Cecil Dotson was a gang member until the day he died violently five years ago this month.
Photo Illustration: Emily Morrow
He also worked every day for 16 years as the maintenance man at the apartment complex where he lived until he moved, just before his death, into a rental house on Lester Street in Binghampton.
Dotson, three other adults and two children were shot and stabbed to death by Cecil’s brother, Jesse Dotson, on March 3, 2008, at 722 Lester St. It marked the worst mass murder in modern Memphis history.
Cecil Dotson loved guns. And his gang affiliations were significant. As homicide detectives photographed him and the five others whose bodies were found in the house, they also noticed the entry way to the living room had a dozen or more photos on the wall of him and other adults and some children flashing gang signs and brandishing guns.
“The kids were exposed to the gang literature, their father being in a gang and then their uncle in the penitentiary was also a gang member – the kind of violence brought to those children just from their father being involved,” said Ray Lepone, one of the assistant district attorneys general who prosecuted the case in Criminal Court.
Jesse Dotson, like his brother, was a gang member. He was part of a rival gang who had been out of prison less than a month before killing the six people, an incident whose anniversary serves as a good time to chronicle local gang-related efforts. Five years after the Lester Street murders, Lepone is one of two co-leaders of the Multi-Agency Gang Unit, a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies announced this past July, to combat an evolving gang problem.
“It could be juveniles on a street corner or it could be your hard-core gang members that are living out east moving large amounts of dope,” Lepone said. “It’s every level of the gang problem we are going to take a coordinated and collaborative effort to go after.”
Cecil Dotson’s life is an indication of how the problem has evolved.
“The gang culture has changed a lot in the years that I’ve been prosecuting,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. “Where we used to have just a handful of gangs that had their geographic area, it’s not that way anymore. We have many more gangs and they are spread out all over the county.”
When the new gang unit was unveiled, its architects knew gangs were in a period of evolution where there were shades of gray of gang membership and gang involvement in crimes that weren’t necessarily gang-sanctioned. The evolution was part of a spread of gang-related activities beyond a core group of maybe several thousand bona-fide gang members.
They also resolved to change tactics as they combated the evolving gang problem with a major shift in curbing gang activity used in California – Fresno County in particular.
Those efforts could soon involve the kind of nuisance actions the District Attorney General’s office has used for the last decade on the owners of nightclubs, apartment complexes and other physical locations where there is constant criminal activity.
Police and sheriff’s deputies focus on making arrests and totaling and cataloging the charges as well as how often they have been called to an area to make the case in court. They might even use undercover officers.
But what follows with a gang injunction goes further than the closing of a business or some physical structure. Those identified as gang members are served with a legal notice like the owners of nuisance businesses. But the gang members are forbidden from associating or congregating in groups, even standing or sitting some place. If they are alone and out after a curfew the orders could set, they could be arrested on sight. One of the items on the legislative wish list Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell sent to Nashville this year is a proposal that would change the state’s nuisance law.
It would be “strengthened so that it can more effectively be used to address current gang activity,” according to the summary sheet from both mayors on the proposal. The legislation would “add language to include the ability to file a nuisance action against the ‘gang’ itself.” Another section to be added would “protect potential confidential informants used in these actions to establish gang membership.”
“It could be juveniles on a street corner or it could be your hard-core gang members that are living out east moving large amounts of dope. It’s every level of the gang problem we are going to take a coordinated and collaborative effort to go after.”
– Ray Lepone
Assistant district attorney general Co-leader, Multi-Agency Gang Unit
And language would be added to state law to specifically provide for gang injunctions “and the preponderance of evidence standard, addresses juvenile conduct, codifies current case law regarding the use of safety zones and opt-out provisions.” Violating a “gang injunction” would be a class C misdemeanor. Someone identified as a gang member in an injunction violates it by simply being in a certain area or congregating with another person or persons identified as gang members. The conduct itself is not criminal outside of the terms of the injunction.
Weirich describes it as limits “on who you can be with, what you can be up to and where you can be doing it.”
“It’s pretty powerful and impactful,” she said. “It’s just going at this from a multifaceted approach to get a handle on it. You don’t want the gang members terrorizing certain parts of the neighborhood or making it so kids can’t walk the shortest path home from school because they are afraid of gang members. It gives us that opportunity to go in and break it up and put an end to it.”
Lt. Fred Winston was named operational commander of the unit in February. And some recent arrests and indictments announced by the prosecutors have identified those charged by their gang affiliations.
“That’s a lot of what they are going to be doing in the next couple of weeks and months is going after specific targets, whether it’s individuals, whether it’s gangs or whatever – sending that message to those who engage in criminal gang activity – you’re done,” Weirich said last month. “It’s not a sanctioned gang activity? We don’t care. If you and two of your buddies are wreaking havoc on a neighborhood, we don’t care what your colors are. We don’t care what your name is. We don’t care if you don’t have colors or a name or a handshake.”
Weirich and the gang unit have been working with Fresno County California Chief Deputy District Attorney General Greg Anderson on the safety zones and gang injunctions, which have not yet made their debut in Shelby County.
Anderson said the zones and injunctions are “sprouting up everywhere.” So are state laws that do more than trying to add gangs to the list of legal causes in existing nuisance statutes.
“They did that in California,” he said. “They actually changed the contempt statute … from general contempt to contempt for disobeying a gang injunction.”
“She’s kind of following that lead,” Anderson said of Weirich, “and trying to provide legislation to make it easier in the state of Tennessee … for cities like Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis to go forward with them and not have as much litigation.”
The most notable case is Vasquez v. Rackauckas, now pending before the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.In that case the city of Orange, Calif., Police Department and the Orange County District Attorney filed for an injunction against 115 people authorities claimed were part of a gang. More than 50 of those named showed up to deny the allegation and were dismissed from the case. But they were all later served with the injunction as part of a group of 98. The notice read “All members of the gang, whether or not named in the original lawsuit and later dismissed from the lawsuit … are subject to terms of the permanent gang injunction.”
But the notice and its wording were never approved by the Orange County court that granted the permanent injunction, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank ruled.
“The evidence showed that plaintiffs’ private interest was strong as the order restricts some of their most basic liberties,” Fairbank ruled. “Plaintiffs were not given pre deprivation hearings before defendants subjected them to the order, especially in light of the dismissals requested by the defendants. … In sum, their constitutional rights were violated.”
Fairbank also concluded the Orange County prosecutors and authorities’ judgment of who was an active gang participant was “fact intensive, based on one-sided and untested evidence and requiring judgmental questions not determined by objective measures.”
Weirich said using the safety zones has to be part of an approach that Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said last year was essential in getting his support for the unit that crosses local, state and federal law enforcement lines – positive intervention that steers children and young adults away from the gang life before they get there.
“I did not want the Memphis Police Department to be in it and the only thing we did was a reactive enforcement mode,” Armstrong said on “Behind The Headlines.” “I wanted something for those mothers who called and said, ‘My child is being heavily recruited by gangs. My child is in fear of going to school. What can I do?’”
It is also an acknowledgement of the pressure many children and their parents feel in neighborhoods where the gang presence is palpable.
“What you hope comes with that is an increased police presence and a building of that trust between the community and law enforcement so that we know we are not just about locking people up and putting plywood on a window and then forgetting about you,” Weirich said. “We’ve got to continue to check on that community, check on that neighborhood and make sure that we got rid of this gang but right behind them another one cropped up.”