The Veronica Avenue Boys are supposed to be gone, banished from Cherry Hill forever. Last year, police boldly arrested 32 members of what Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier called the "most violent organization" in the city. The courts sent the drug-dealing gang's leaders to prison. The public housing units where most of them lived were bulldozed.
But a year later, gunfire has returned to the curvy roads and cul-de-sacs of the same southern Baltimore neighborhood, and the street signs point to the VA Boys.
Old gang members and young "wannabes" have been spotted on new turf, along Spelman and Round roads. Police have linked three shootings in the past two weeks to the "new" VA Boys and a rival group. And teen-agers in Cherry Hill have been spotted wearing a new T-shirt that rebuts police claims of victory.
"VA Forever," it says.
"All of a sudden, we've got these VA Boys back here," says Charnette Lynn, 36, a Cherry Hill resident standing at the corner of Spelman and Bethune roads, where rival gang members were eyeing each other recently. Lynn says that she tried holding parties to keep neighborhood youths out of trouble but that most seem more interested in fighting. "It's become terrible down this way. The police have work to do."
The surge in violence since December is troubling neighborhood leaders, who reclaimed their streets in the wake of the raids 15 months ago and built momentum for one of the most ambitious redevelopment efforts in the city.
Catholic Charities spent millions to buy a run-down shopping center where drugs had been openly dealt in the parking lot. The organization then turned it into the gleaming Cherry Hill Town Center, with 14 stores. A new high school with small class sizes opened in the fall. Strips of dilapidated rental apartments are being torn down to make way for owner-occupied townhouses.
But concern is growing that the renewed violence between the Veronica Avenue Boys and their cross-street rivals, the Round Road Boys, will undermine the goal of the redevelopment: attracting middle-class black professionals to Cherry Hill.
Cathy Brown, a leader of Cherry Hill 2000, a community planning initiative, says she has noticed members of the Veronica Avenue Boys "trickling out" of jail and heading back to their old corner hangouts.
"We're going to be more aggressive about Citizens on Patrol," Brown says, adding that her group wants to "sit them down and work out a truce. It's tough. But it'd be nice to keep the peace."
Police are trying to bring a quick end to the violence. A federal grant will pay for four foot-patrol officers in Cherry Hill, and supervisors plan to flood the community with officers in the coming weeks to curtail everything from loitering to drug dealing.
"There's good people in the neighborhood trying to make Cherry Hill better, and we need to help them," says Southern District Officer Michael Coleman, who grew up on Roundview Road in Cherry Hill and is gathering intelligence on the gang.
Still, most of the 32 Veronica Avenue members arrested last year remain behind bars, many serving prison sentences from 10 to 30 years. A handful have recently returned to the street, but some investigators blame the latest shootings on a gang of "wannabes" who are using the infamous name.
"Are the real VA back?" says Lt. Jon D. Foster of the Violent Crime Task Force. "No, they are in prison."
The public housing along Veronica Avenue -- the highest point in Cherry Hill -- has been torn down to make way for new homes and a senior citizens complex. With no place to hang out, police say, the young upstarts are moving "down the hill," into the drug-dealing turf of the Round Road Boys on the south side of Cherry Hill Road.
"We're aware of it," says Southern District Lt. Jesse Oden, who supervises officers who patrol Cherry Hill. "We're not going to have it."
Ground zero is the 2700 block of Spelman Road, which snakes through densely populated low-rise public housing complexes at the southern end of Cherry Hill. The upstarts, Oden says, "want to come in, in the name of the VA Boys and run out the Round Road Boys."
The rivalry between the Veronica Avenue and Round Road gangs dates back at least 10 years, and revolves around territory and drugs. The VA Boys were considered one of the most structured groups among Baltimore's loose-knit factions that typically take names after city streets.
Police moved in March 6, 1998, after an extensive investigation, and proclaimed victory in permanently disbanding the gang. Frazier said police tactics against the VA Boys should serve as an example -- and a warning -- to other Baltimore street gangs.
The day of the raid, police officials held a news conference and displayed weapons and photographs of the 32 reputed Veronica Avenue Boys, who police said sold $10,000 worth of crack cocaine a day.