HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Gangs have been around for decades but have recently made themselves known in the valley.
But just how many gangs and gang members are here?
"When I began prosecution in '94, there were some gangs. Starting in '99 when I was elected, there were more gangs. And as I see it now, we have a little over a thousand known associates and confirmed members," said Marsha Garst, the commonwealth's attorney for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg.
The number of people linked to gang activity within the last five years is 1,063, according to the C.H.A.R.G.E. Unit of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Those people are linked to gang activity as either known members, suspected members or affiliates of members. There are several gangs, such as the Bloods, with 257 members and affiliates; SUR 13, with 238 members; and the Crips, with 231 members. Gang presence is also found in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County.
If you're not in a gang, why should you care? Violent crime is one reason, according to Garst. Randy Sanchez Jr. was convicted for the 2010 murder of Janet Bonilla, a young mother, at the Harris Gardens apartment complex in Harrisonburg.
"He's currently serving life plus three years in the penitentiary. He shot her, and it was a domestic situation; however, he did so because he didn't want to lose face within his own gang, the Latin Kings," said Garst.
Last December, Dallas Chaplin murdered 20-year-old Ben Graessle at an apartment complex on Port Republic Road in Harrisonburg. Chaplin is a reported gang member of the Virginia Stick-up group, an offshoot of the Bloods, out of Staunton, according to Garst.
"[Chaplin] is marked as a VA Stick-up on his chest. He told people he was VA Stick-up, and he even told inmates at the jail that the reason he killed Mr. Graessle was that he couldn't lose face and didn't want one of his individuals or boys to be in an argument with Mr. Graessle and look like he didn't prevail," said Garst.
Graessle's murder is just one example of gang violence in the area.
"There was an assault by mob involving gang members that occurred right outside these walls. There was a person who was shot on the basketball courts in the park, where it was a Crip member that committed that offense. There was a stabbing in the parking lot of O'Charley's, in which it was SUR 13 versus SUR 13," said Cpl. Bryan Horowitz, the coordinator of the C.H.A.R.G.E. Gang Unit for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
"The problem is innocent people get caught in the crossfire of these gangs, and we all suffer when they come into our community and deal drugs because all of our quality of lives are affected by people becoming addicted to these drugs that these people are putting on the streets," said Garst.
People normally think gangs are in larger cities, so why are gangs in the Valley?
"The things that are the traditional explanation, like migration, and it happens, are gang members from larger communities whether it be Northern Virginia, the beach area, Richmond, New York, New Jersey, Texas, California; they come here, and we see that," said Horowitz. "That being said, the gang problem here and across the country, as studies have shown, was going to happen anyway, and it's fostered because of how ingrained the gang culture is in society currently."
In addition to migration and gangs becoming more common, Horowitz said the third reason is that people enjoy being a part of a local group.
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