As a new year dawned inside the Door of Salvation Pentecostal Church the Hill on Arch Street, Detective Tony Reyes joined his family in a prayer for peace. Then a phone call interrupted him: Mere minutes after the ball dropped, so did a homicide victim.
Reyes (pictured) had taken his parents and wife and son to the Hill neighborhood church, where he grew up, for its annual New Year’s celebration. They had just finished the traditional new year’s prayers. Now the feasting was about to begin.
Reyes didn’t know that the shooting that prompted the phone call would turn out to be the country’s first homicide of the year. Or the first in what would be two years of murder and mayhem in New Haven. He hadn’t heard of the victim. He hadn’t heard the name “Red Side Guerrilla Brims.”
He just knew he had to pass on the food, rush out of the church, and get to work.
That was how 2010 started for Reyes and other homicide detectives in New Haven. As the year progressed, the prayer for peace appeared to fall on reluctant divine ears, as violence began spinning out of control. That year would end with 24 murders—up from 11 the year before. Then came 2011—with 34 murders and over 100 shootings.
Before 2011 ended, the return of the Wild West to a city that had boasted of taming its streets brought a new police chief to town, a new commitment to community policing—and, eventually a new approach to addressing gang violence in cooperation with state and federal law-enforcement agencies.
That approach has a name: Project Longevity. Through it, city, state and federal agents identify the most violent gangs in town, bear down on them through in-their-face “group accountability,” then pool their resources to solve cases through federal charges carrying long-term sentences. (Click here and here to read more about the project.)
Five years after Reyes’ New Year prayers, the new crime-fighting approach has borne fruit, both in the outcome of an investigation into six separate murders and another five shootings from 2011 and 2012, and in the broader quest to rein in gang violence.
U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly (pictured) announced last week the indictments of six alleged leaders of the Guerrilla Brims for “engaging in a pattern of racketeering that included murder, robbery, assault, firearms narcotics and money laundering offenses.” Authorities said they have tied the leaders of the gang—a group less publicly known but more privately feared than New Haven gangs like R2, the Grape Street Crips, and the Playboys—to those 11 murders and shootings as part of a broader practicer of selling crack cocaine in Bangor, Maine, in exchange for both cash and guns.
It was hardly the biggest gang roundup in New Haven history in terms of arrestees, or even close. It may be the sweep allegedly solving the most murders at one time. It is believed to be the first New Haven murder investigation—as opposed to a drug investigation—to use the federal RICO anti-racketeering statute with its longer prison sentences.
And, investigators on the case said in interviews with the Independent, it demonstrated in the most dramatic example to date of how Project Longevity gave them nontraditional tools to make New Haven safer.
It showed, they said, how Project Longevity is supposed to work.
“If not for this, these cases would likely never have been solved,” said Lt. Reyes, the New Haven police’s major crime commander. “It’s the reason we have 12 homicides and 55 shootings” so far in 2015 as opposed to the far higher numbers in 2010 and 2011.
Chief Esserman said the case demonstrates “the other part of Project Longevity—when people don’t listen [about going straight], and we keep our promise.”
“It’s part of the promise we make: If you’re part of the most violent group that drops a body, we’re going to come after you,” remarked Assistant Chief Archie Generoso. The Brims, Generoso said, were the most violent gang in town.
When Reyes received that New Year’s phone call in the church, New Haven had largely abandoned community policing. Shootings were occurring unchecked in neighborhoods throughout town.
Around the same time organizers from the Bloods in New York had come to New Haven to organize as a dues-paying affiliate, according to investigators. That affiliate was the Red Side Guerrilla Brims.
The cops and the city at large were familiar with some of the gangs responsible for the upturn in violence based on their graffiti or social-media boasts. The Brims eschewed such advertising. They stayed under the radar—except to drug-dealers from other gangs whom they’d regularly hold up, according to Sgt. Karl Jacobson (pictured above), head of New Haven police’s intelligence unit. The other gangs in town tended to represent different neighborhoods—R2 in Newhallville, Grape Street Crips in the northern Hill, the Playboys off I-91 Exit 8. The Brims were about brutal business, not geography, Jacobson said. Some came from West Hill’s “the 2-5,” whose members were involved in that first 2010 homicide Reyes and the homicide team investigated. (The group’s name comes from a boast that dealers there make, Jacobson said; “Most people ball 24 [hours a day]. We ball 25.”)
The cops got to know some of the names of the Brim gang members suspected of shootings, and of some of their colleagues from other gangs, especially a man named Zachery Cody Franklin. But they weren’t hearing the name “Red Side Guerrilla Brims.”
As 2011 wore down, and the violence wore down the city (and the politicians), then-mayor John DeStefano brought in a new police chief, Dean Esserman, with a community-policing background and experience in organizing federal-state-local anti-gang violence initiatives. Esserman formed a shooting task force and bolstered intelligence-gathering and sharing.
One of the murders detectives were investigating claimed the life of a New Yorker named Donald Bolden. Days after his death, a gang member from New York called the New Haven detective bureau. Reyes took the call. The gang member told him that Bolden’s murder did not result from a New Haven intramural beef. The New York Bloods had sanctioned it.
That’s when Reyes first heard about the Brims, about how Bolden and others had traveled to New Haven to organize the chapter.
Reyes and other detectives began hearing the name more often in months to come. Some of the gang’s alleged members were among the 105 people arrested in May 2012 in “Operation Bloodline,” the largest federal-state-city drug-gang sweep in New Haven history. The government mentioned a number of gangs whose members were allegedly swept up in Bloodline; nowhere was there a mention of the Brims.
Brims—one in particular—also featured prominently in the investigation of Zachery Cody Franklin, whom police did arrest and suspected of committing four murders (two in New Haven, two in Waterbury). A judge sentenced Franklin to 65 years in jail on one of the murders. (Click on this story and on the above video for more on Franklin’s day of reckoning. Franklin himself did not belong to the Brims, but had a relationship with them, according to Reyes.)
The information city detectives were gathering about the Brims would come in handy after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came to New Haven that November to announce the launch of Project Longevity as a template for similar anti-violence campaigns to spread to other Connecticut cities. Key to the project would be federal, state and city agents working together, week in and week out, gathering and dissecting data as a team, plotting strategy and carrying out arrests aimed at group violence.
The project targeted New Haven’s most violent gangs and brought members in for “call-ins” that offered help for members going straight while promising a crackdown, with federal charges, for all group members who didn’t.
Every two weeks city cops met with state parole and probation and police and prison officers, and representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). They gathered at the U.S. Attorney’s Church Street office to share information on targets of the project. Members also kept in daily contact and carried out arrests together as they built broader cases against allegedly violent gang members.
In pursuing the Brims, city cops found they could carry out arrests—and develop new leads and evidence—that they couldn’t on their own. The state corrections department assigned Capt. Craig Burnett to work full-time with city detectives; he offered a stream of valuable intelligence gathered from prison, and “helped us get new informants,” Reyes said.
Last June Mike Zeppieri, the newly installed ATF resident agent in charge for New Haven, joined the biweekly meetings. Zeppieri spent 12 years working for the ATF in New York, on major gang and robbery investigations including one involving the Bronx’s DeKalb Avenue Crew. Zeppieri told the New Haven group how investigators used RICO charges to build stronger cases producing longer sentences. He said he thought the Brims investigation in New Haven might be able to produce similar results; he offered to lend his expertise to that end.
The strategy would pay off: Authorities claimed they discovered the Connecticut-to-Maine pipeline, which they said began through a connection between a New Haven Brim and a Bangor relation. They tracked one Brim who allegedly secreted prepackaged crack in luggage he then carried on bus rides to Bangor; other Brims drove. Through raids and arrests police recovered over 100 guns purchased from Bangor and then used in crimes or otherwise found in New Haven—establishing an across-state-lines basis for federal charges.
Zeppieri learned something new, as well. In New York, he said, he and other investigators would develop informal, ad hoc relationships with agents from state or local departments to help make a case. In Project Longevity in New Haven, the relationships were developed formally in the biweekly meetings and the daily work. That meant Zeppieri had many more colleagues with whom to share information and pursue leads, right from the start. He cited one instance in which a parole officer involved in an arrest knew that Zeppieri had been tracking the same target for Longevity; the parole officer called Zeppieri from the scene of the arrest, giving Zeppieri a crucial quick start on gathering more evidence, which advanced the investigation. (Like others interviewed, Zeppieri was careful not to give specific information about such incidents so as not to jeopardize what’s a continuing investigation as well as pending prosecution.)
“Everybody seemed committed and felt personally responsible for reducing violent crime,” Zeppieri said of the Longevity/ Brims investigation. “This partnership was unique to me. And it is special. It is something that can really help the city of New Haven.”
“You had a federal agency that came into a local police department and took over homicide and shooting investigations,” Lt. Reyes noted. “Detectives here [and state police] worked seamlessly with the ATF; nobody was territorial, no egos.”
Agents this week arrested the last of the six alleged Brims indicted last week. Three have previously pleaded guilty to separate murder-related chargesThe alleged ringleader, known as “Tall Man” and “Fresh,” is set to be arraigned later this month. He is currently serving a separate 108-month sentence for his role in “Operation Bloodline.”
In the meantime, the prayer for peaceful streets that emanated from a Hill church five years ago may echo through the city’s streets.