In middle school, they were friends, playing in the same local football league. Some kids played for the Crofton Cardinals. Others wore the jerseys of the Odenton Wildcats.
It was innocent then, when the Cardinals - three seasons undefeated - began calling themselves TNT, or The New Threat. The kids from Odenton became ESD, or the East Side Diamonds.
Born of a sports rivalry, the two groups developed into what Anne Arundel County police are calling dangerous gangs. A resulting conflict left 14-year-old Christopher David Jones dead late last month. Days later, the home of someone erroneously believed to have been involved in Christopher's death was firebombed.
The death of Christopher, who was riding a bicycle in his neighborhood, has angered and shaken a middle-class community where families move for good schools and safety. It has also provided a stark illustration that gangs are not a problem confined to inner cities and the suburbs closest to them.
Experts say gang activity in suburban and more affluent communities, prevalent since the early 1990s, is expected to peak in coming years as the population of the most susceptible youths, ages 14 to 17, booms.
"The suburban gang trend is on the uptick," said Dan Korem, author of Suburban Gangs: The Affluent Rebels.
The development poses a challenge to law enforcement, schools and parents. Tackling the problem has been complicated by classroom privacy laws, and by the difficulty in figuring out whether a group of teens who give themselves a name will blossom into a dangerous organization or will dissipate in a few months or years, as they often do.
"We're not saying that every kid on a street corner with a T-shirt down to his knees is necessarily a gang member," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson.
Of about two dozen gangs identified in Baltimore County, most have fewer than 25 members, Johnson said. In some cases, he said, "10 kids get together and decide to form a gang," and often it doesn't last.
"Yes, we do know there are gang members in the schools," said Anne Arundel Police Lt. J.D. Batten Jr., head of the school safety division, during a recent legislative hearing examining legal changes intended to prevent deaths such as Christopher's. "It is not illegal in the state of Maryland to be a gang member. To be a gang member is not an actionable offense," Batten said.
One out of two police agencies in suburban communities nationwide reported gang problems in 2007, according to that year's National Youth Gang Survey, the most recent figures available.
Suburban teenagers join gangs for reasons similar to their big-city counterparts, experts say. They tend to be at-risk youth struggling with family problems, such as divorce or separation, physical abuse or dysfunctional parents. The biggest factor, according to Korem, is that children don't have an adult to turn to for guidance.
Billy H. Stanfield Jr., a member of a Baltimore gang who was shot in both legs in 1993 and subsequently served nearly six years in federal prison on drug-trafficking charges, said gang membership is being fueled by a "fatherless generation," as well as continuing economic hardship and videos and music that promote a gangster lifestyle.
"You have a lot of misguided young people" who believe they have nowhere else to turn, said Stanfield, 40, who founded New Vision Youth Services to counsel young people in Baltimore and neighboring counties to stay away from gangs.
While some youths can be reached, Stanfield said, others are unmovable, even after hearing of his near-death experience. "A lot of them think it can't happen to them," he said.
The activities of the organized street gangs and suburban gangs can be strikingly different. While urban gangs often operate large drug-selling operations and are involved in fatal shootings, suburban gangs are typically more notable for fistfights and "tagging" - the painting of gang symbols on buildings, bridges and elsewhere.
"When [police] see these kids in the suburbs, they say it's a wannabe gang," Korem said. "I said, 'Wannabe? It's still a gang.' It might not be about running a certain corner; it might be just kids who want to put graffiti and beat people up, or do an attack on a school."
Teenagers have been killed in gang disputes in communities from suburban Boston to the western suburbs of Omaha, Neb., according to news reports. The gangs have surfaced on Long Island, N.Y., the suburbs of San Diego and in New Jersey. Last year, a Bergen County, N.J., community college established the "Suburban Gang Project," designed to research the area's gangs and reach out to youth.
Christopher was not part of a gang, his family and authorities say. He was, though, friendly with members of TNT.