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Monday, October 4, 2010

New Hampshire, Enforcer: Gang woes surge at bars

Citizen complaints about aggressive and violent gang activity in bars and restaurants are soaring as authorities keep an eye on what they see as a troubling -- and growing -- trend across the state.

Eddie Edwards, chief of enforcement for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, said until 2004, his office investigated on average one licensed establishment a year for allegations of unlawful gang activity.

Now there are about a dozen investigations a year, Edwards said.

Five years ago, his office received only a handful of citizen complaints regarding gang activity at liquor-licensed establishments. Now it is averaging 200 complaints a year, he said.

"These are what we would consider complaints, concerns or information about gang activities at bars and restaurants," Edwards said.

Complaints include allegations about suspected gang members involving assaults, intimidation and harassment. Or worse on occasion, Edwards said, when shootings or assaults take place in or near the licensed premises.

The Liquor Commission's division of enforcement opened an investigation last week into TJ's Sports Bar, 21 Central St., Manchester, after a man was shot five times late last Sunday on a bar patio.

Dual probes

Edwards said his investigation is in conjunction with the Manchester police probe of the shooting of Jesse Michaud, 29, of Goffstown Road, who survived the incident.

Edwards' office focuses on education to the state's 900 licensed establishments, and on possible liquor law violations, while local law enforcement agencies conduct the criminal probe, he said.

"This is not about motorcycle clubs. This is about organized illegal outlaw gangs," he said.

His unit focuses on whether incidents involve over-service of alcohol, disorderly conduct on the premises, whether there was establishment involvement, or whether organized outlaw gang activity was involved, or hidden ownership, Edwards said.

"If you had members of street gangs like the Bloods or the Crips and they were being hosted, catered or taken care of, or if that behavior became threatening or violent to other patrons or the owner, that's when it becomes a concern. It certainly has an impact on their license," Edwards said.

Manchester Police Capt. Gerald Lessard said none of Michaud's vital organs was hit in the 11:30 p.m. shooting last Sunday, and his injuries were not considered life-threatening.

Lessard said TJ's Sports Bar is frequented by people associated with motorcycle gangs, but he didn't think the shooting was gang-related. Attempts to reach the bar owner were unsuccessful.

"We are aware that some individuals who frequent that bar may have ties to motorcycle clubs," Lessard said, adding police are tracking down leads, but have made no arrests.

"(Michaud) got medical attention very quick. He's a lucky man," Lessard said.

Department cooperating

Police routinely share information with liquor investigators if there are possible violations of liquor laws, he said.

Authorities are continuing to look into the April incident at Luigi's Pizza Bar & Grille in Manchester, in which a high school student picking up a pizza was hit with shotgun pellets in a dispute involving outlaw motorcycle gang members.

U.S. Attorney John Kacavas, said the problem of criminal gang activity isn't limited to bars and restaurants. Police chiefs around the state have made clear to him it is on the rise.

"That includes Manchester Police Chief (David) Mara, Nashua Chief (Donald) Conley, Dover's Chief (Anthony) Colarusso, and Rochester's Chief (David) Dubois. They all told me the number one concern is the proliferation of organized gangs in their communities," Kacavas said.

Manchester and Nashua have seen an increase, as has Rochester, Kacavas said.

In response, Kacavas said there will be a gang summit on Nov. 4 and 5 in which he hopes to bring together members of law enforcement, educators, community groups and citizens from across the state to tackle the problem.

Sweeping arrests

On Wednesday, federal agents and Manchester police led a multi-agency sweep that netted 25 arrests of mostly mid-level drug traffickers, including some with alleged ties to violent street gangs.

Kacavas said the arrests stemmed from secret federal grand jury indictments on drug, weapons and bank robbery charges and followed a lengthy investigation. Four others were indicted, he said.

Kacavas said New Hampshire has had "wannabe types of home-grown kids" for a while.

"The alarming aspect is now we are seeing much more organized efforts -- men and women who are affiliated with more nationally affiliated gangs that deal in guns and drugs and violence," Kacavas said.

Kacavas said the gang increase started as a slow creep a decade ago.

"As these groups gain more of a foothold, they attract more members and new members from the towns. It is a growing problem. I can tell you in Manchester, Nashua, Rochester and Concord, the police antennae are up," Kacavas.

While some communities in the past haven't wanted to admit there was a problem, Kacavas said, there is now a keen awareness and willingness to work at solving the problem that he finds refreshing.

"My sense is that gangs are here primarily because of economics.

"Drug dealing while risky in New Hampshire because of far greater penalties if they are caught, they are willing to run the risk because they can sell their drugs at higher prices," Kacavas said.

Kacavas said New Hampshire passed a law last year that makes it a Class A felony to solicit and recruit someone into a gang.

"We're anticipating the problem, trying to get ahead of it. Through cooperation in law enforcement in the state, we're going to keep our borders safe," Kacavas said.