Inside the takedown of notorious N.J. gang

Inside the takedown of notorious N.J. gang

07 Ağustos 2018 - 02:00

Over the past five years, federal authorities have arrested more than 70 members of the Grape Street Crips, a violent street gang with roots in Los Angeles that now controls much of the heroin trade in Newark and its nearby suburbs, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

In addition to drug-trafficking, gang members were charged with multiple murders, shootings, aggravated assault, and witness intimidation.

The takedown of the Grape Street Crips is a story of drugs and firepower, betrayal and cold violence, involving a multi-million-dollar drug enterprise with a reach far beyond the state’s largest city. It played out against a background of dozens of murders, daylight shootings, street corner drug sales to suburban kids in cars, and out-of-state heroin shipments.

"Corey Hamlet is as smart as any CEO we've ever prosecuted..."

— U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito

And at the center of it all, say federal prosecutors, was Hamlet, a 41-year-old charismatic gang leader who was more than wary about staying under the radar of law enforcement.

Nothing directly linked Hamlet to drug dealing or the city’s ruthless gang violence. He did no business on his phone. His name did not come up on government wiretaps. Prosecutors, though, said those who defied him frequently turned up dead.

And yet as the bodies “started stacking up and drug volumes increased,” they realized his name was on the lips of just about everyone.

“People think street gang members are not as smart as white-collar criminals. But Corey Hamlet is as smart as any CEO we’ve prosecuted,” said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito.

Carpenito, as an assistant U.S. attorney. was part of the team that won a securities fraud conviction against the former chairman of Cendant Corp. in one of the largest accounting scandals of the 1990s.


Crips members (from l. to r.) Rashan Washington, known as "Shoota," Justin Carnegie, whose street name was "Dew Hi," and Kwasi Mack, or "Welches," carrying a Ruger 9mm that prosecutors said was used 5 days after the October 2013 photo was taken in an attempted murder of members of the Bloods street gang. The photo was entered into evidence during trial. (U.S. Attorney's office)

A group where nobody used their names

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Newark’s Grape Street Crips were responsible for one of the biggest heroin distribution networks in North Jersey.

“They controlled neighborhood close to 280,” said assistant U.S. attorney Ronnell Wilson, chief of the office’s Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force, referring to Interstate 280, one of the main arteries to get in and out of the state’s largest city.

From the Colonnade Apartments, the high-rise towers in the University Heights district of Newark, to the city’s public housing projects and beyond, and even on NJ Transit trains, the Crips moves kilos upon kilos of heroin every week, according to Wilson. Cash was laundered through restaurants and retail businesses, including a downtown clothing store.

The Crips themselves were very much an enigma. No one in the gang used their real names, going instead by chosen street names. There was Sco and BD. Live Wire. Pac Man. Shoota. Welches. Wheels. Zelly. Mini Me. Rah Rah and C-Murder, and dozens of others. Often gang members themselves did not know each other’s given names, they acknowledged during trial

“It ain’t important to know a person’s real name, know what I mean?” explained Aaron Terrell, who everyone knew as “Push,” and could only identify gang members who grew up with him. “If anything go wrong and somebody telling on them, you going to go, ‘I don’t even know you, I only call you by your street name.’”

Hamlet took the name “C-Blaze” even before he joined the Crips, he said, because he used a lot of marijuana as a teenager. A friend said he was always “blazed up,” so he became Blaze. Then it was C-Blaze. And then Blizzie, because Hamlet thought it was “kind of like a cooler version of Blaze.”


The plea deal signed by Batts

Getting someone to flip

In an effort to figure out who was who, the U.S. Attorney’s office began using spreadsheets and charts to index all the names and faces.

“When you’re trying to get someone to flip, you have to do your homework,” said Benvenuto, who was brought into the case in 2013 as part of an already widening investigation.

Flipping, in fact, was to become their strategy. The effort would be to find gang members willing to cooperate—however distasteful and unsavory they might appear before a jury.

Using criminals to convict criminals is a time-honored tactic, especially in organized crime. It was the testimony of mob turncoat Sammy “The Bull” Gravano—who confessed to 19 murders—that put “Dapper Don” John Gotti in prison.

Despite the baggage they would bring to any prosecution of the Grape Street Crips, gang members who had committed acts of murder could still serve as native guides into the far-flung criminal enterprise, no matter how despicable they might appear.

One of those who cooperated, in fact, was Corey Batts, who shot a long-time friend allegedly on orders of Hamlet, firing at such close range that he said he put his hand up to shield himself from the splattered blood and brains that sprayed back at him.

In addition, they soon learned there was one other window they had into the gang.

Hamlet was hooked on Instagram.

As Blizzie103, Hamlet had more than 12,400 followers on the social media platform and was often curiously unguarded—as if he thought his privacy settings would keep his posts from the view of law enforcement.


East Side High School, in red, in an October 1994 win over Rahway, when Corey Hamlet caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to finish a seven-play, 40-yard drive. (Star-Ledger file photo)

A star athlete

Born in Newark, Corey Hamlet grew up in the city’s public housing projects. He lived in the Hayes Home projects until he was about 11, and then to Hyatt Court with his grandmother until she passed away, and then moved with his mom to Prince Street.

He is physically a big man.

At six-one and 230 pounds, it was not hard to imagine his playing days for East Side High School in Newark. Old newspaper clips from 1994 tell of the 90-yard touchdown pass caught by Hamlet in the first quarter in what would turn into a 41-0 victory over Kearny, and the 12-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from quarterback Migel Rodriguez to help the Red Raiders cruise to a 20-0 victory over Rahway.

Following graduation, he earned a full ride to play football at Lackawanna College, a two-year junior college in Scranton. He never graduated. After a year, he said he was kicked out of school.

“Corey left the team because of issues relating to the coaching staff and their policies on certain team-related matters,” said his attorney, Anthony Iacullo of Nutley. “Since Corey was not playing, he did not receive his scholarship and he could not afford the tuition.” 

Hamlet soon came back to his old neighborhood where the Crips ruled the streets.

“I ain’t really had no sense of direction, I ain’t really know like what was my next phase or next step in life, and I just gravitated towards it,” he explained in court of his involvement in the gang. “Before I looked up, I was kind of like caught up in it.”


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