club — along with law enforcement and the schools — have been working with at-risk youth, as well as their families, to keep them on the right path and keep the community safe.
McCullough said he and Nathan "Bobo" Smalls established the summer basketball league at Garfield Park nine years ago "to bring the Danville kids and Chicago kids together in a positive way."
He and Butler said they, along with Smalls, formed the Three Kings of Peace in 2016 to promote peace in the neighborhoods and later in the schools. They hold weekly peace marches in troubled neighborhoods throughout the summer, and help monitor students at North Ridge Middle School and South View Upper Elementary in the mornings and Danville High during lunch periods throughout the school year.
"The most important thing we do is give them a hug or (fist bump) when they come to school," McCullough said. "We tell every kids we love them, and we ask them to say 'I love you' to two people that day."
"We ask them how's school? Are you on the honor roll this semester? Are you going to be a doctor or lawyer or the next president? We try to pump them up," Butler said. "I don't know if anyone at home is asking them that, and I think that's one of the main problems."