Masters of Cymbal Drive

Andre Ford stood there on the curb, a couple rocks of crack in his hand. It was September but still warm enough for a tank top and shorts, which was more or less his summer uniform. Come winter, he would pull on a pair of heavy blue coveralls, the kind a mechanic wears, and a baby blue stocking cap. Either way, he was wearing blue, Crip blue, representing his set.

To his Pleasant Grove neighbors, who sometimes watched him from their upstairs windows, he was a thug. They watched him smoking weed and drinking beer and shooting dice with his homeboys, and they made assumptions. About his gold-capped teeth and his chrome-plated pistol and the pager in his pocket. And they watched him on days like this, pacing back and forth, waiting for a car to come down Cymbal Drive, opening his palm to count how many rocks he had.

Some of their assumptions were right. Ford called himself an Original Gangster, and he fit the stereotype: He'd once taken a bullet to the chest, he'd been in and out of jail since he was 17, and he'd lost friends to prison and death--most recently his homeboys Fatso and Gangster, who were gunned down by Bloods in West Dallas just a year before.

But he wasn't lazy. Dealing drugs was hard work. Every day he was out on Cymbal, early in the morning and late at night, long after everyone else had gone off to girlfriends and gambling shacks. He knew dealing drugs was wrong, his parents had taught him as much, and why he did it he couldn't really explain. Greed maybe. He had tried stocking shelves at Tom Thumb, and he had tried telemarketing, but neither job paid well enough to keep him off the streets. He was 27 now, too old to start over. He just hoped his little boy wouldn't end up like him.

A car he recognized came around the corner. He stepped from the curb and lifted a bandanna over his nose, like a cowboy about to pull off a stagecoach robbery. The car stopped in front of him. Sometimes, especially if it was a new buyer, he'd jack him of his money or short him on the crack. Not today. He moved quickly, leaned in the window, took the guy's $40 and handed him two rocks. As the car drove off he lowered his bandanna and walked back to where they stashed their dope. The cops called it the pink house.

Lately, business had been good. Better than ever, in fact. Cars were coming down Cymbal like it was Wendy's drive-through, all hours of the day and night. He wondered if something was up, if the cops were sending in undercover officers or something.

Not that it mattered. They'd been dealing dope on Cymbal since 2000, almost two years now, and police had done nothing to stop them. It wasn't because they were careful. They were as brazen as anything the cops had ever seen. They sold their rock right in the open like flea-market merchants. Cymbal Drive belonged to the Underground Nigger Crips, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

"You think this street is yours," one of his homeboys had told a patrol officer some time before. "But you're wrong. This street is ours. And we'll be here long after you're gone."

In the summer of 2002, Special Agent Hector Tarango decided to check out Cymbal Drive, which by then had become one of the easiest places in Southeast Dallas to score crack. Tarango was with the ATF and had served stints in Los Angeles and along the U.S.-Mexico border. In his 14 years in law enforcement, he'd seen plenty of illegal drugs and plenty of the gangs that trafficked them, from wannabe Bloods and Crips to hard-core members of the Texas Syndicate. Heading toward Cymbal, he knew what he was in for.

Short and barrel-chested, with Popeye-like forearms, Tarango carried himself with a certain swagger. Sometimes he wore an earring or let his dark hair grow long to alter his identity. Suffice it to say that when he appeared in a courtroom to testify against a street-level hustler or a major cocaine distributor, he didn't look like the same man they'd seen on the street.

As usual, he rode in an unmarked vehicle. He drove down Masters, one of the main thoroughfares in Pleasant Grove, past a sun-bleached strip mall that looked half-abandoned. He rolled past a corner market covered in graffiti (UNC, 187, Crip 4 Life) and eased his car onto Cymbal. He glanced quickly around the street. There were about 15 houses crowded on each side--duplexes with chipping paint and ramshackle row houses two stories high, each of them surrounded by sagging chain-link fences. Trash littered some of the yards. Five or six of the houses were vacant--covered in gang graffiti and boarded up.

Tarango took out his camera. This was an intelligence-gathering mission, nothing more. Suddenly, the truck in front of him lurched to a halt. From both sides of the street, men Tarango immediately recognized as gang members emerged from the shadows. They surrounded the truck, asked the driver how much crack he wanted. Before Tarango knew it, they were at his window. He hid his camera and told them he wasn't interested.

Tarango had seen Crips before in Dallas but never like this. The way they stood on the corner, seven or eight thick, decked from head to toe in blue--it reminded him of what he'd seen in Los Angeles in the early '90s, or what he'd heard South Dallas was once like.

These guys were a throwback to those days, but they were also unlike anything he'd seen. There had been gangs more sophisticated and brutal, of course, but those organizations dealt in secrecy. The Underground Nigger Crips were different. Their trademark was blatant, in-your-face disregard for the law.

Tarango drove off, back toward the looming Dallas skyline. Ford was wrong. Streets like Cymbal didn't belong to anyone. They were always changing hands. Sometimes the law was on top, sometimes the gangsters were on top. And sometimes, the street was quiet.

They were friends, really. Homeboys. That's how it all started. There was no plan to take over a city block. Maybe that's what the police say, but the police say some crazy shit.

True enough, Ford was the leader, the Original Gangster, and there was some structure--rank and rituals and reunions--but they weren't a sophisticated criminal organization, not like the police would say, anyway.

It all started in South Oak Cliff back in '90 or '91, when the Jamaicans were still running the Dallas dope game. Originally, they were the Pleasant Grove-Oak Cliff Crips, and word was they had direct ties to the West Coast, that a Crip from there had moved to Dallas and set the whole thing off. Ford was only 15 when he joined.

Sometime in the early '90s, they split in two: the Underground Nigger Crips and the Pleasant Grove Crips. UNC wore Carolina blue and called themselves Tar Heels: PGC dressed in Duke gear and called themselves Devils. But they weren't rivals. They more or less operated as allies, with their own rank and hierarchy. New members to PGC, for example, were Young Devils, while UNC called their new recruits Young Crips. At the top of the chain were the Original Devils and the Original Gangsters, depending on their affiliation.

It was '97 or '98 when they first started showing up on Cymbal, at least that's what the Dallas police gang unit had in its database. Gang members would put it later, maybe '99 or 2000. John Thomas, or Wino, got a house on the block, and it grew from there. "It wasn't like we took over, we just went on that street," says Terance Lacy, or Toothpick. "At first there was some other guys over there and they started getting locked up, going to the state for other cases, so we kind of just moved over there."

The layout of the block was perfect for dealing dope. It was tucked away, hidden almost, from Masters, the main street police usually drove on. Lookouts--usually 15-year-old kids on bikes, sometimes girlfriends with walkie-talkies--were posted on the corners, or up at the Quick Mart. A cop or a rival gang member couldn't so much as turn onto Cymbal without being spotted. Once someone called out 5-0, everyone scattered, ditching their rock as they ran.

They had a perfect system, really. Joseph Fields got the crack in a slab and then broke it up into little rocks, which were stored in Wino's house in a soda can with a screw-off top. It was more or less an honor system--you paid for whatever you took. The most important thing was to carry just a few rocks and to never have a pistol on your person, that way if you were taken down you'd only be charged with drug possession. You'd be in and out of Lew Sterrett in a few days.

Most of the gang members didn't even live on Cymbal. Those that did lived on the south side, in a row of rundown duplexes. Usually, everyone just hung out in front of Wino's house. Sometimes they'd pull a sofa to the curb and barbecue right there in the street or order pizza. On a typical day, you might see D-Loc--that's what they called Ford--sitting there in a plastic patio chair, rolling a blunt. Or T-Blue over on somebody's front stoop rolling dice, or one of the girls, maybe Gidget or Laquita, sitting on the hood of a car.

At its height, there were more than 100 documented gang members with ties to Cymbal, which included a splinter group out of Ferris that showed up on weekends. "It wasn't like we was always dealing drugs," Jason Leatch would testify. "Sometimes we would just chill, drink. Or we'd hit a club, go to Six Flags." Nobody really had much money. Fields tried to save some and spend the rest on his children, but he lost most of it at gambling shacks, playing dice or the card game Tonk. Others pissed theirs away in similar fashion. "We was just getting by, really," Ford said.

This stuff about the neighbors being afraid to go outside, that's not true, not entirely, anyway. "Their children, they came outside, and sometimes some of our children would go over there and play with theirs," Fields said. "We tried to talk to them, it wasn't like we was unapproachable.

"But I see why they would be fearful because we was gang members and we sold drugs. You know, rival gang members would come through there sometimes and try to do things to us."

Or they would try to do things to them. Like the time in '01 when Dale Trigg got shot. Trigg was a Blood, a member of the Teenage Mob, which ran Cymbal before PGC and UNC did. Trigg drove down the block, probably looking for Ford, who days before had shot at some Bloods up at Lake June Road and Masters. The rest of the story depends on who's talking. According to what Toothpick and others told the police, it was Fields who shot at Trigg when he came back a second time. Whatever the case, Trigg got hit, and his car plowed into a tree. Paramedics took him to the hospital, where he told doctors it was just a piece of glass stuck in his head. That's what he believed, too, right up until they yanked out a bullet fragment.

There were lots of shootings like that, three times a week is what the neighbors said. But it wasn't gang-banging all the time. "Yeah, we were gang-bangers, but you know, we had a concept of what life was really about as far as relationships, kids and things like that," Fields said. "There was some friendships involved also, some real close friendships."

Fields was especially close to Ford. Seven years younger, he saw Ford as an older brother. Ford could be goofy or serious, depending on the occasion. But he wasn't like Tony Montana, the Al Pacino character in Scarface. He drove an old car--a Chevy Caprice or a Buick LeSabre, the police can't remember which--and wore cheap clothes and fake gold. His life was more ghetto than fabulous, a far cry from the drug kingpin portrayed in the movie. "He was just a real person even though he was doing wrong," Fields said. "Like he gave good advice. If you was having woman problems, he wouldn't just tell you to go beat up your woman, he would give you good advice, like 'You need to treat her better.' We looked up to him."

In quiet moments, Fields and Ford would talk about religion and the end of the world, which they figured wasn't too far off. The truth is, they were scared. Of prison, of death, for their children. They say they wanted to stop what they were doing, but they'd done the math: 12 friends murdered in the last 10 years. Twice that many, at least, in prison.

They knew their options. Jail, death or worse--the graveyard shift at Tom Thumb, stocking pickles and diapers.

The police, of course, painted an entirely different picture. By early 2000, Cymbal Drive looked like something straight out of Grand Theft Auto: gang-bangers walking around with TEC-9s, crackheads driving down the street at all hours of the day and night, beatings, shootings, murders.

Forget about what the gang members said--neighbors lived in fear. They kept their curtains drawn and their doors bolted. And at night, when they heard gunfire, they pulled their children to the floor. One neighbor, a tough-talking construction worker named Victoria Navajas, said she once found someone dead on her front steps. She wasn't sure if it was an addict who'd overdosed or a rival gang member.

Day or night, children were not allowed out their front doors. Instead, they were sent to play in the back, and when patrol officers cruised the alleyways, they realized that's where all the neighbors not involved in the drug game went to barbecue or get a smoke or entertain guests. Those brave enough to call 911 were retaliated against (a gang member had a girlfriend who worked for the Dallas Police Department and had access to the 911 call log). One neighbor, who had bottles thrown against his house for calling the police, resorted to carrying a gun with him just to check the mail.

"I had to put iron bars over my windows so when they drove by [the bullets] would ricochet instead of hitting me," Navajas says. "When a drive-by came by it sounded like 10 or 15 people beating on your door, you could hear it through the whole house."

The violence even extended to cops. An undercover narcotics officer was punched in the mouth, a marked patrol car was hit with a paintball, smashing the back window, and one night, a uniformed officer saw a red laser--either from a pointer or a gun--aimed at his face. (A gun outfitted with a laser-guided sight, said to belong to Ford, was later seized in a raid.)

"They were bold enough to basically say, 'This is our block, this is our little neighborhood, and that's just the way it's going to be,'" said Norm Smith, a member of the DPD gang unit.

Smith was on the street so much he was given a nickname: Soprano. He had cards on every one of the gang members, detailing arrest records, gang tattoos, the date they admitted their gang affiliation. Over time, he developed a sort of rapport with Ford, who demanded in return that his homeboys respect Smith. Once, a gang member known as Low-Down refused to allow Smith to take his picture for the gang unit database. Smith reported this to Ford, who ordered Low-Down to comply.

"He was almost professional in his approach. For him, it was like going to work," Smith said. "He knew what we were about, as far as trying to put them in jail. He understood that's how the game was played. The question was, could you catch him doing it? Sometimes we did, and sometimes we didn't."

Once, Smith caught Ford in the act of dealing. Ford had no time to ditch his crack so he swallowed it. Smith took him to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped to no avail. The crack had already passed through his system.

The area became such a concern to the Southeast Patrol Division that in June of 2002 two officers--Paul Freese and Robert Salone--were assigned to patrol that block and ignore all other calls, five days a week, eight hours a day. They parked their cruiser on the block and didn't move it. In one four-month period, they wrote more than 900 tickets. "If they so much as stepped into the road, they were going to get a pedestrian roadway ticket, if they so much as threw a cigarette butt, they were going to get a littering ticket," Freese said. Their constant presence on the street did little to slow the flow of drugs, however. Ford and his homeboys simply waited for the cops to leave for the night, and then they hit the street.

So Freese and Salone switched up their schedules, pulling onto the block or sneaking up back alleys at random. Sometimes they were successful. On the night of July 18, 2002, for example, they crept up an alleyway to find Joseph Fields sitting in a Chevy Caprice counting what turned out to be $1,739 in cash. In the center console, in plain view, was a white bottle cap from a 20-ounce Coke, and inside were six rocks of crack. Fields was arrested and booked on cocaine possession, but by September, he was back on the street, where he was again arrested, this time for carrying a loaded semi-automatic pistol under the seat of his car.

"We were kind of banging our heads up against the wall for years with these guys," Smith said. "It was kind of like, I used to always joke with my partner, 'It's like the Chinese army, man, and no matter what you do they just keep coming over the hill.'

"It seemed like no matter what we did, no matter how many we could put in jail, no matter how many we identified, there was always another one. It seemed like it would never stop."

There was only one way to take back Cymbal: Get help. They brought in the feds in August of 2002. The ATF had a new federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods, and they were looking for a place to implement it. Specifically, they wanted a neighborhood terrorized by gun violence. After a short discussion with the DPD, they chose Cymbal Drive. ATF Special Agent Hector Tarango would lead the investigation.

From the first time Tarango drove down Cymbal, he knew he had a case worthy of the federal government's attention. His first hurdle was convincing the U.S. Attorney's Office that the boys of UNC and PGC were worth their time. On paper, they looked like small fish.

As Tarango saw it, the gang members weren't geniuses, but they were shrewd enough to understand state law. By only carrying a small amount of crack on them, they could never be charged with more than simple possession. "The reality is these guys were dealers, but their quantities were so small that based on a certain criteria that the police department had they weren't allowed to charge them with distribution, they had to charge them with possession."

So the ATF and the DPD began focusing on the buyers, who came from all over--Mesquite, Balch Springs, Rowlett, even Garland--to buy crack on Cymbal. "We'd get the plates, get them knocked off on traffic a mile away, and we'd say, 'Listen, you're in a lot of trouble, we'd like your cooperation. How long you been coming down here?' They'd say, 'I've been coming down here for years.' 'Really, and how much do you typically spend?' 'You know, $10 rock.'

"So after a while you get an idea of how much crack cocaine these guys are actually dealing. Using that information, and what the DPD had already done down there in terms of arrests and intelligence, we could put a ton of crack on that street."

On subsequent visits on Cymbal, driving in a vehicle with blacked-out windows, Tarango discovered the key to the case. At first glance, the gang members operated like typical street-level dealers. But on closer inspection, he saw something unusual. The gang members, whether they were PGC or UNC, were not arguing over who would make the sale, as was typical among dealers on other streets. Instead, they were working in concert. A car would pull up and one of the gang members would ask the driver how much crack he wanted. If it was more than the dealer had on him, he'd pool his resources with other gang members who were standing behind him. It was a classic conspiracy, and if the U.S. Attorney's Office could prove that, they could put Andre Ford and his boys in prison for a very long time.

To take back Cymbal, Tarango would have to prove that UNC and PGC were working together, and that they were moving some serious weight.

It was a late afternoon block party on Cymbal, and everybody was there from the PGC and the UNC, smoking, drinking, chillin', throwing gang signs.

Somebody had a video camera. Donald Banks stood in front of it, grinning. He was skinny, with buck teeth, dressed in a baggy white T-shirt. "Hey, this guy ODYD T-Blue here, you understand? From the PGC Tre-87, you understand?" he said into the camera. "Say, we 'bout this here. We 'bout this royal blue shit, you understand," he said, pointing to the blue bandanna around his neck. "Say, man, we from Cymbal, Texas. We 'bout this here, you understand, this green shit is motherfucking bread. You understand?" He flashed a fistful of cash in front of the camera.

"We ain't got no love for these ho-ass schlob niggers," he said of their rivals. "Fuck them hos, you understand? BK all day 24/7. You-all dig that, dog?"

Blood killing all day, 24/7. The camera panned over to the man standing next to him. He was stocky, about 5 foot 10, with gold-capped teeth. He wore a Fubu Fat Albert shirt. It was Andre Ford, D-Loc. "UNC Crip gang, 65 Groveside," he said, in his soft, deep baritone. 65 Groveside--that was the neighborhood bus route.

Banks continued: "Much love to UNC nigga, know what I'm sayin'?" he said, referencing Ford and the partnership between the two gangs. "We score big around this bitch."

The camera jerked to the left. There was C-Child of the PGC, and behind him, drinking from a plastic cup, was Ashley, the little sister of D-Loc's girlfriend. Over in the shadows, three men were playing dice, all from the PGC: Checkaho, Gambino and Solo. The camera panned away from them. BG, or Ronald Swiney, stood in front of it. He flashed more cash. "This is what we about, making money, man, trying to have something, man." Gidget, one of the girlfriends, passed in front of the camera. T-Blue again, locking Cs, slang for throwing signs. D-Loc, lifting his shirt to show a tattoo of the Tar Heel mascot on his stomach. Everyone gathering in front of the camera to throw signs and show off their tats.

Sometime after the video was made it was recovered by police officers investigating the murders of the UNC-Ferris members Fatso and Gangster. The tape was found in the trunk of a car, and once detectives realized its significance, it was forwarded to the DPD gang unit, which passed it along to Tarango. It would become the most important piece of evidence against the gang members. Besides providing a snapshot of the gang activity on Cymbal, it showed how both gangs were working together to maintain control of the block. The assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case would call it "nothing short of incredible."

January 14, 2003. Seven months into the investigation. Tarango was on Cymbal in an abandoned house coordinating today's undercover buy. So far, they'd completed more than 15 buys, most of them on video. The way Tarango figured it, they'd be looking at 39 indictments when all was said and done.

The usual routine went like this. The team would meet in the morning to discuss who'd make the buy that day. A tech guy from the DPD lab would install a hidden video camera in the car they were using, pointing it toward the driver's side window. Then a couple officers, usually detectives from narcotics, would go to covert locations on the street, just in case something went wrong. Once a buy was complete, the driver would go to an off-site location, where Freese, Salone and Smith would review the video and identify the gang members who'd made the sale. The purchased crack was then sent to the state lab for testing.

Today, Detective Tony Gipson was doing the buy. Because there was no video camera in the truck he was driving, his partner was wearing a heavy coat outfitted with a wire.

From his location, Tarango had already identified the gang members on the street: Ford, Field and both Leatch brothers. The heavy hitters of UNC.

Tarango radioed Gipson and told him to reverse their usual trend and enter from Masters, so officers manning two video cameras, both stationed in second-floor windows on the south side of Cymbal, could film the transaction. As Gipson turned onto the street, Tarango told him to stop in front of the green house.

As soon as the truck had come to a stop, Ford, Field and the Leatch brothers, all covering their faces with bandannas, crowded around it. Gipson asked for $180 worth of crack. They quickly huddled together to pool what they had. "I got two," someone said. They were standing right outside Gipson's window, but he couldn't tell who was kicking in what. "I got 40," someone else said. "I got 60."

Quickly, they'd gathered what they figured was worth $180. Gipson had been shorted almost every time, as had just about every other undercover officer, and he didn't think there was any way they had given him $180 worth of rock. He protested, but because Jason Leatch already had the cash in his hand, there was nothing he could really do. Ford waved him away.

They should have seen the clues. Like the time they broke into one of the neighbor's houses and found a video camera. Or the little hints Soprano was dropping. The increased traffic on the street. Toothpick getting arrested.

Looking back, they should have seen it coming. But they didn't. Instead, they just worked harder. Ford in particular. When everybody else had left, he stayed. He was out as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 2 a.m. Word was he had a couple state cases pending. The way he figured, he was going away for a long time, no matter how you cut it.

Halfway through the investigation, Tarango got a lucky break. A UNC member suspected of murder was caught with a sawed-off shotgun. On top of the murder charge, he was looking at another 10 years. As Tarango put it, he was ready to give up his mom to cut a deal.

"So we go down there and debrief this guy, and we want to know everything. I mean, I bring posters, I got pictures of all the gang members, I want to know who this guy is, who that guy is, what his street role is. We wanted everything."

The gang member, an OG in the UNC, filled in the blanks of Tarango's organizational chart. Ford was the founder and leader, Fields was the supplier, and Jason Leatch, whom Tarango had come to regard as "an asshole," was the enforcer. What about the guns? Tarango asked. One of the problems he faced is that the U.S. Attorney's Office wanted to prosecute it as a gun case, and so far they hadn't seen any guns.

"He said, 'They may not have guns on them, but they're nearby. They're in the bushes near them, they're inside the door.' Well, we do a search warrant and guess what's inside the door? Guns."

As Tarango saw it, the case could have gone on forever, but he was getting pressure from DPD, which was growing tired of hearing from neighbors who hadn't seen a police cruiser on the block for months, pressure from the U.S. Attorney's Office, which wanted to prosecute the case, even pressure from his bosses at the ATF. The investigation was already into its ninth month, and with jailed gang members turning U.S. evidence right and left, Tarango had enough to take down Ford and the rest of the core group operating on Cymbal.

On March 28, 2003, Ford was arrested picking up his girls. Two days later, seven of his associates were arrested, some in spectacular fashion. The Leatch brothers, for example, were taken down in a hotel room off C.F. Hawn Freeway--caught hiding loaded weapons and flushing crack down the toilet. In all, 18 members of the two gangs were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. If they were convicted, they would face up to 30 years in prison.

Two days after the sweep, authorities from the ATF, DPD and the U.S. Attorney's Office gathered on Cymbal Drive for a press conference. "We all know the ride in federal prison is a lot rougher than in state," then-police Chief Terrell Bolton said. "We will not rest until everyone in Dallas can sleep at night."

Ronnie Carter, Dallas' top ATF agent, credited Project Safe Neighborhoods for their success."This is not an isolated instance," he said. "This will continue. We're going to target you, isolate you and get you. If you want to keep playing, we're in the game with you."

Today, Cymbal Drive is considered a textbook case for how local and federal law enforcement can work together to cripple a criminal organization holding a neighborhood hostage. Its methods have been repeated elsewhere in North Texas, though never with the same degree of success.

But there is another version of the story, told by gang members and defense attorneys. According to them, Ford and his associates were not operating as a conspiracy. They were street-level dealers, and taking them down accomplished next to nothing in America's war on drugs. Their supplier, whoever he is, is still at large, supplying other gangs just like theirs. And just a few streets over, crack is as easy to score as it once was on Cymbal.

To the police, Cymbal Drive was never about the drug war. It was about returning a neighborhood to its residents. And by this measure there's no denying it was a success. The real question is whether they solved the problem or simply moved it over to another street.

"I mean it can pop up anywhere, but if you look at the street this many years later, it's not back," says Freese, who is now with the ATF. "We didn't get rid of the Crip gang, but we broke their hold in that neighborhood, and to me, that's the best you can do."

"I think it's one of those deals where you just take it one neighborhood at a time," Tarango adds. "A lot of people say we're losing the war on drugs. You know what, we won that battle. And if they come back, we'll figure out a new way to go after them."

There are things Andre Ford regrets. Dealing dope, mostly. There's no future in it; that's what he would tell his kids.

They visit him sometimes. He's at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, which isn't too far of a drive. Unless he can somehow get the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans to hear his appeal--it's already been rejected once--he'll be here until 2020.

His was one of the heaviest sentences. Didn't make sense: They got him on an amount of crack cocaine he had never even seen, he says. Part of a conspiracy, they said.

Shoot, it was no conspiracy. It was every man for himself.

Still, he's not as bad off as Donald Banks. Banks wasn't even on the street during most of the undercover buys. He was locked up on a state charge. And still, they included him in this so-called conspiracy. He got 30 years, probably because he made the federal government go through the trouble of bringing him to trial. The way Banks figured it, that was his constitutional right. Same with Fields. All but one of the other gang members agreed to a plea bargain.

Ford still keeps in touch with some of them, Fields and the Leatch brothers mostly, as well as the ones in Fort Worth. Toothpick, he got sent clear out to California. Don't know why.

He tries not to think about how much time 20 years in prison is. He'll be almost 50 years old when he gets out, his kids grown. Best not to think about that. Best not to think about being forgotten.

Best to stay busy. During the day he works in the prison factory, making helmets for the army, and at night he reads, novels mostly, but also law books.

Sometimes he writes letters or talks to his girls on the phone. They're now 10 and 11 and live with their mother. They're doing good. His parents help out a lot. His parents are good people. "A lot of people stereotype people in a gang saying that they don't get love at home and all that. I mean, I had two parents at home, and I have a loving family, man, I just, I don't know," he says, chuckling. "I don't know."

He worries about his little boy, who's about to turn 6. He's growing up in the same neighborhood he did, with all the same temptations. He hopes he can be strong, that he won't end up in a place like this. That's all he can do now--hope.

These days, Victoria Navajas can park her car in the front if she wants. There are still bullet holes in her walls but little else to remind her of what the street once was.

She steps outside, pointing to the step where she once found someone dead. She points out the houses gang members used to control. No longer are they marred by graffiti and chipping paint. Now they are occupied by friendly neighbors.

Across the street, a man in a tank top is tending to his garden. A couple walks by with a baby in a stroller. On this late April morning Cymbal Drive is, above all else, quiet.

She goes back inside. There are the bars she put over her windows. Here is where she would cower, under this desk, when she heard gunfire. Upstairs, that's where the police put one of their cameras.

She looks toward the backyard, where she more or less lived during those years. She can smile at the memory. She points through the trees, at a big dilapidated two-story house. She's seen a lot of traffic there lately. Crack whores too. The other night one of them, looking for a fix, propositioned her boyfriend. The smile fades from her face. She knows what it all means. They're coming back.

Streets like Cymbal don't belong to anyone. Sometimes the police are on top, sometimes the gangsters are on top, and sometimes, if you're lucky, the street is quiet.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde