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Gang feud stoking violence that has erupted in Albany in recent weeks

ALBANY — Some of the victims of recent local gun violence were in elementary school when a war broke out between rival Albany gangs.

But that nearly decadelong feud between the C.M.E. Rattlers and a Bloods-related group is still going strong and being stoked by social media exchanges between the rivals, Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said.

The rash of violent crimes has included a number of drive-by shootings in which homes have been riddled with bullets from high-powered weaponry. Most recently, a 14-year-old boy was among the victims who have been killed in 2020.

Albany is not alone in seeing a trend of increased violence. Law enforcement officials say it is going on in other metro Georgia areas and across the country.

Much of the violence over the past several months can be traced back to nine years ago, when gunfire first broke out between the two gangs, Edwards said. The district attorney’s office, local law enforcement, and state and federal agencies are actively working to get a handle on the violence.

“They’ve been at war since, I would say, at least 2011,” Edwards said. “That’s when one of the first incidents occurred between the Bloods and the Rattlers.”

Earlier this year, with the emergence of COVID-19, shootings dropped off, but the gangs engaged in a war of words behind the scenes, or rather behind phone keypads with posts on Facebook, the district attorney said.

“I think that, my observation is that COVID caused many people to, No. 1, have the mindset we need to stay in place,” he said. “But there was apparently some communication on social media. A lot of gang activity is facilitated through social media.

“A lot of things that have happened have been the direct result of social media between gangs that ramped up the conflict.”

After the lull, however, shootings became a regular part of nightlife in some Albany neighborhoods. Two weeks ago, there were six shootings in a single 24-hour period.

There have been 16 homicides in Dougherty County so far in 2020, 15 of those occurring within the city limits of Albany. In all but one of the slayings, a gun was the weapon used.

While gang members are gunning for each other, federal, state and local officials are metaphorically gunning to get those who are behind the violence off the streets.

Edwards said his office is working to make sure those who are responsible get some “hard time” in federal prison, along with the assistance of federal prosecutors and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that are part of a task force focusing on gangs.

Resources are being poured into the battle, but it will take some help from the public to get that job done, said Charles Peeler, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.

“It’s a small number of individuals who are committing violence,” Peeler said. “If we can identify those people who are committing the violence and (prosecute) them, that can turn a neighborhood around. The eyes and ears of the streets are the people who live in those neighborhoods.”

Peeler said gun violence has erupted across the federal court district, which includes a large swath of the state.

“Columbus, Macon and Albany are all experiencing this spike,” he said. “We had two years of success, and now, of course, there’s this spike.”

Peeler’s office is working with Edwards and various state and local law enforcement agencies through the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. Part of that effort involves having federal attorneys take on cases that involve guns and drugs, repeat weapons offenders and egregious violent episodes for prosecution at the federal level.

“I talk to (Albany Police Department) Chief Michael Persley regularly,” Peeler said. “I talk to Greg Edwards regularly.”

The group meets once a month to discuss cases to decide which can be taken to the federal level, where convictions involving guns typically carry tougher sentences with no parole, meaning that those who go into the federal prison system serve some 90 percent of the given sentence.

“It is concerning,” Peeler said of the rash of violence. “It certainly is concerning for me. In my view, it is unacceptable. The people in Albany, like the people around the district, should not have to live in a community that is experiencing this violence.”

Albany has received two grants through Project Safe Neighborhoods to assist with efforts such as gang intervention. The federal gang task force also has conducted operations to arrest those who engage in violence.

In April 2018 local, federal and state officials arrested more than 50 people in Operation Arrowhead, targeting those deemed the most violent.

Peeler said he could not comment on whether there are any active investigations going on at the moment.

“I do want the public to know federal law enforcement is alive and well in Albany and is very active and will remain involved until we make the change we all expect,” he said.

Edwards said his office cooperates with federal prosecutors and agreed that taking cases involving guns to federal court, where convictions bring harsher sentences, is vital in removing some of the most violent offenders from the community.

“Gang culture pretty much requires gun possession,” he said. “If you’re part of a gang, you’re going to be armed. Our gang members around the state in general are getting ahold of the most high-powered weapons they can buy or steal.

“Our gang members are doing what they can to get the most potent firepower, including rifles with drum magazines. Drum magazines can be 50 rounds, 100 rounds.”

“Stolen” is a key word in the conversation. The theft of guns left in unlocked cars or from cars in which weapons are in plain sight is a pipeline that supplies guns to drug dealers and gang members.

Recently, Edwards said, a stolen car contained a high-powered rifle, and authorities are anxious to find it before it ends up in the wrong hands.

“In gang culture, stolen guns are the main thing used to trade for drugs or sex or more guns,” Edwards said. “Drug dealers use guns to protect their drugs and collect debts.”

Edwards’ office’s referrals of cases for federal prosecution include those involving illegal weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns, and weapons whose serial numbers have been removed. He also likes to provide cases that are seemingly “ironclad” for which there is overwhelming evidence against the accused offender. Assistant district attorneys in his office work to identify such cases, and a staff liaison to the task force brings them to the attention of federal authorities.

“They’re going to get some really hard time when we send them to the federal level,” Edwards said.

The Dougherty district attorney also is lobbying for a state law that mirrors federal gun statutes, which would bring tougher sentencing for cases in which the offender used a gun. For instance, currently a burglar who commits the crime while armed is typically sentenced on the primary burglary charge and given probation on the weapons count.

Edwards would like to see gun charges made the primary charge in such cases with tough sentences such as those meted out in federal courts.

Criminals will only give up the habit of carrying guns when the potential for prosecution and serious prison time makes it too great a risk, he said.

“We’ve got to make gun crimes — use of a gun — something drug dealers and gang members just do not want to get” caught in, Edwards said. “Hopefully that will take them off the streets or deter them from using guns for crimes.

“Hopefully, the deterrence of them getting some swift and certain time on the state side will help deter crime. I opine we need to bring fear of gun time so that will bring down some of our gun violence.”

Ultimately, Edwards said, there are three goals in the battle: preventing crime by removing offenders and guns from the streets, intervening by prosecuting at the appropriate level when a crime occurs, and restoring offenders to the community once their time is served, with the goal being to prevent them from returning to a life of crime and gang activity.

The relationship built with federal and state agencies has been helpful in working on those goals, he said,

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the courts to a halt for some seven months. Recently county Superior Courts were given the green light to hold grand jury proceedings to indict individuals.

As soon as possible, Edwards said, his office will take cases to trial, including those involving murder and assault. He encouraged the public to participate by serving on grand and trial juries when called.

“There is a very small percentage of people who are committing crimes in a certain jurisdiction,” Edwards said. “We can identify them; we can make sure they get good time — certain time — and reduce their opportunities to commit crimes.”

Adding to the Collective

ALBANY — The established titans of industry have been compared to sharks, mostly for their cold-blooded and heartless approach to business. Also, though, the business owners who manage to keep their companies viable in a world that has been turned upside down are those that, like sharks, never stop moving.

Vascular surgeon Dr. Tripp Morgan may not place himself in the “titans of industry” category, but as a businessman and developer, he’s never been one to sit idly by as the world changed around him. Morgan’s successful surgery center has paved the way for a number of investments: a medical spa business, an organic farming operation on land in three southwest Georgia counties, the popular downtown Albany Pretoria Fields Brewery — which was converted into, essentially, a hand sanitizer production plant in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic — and a hemp production and processing facility.

In the coming weeks, Morgan will be able to add another couple of projects to his ever-expanding portfolio. Construction has begun on a second brewing facility and taproom on land the Pretoria Fields Collective owns in southwest Albany, and the downtown brewery has ordered a 1,000-gallon still that will allow the brewers there to make, initially, gin and vodka, and eventually light and dark rums and perhaps even whiskey.

“We’re trying some new things, things that fit with what we’re doing as a collective,” Morgan said. “We’re constantly looking at market research to see what trends might be viable for us, and what might add positively to our community.

“Both of these new ventures open us up to potential new audiences, perhaps to people who have not yet interacted with our current facilities.”

The new tap room and brewing site off Walker-Ducker Road on land adjacent to Pretoria Fields’ farming operations also provides a venue for outdoors and agritourism activities.

“We see it as a place for events, a place outside the city where people can seek entertainment,” Morgan said. “We’ll have a stage for musical entertainment and a smaller tap room where people can enjoy a beverage and socialize.”

The future site will host its second gathering, the first since Morgan announced plans to create a new venue for outdoor entertainment, on Oct. 24 when it hosts “Pints and Pumpkins.” The family-themed event will feature pumpkins for children — and the young at heart — to paint or carve, games for children, the Foodie Pops popsicle food truck, Booch and Mia’s food truck — which features more traditional fare — and Pretoria Fields beers, including two brewed especially for the gathering: a s’mores stout and a pumpkin saison.

“There will be no cost for entry; of course, tickets for beer will be available, and organic honey and blueberries grown by Pretoria Fields will be for sale,” Michael Custer, the collective’s attorney, said. “It’s a family-oriented event with something for everyone.”

Meanwhile, the brew crew at the downtown brewery are anxiously awaiting arrival of the 1,000-gallon still that is being made to specifications to fit in the space at the brewery.

“That still’s massive,” Pretoria Fields Brewmaster Dee Moore said. “It’s as big as the brew-house equipment, designed to fit in with our space. Now, while beer is fermenting — which is a seven- to 10-day process — we’ll be able to make ‘mash’ for whiskey in a couple of days. We’ll use grains — rye, wheat, oats, barley — that’s grown on our farmland and turn it into natural — you can call it green — specialty vodka. And we’ll use botanicals — locally grown fruits, flowers and spices — to make flavored gin.”

Like Morgan, Moore has a constant eye on trends in the spirits industry.

“People’s tastes constantly change,” the brewmaster said. “Look at seltzers: Five years ago that was a drink that didn’t exist on the U.S. market. Now, it makes up 11% of the volume of all beer sold. The drink market is changing abruptly in our country. Sodas are on the way out; people are looking for gluten-free, lower calorie, what they perceive as healthier drinks. The market for wine and spirits is growing at twice the rate of beers, even craft beers.

“We believe there is a market for distilled spirits at our facilities. We’ll be able to sell by the drink and in 750-milliliter bottles that are filled precisely to that level.”

Moore, who would make an excellent lecturer on the process of beer-making, said the brewers, headed by head distiller Curtis Newcomb — who has “professional experience” in the process — will make the mash that is converted into spirits by combining hot water with the grains, which converts to sugar. The sugar is fermented by yeast to become “distillers beer.” That product is heated and carbon-filtered for 24 hours, creating a pure vodka.

The distillers can add other elements — fruits, flowers, spices — to make gin and rum.

“Pretoria Fields will be unique in that it will be — I believe — the only distillery in the state of Georgia distilled from grain that we grew,” Moore said. “Selling spirits by the drink, I believe, will enhance what we do at the brewery. We’ll create our own ‘expression’ is the term used in the industry. Our vodka will be 40% alcohol, 80 proof. We’re not going to make moonshine.”

The Pretoria Fields distillery also will be the only production distillery in the state outside Atlanta.

Pretoria Fields — and Tripp Morgan — obviously have no plans to rest on their laurels, either perceived or real.

“We’ll always be looking to see if there’s something else out there,” Morgan said. “That’s the way we do things.”

Albany police officer named in mistaken identity lawsuit

ALBANY — Albany attorney William Godfrey hesitates.

“You hate to use this kind of term,” he says, trying to decide whether to continue with his point.

“OK,” Godfrey says, “I’ll go there. Martin Jones is the perfect plaintiff. He’s one of those young people who has chosen to do things the right way. His only interaction with law enforcement was to exercise his 2nd Amendment right to get a gun permit ... the right way, through the Probate Court, not buying one off the streets.”

Jones, who recently graduated from Kennesaw State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, decided when he turned 21 to buy a gun for protection. His efforts to buy a weapon legally, though, led to a nightmare in which Jones spent 33 hours in jail, accused of a crime he did not commit. And now, even though a warrant taken against him has been dismissed by Chief Judge Baxter Howell in Dougherty County Magistrate Court, the incident of “mistaken identity” continues to haunt and follow Jones as he looks to move on with his life.

On March 18 of 2019, Jones was driving on the Kennesaw State campus and forgot to turn his vehicle lights on. He was stopped by campus police and told to turn on his lights. No big deal. But when Kennesaw police officers ran Jones’ name through the department’s computer, a warrant for his arrest popped up on the screen. Police called Jones and asked him to come by their station to clear up a matter, and he complied gladly.

Jones had nothing to hide.

But because he’d applied for a weapons permit in Dougherty County, his name was automatically registered in the GCIC database. Unfortunately for Jones — full name, Martin Montavious Jones — four other Dougherty County Martin Joneses also were in the computer. One of them had an outstanding warrant for a domestic violence offense, a situation in which that Martin Jones damaged his girlfriend’s residence and her vehicle.

In an unfortunate twist of mistaken identity, Martin Montavious Jones was arrested. He spent 33 hours in the Cobb County Jail, pleading with his mother and grandmother to try and find how such a mistake had been made. Finally, a supervising officer with APD was able to confirm that the wrong Martin Jones had been arrested.

“Imagine the humiliation, the fear, he went through during those 33 hours,” Godfrey said. “Martin is a very passive young man, and you can imagine someone like that having to spend time in a jail, wearing the dress uniform of the jail, knowing you were there for something you didn’t do.”

Godfrey has filed a lawsuit against Tangela Henry, an officer with the Albany Police Department, asking for monetary damages for “false arrest, false imprisonment, for violation of his federal civil rights and rights guaranteed under the laws of Georgia.” Henry was named as the plaintiff because she was “employed with the Albany Police Department, and was acting under the color of law.”

Godfrey said the fallout from his arrest will “keep Martin Jones looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.”

“I’ve talked with other lawyers, and as far as I can gather this is a new type of litigation,” the Albany attorney said. “Think about Martin’s new reality: He’s riding down any road, and a police officer pulls up behind him. You now have a felony on your record, even though it’s been clearly marked as mistaken identity. Who’s to say this couldn’t happen again?

“And when he’s out looking for a job — and he’s being interviewed for one now — that might take him into a government facility, that arrest is going to show up on his record. I tell all my clients if they’re asked about previous arrests to tell the truth. If someone asks him if he’s ever been arrested for a felony, he has to say ‘Yes.’ And you know how that might go; with some companies, that’s the end of the interview.”

While verifying the facts of the case are “as I remember them,” Albany City Attorney Nathan Davis said Saturday, “The process of discovery will determine if the facts meet the allegations as presented.” Davis is not directly involved in the case; an Atlanta firm is currently handling litigation cases like Jones’ for the city of Albany.

Godfrey, who grew up in Valdosta and attended Valdosta State University before attaining his law degree from the Thomas and Cooley School of Law (now Western Michigan), worked in the Dougherty County Public Defender’s Office after completing his law degree. After five years and a desire to work “in other areas of the law,” Godfrey started his own firm. His office is at 115 Flint Ave. in Albany.

“It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been in this type of circumstance to imagine the level of pressure that’s on Martin Jones and will be on him from this time on,” Godfrey said.

“He’ll wake up every day knowing there is a new level of scrutiny surrounding him, a demand that he never make any misstep. That’s a lot of pressure on anyone. It’s a shame that this is happening to a young man who has always done things the right way.”

Copeland C,, Westwood Schools