What's In A Gang Name? Street Cred

Monikers Can Belie Or Boast Of A Member's Reputation

August 07, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Terrance Richardson is a bad dude, according to federal agents. He's accused of being a Baltimore Bloods gang leader and ordering beatings and murders from jail while awaiting trial on 2008 gun charges. Since then, he's added racketeering and drug distribution to his alleged federal crimes.

So, what do most people call him?

"Squeaky."

Naturally.

Street nicknames, many of which were given during childhood, are the main means of identification among gang members of every level, from the neighborhood drug operations to the big, bad Bloods. And they're often ridiculous, even though the people bearing them are deadly serious.

Richardson's most recent indictment, handed up in May, reads like a character list from a Disney film. Among his 22 co-defendants (most of whom, including Richardson, have pleaded not guilty), there's "Smurf," "Cakes," "Jazzy," "Paperboy" and "Looney Reds."

But, there's also "Savage," "Nosebleed," "Murder" and "Bloody Rush."

"If a guy is called 'AK man,' as opposed to 'Captain Crunchy,' it can add to their street level [credentials], street props and things like that," said Steve Nawojczyk, a former Arkansas coroner who was featured in an HBO "Gang War" documentary and a co-producer of its sequel.

The names are used to boost reputations, preserve anonymity, breed familiarity and hide. They can be changed at will. Darnell Fields, for example, was once best known as "Pooh." But after several years in jail on pending murder and assault charges, he's renamed himself "Gotti." (A trial for him and his co-defendant, Clayton "Coco" Colkley, was postponed Thursday until October.)

Prosecutors list the nicknames on indictments because they are often the only way other supposed criminals, witnesses and friends know the defendant, said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. And the names are mentioned during trials so jurors know who witnesses are talking about.

Law enforcement officers usually learn the nicknames, sometimes through graffiti throughout the city, even before the real names.

"That's how we track [suspects] down," said David Brown, a special agent with the Baltimore division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and group supervisor of the Violent Crimes Impact Team, which led the recent investigation and arrests in the Richardson case.

"We can throw our sources on the street and identify a guy by his nickname as quickly as if we ran an MVA check," Brown said. "Even though their intent may be to try and elude law enforcement, it's not really a problem."

The names can be given by others, or made up by the holder. Some are based on physical characteristics (Nawojczyk remembers a guy dubbed "Ugly Man" for obvious reasons), some wishful thinking, and others just plain mean-spiritedness.

"Friends are harsh and make stuff up to belittle you," said Assistant State's Attorney Gerry Volatile. "Usually, the guy with the eyeball [that strays to one side] is 'Goo Eye,' or the guy with the really big head is 'Horsehead.' "

And it's not unusual for people to have multiple nicknames. Volatile remembers talking to a guy's family using what he thought was the man's nickname but found out at home they called him something else: "Stinky."

Most people are familiar with such names from TV and the movies. The first episode of the first season of "The Wire" opens with a Baltimore detective asking how a freshly murdered man got the nickname "Snot Boogie." And the mobster movie "Goodfellas" has its Fat Andy, Johnny Roast Beef and Jimmy Two Times ("who got that nickname because he said everything twice, like: 'I'm gonna go get the papers, get the papers.' ")

But the fiction is based on reality; evidence the recent Johnny Depp historical drama "Public Enemies" about 1930s gangsters John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Marcus "Pound" Pearson, who was recently sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for his role in a Baltimore County witness murder, got his nickname because he used to arrange dog fights, said Gary Ruby, the lead Baltimore County police detective on the murder case. One of Pound's co-defendants, a fellow Blood member named Jonathan Cornish, was known as "Brazy" because he was a little crazy. But being a Blood, he can't use the letter "C" in his name, so he became Brazy.

James Dinkins, recently sentenced to life in federal prison for running a Baltimore drug operation and committing multiple murders, was known as "Miami" because he was sent to Florida as a kid for help with his learning disabilities. One Arkansas robber was called "Bushman" because he liked to hide in bushes and jump out.

And an agent in Brown's group tells of a man called "Chicken," because when he was a kid, his mother used to stuff wings in his pockets before sending him to the corner to sell dope, "so he'd have something to eat."

Still, Brown cautioned, just because the names sound harmless, doesn't mean the people are.

"The name may have arisen out of some innocent act or behavior," Brown acknowledges. "But when they grew up, we're potentially dealing with killers."

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