JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - "I'm a 4 Corner Hustler. Four people on this side, four on this side, I'm in the middle. We're fighting. If I fall, it's over with."
That's how Jeremiah Travis got initiated into his gang at age 13. Now 26 and covered in tattoos, the high-ranking 4 Corner Hustler recently completed a five year prison term for selling crack cocaine.
"My typical week was selling drugs, shooting people, all that," admitted Travis. "Carjacking and all that, every week, on a daily basis."
The Canton native said he's taken a step back from that lifestyle. Now, he's seeing a lot of young "wanna-bes" entering the scene.
"I ran up on a few guys who don't know nothing about the 4 Corner Hustlers or nothing like that, but they got their hat twisted to the left, and they're still screaming," said Travis.
Officials say imitators and duplicators can be just as dangerous as the real deal, because they may be willing to do just about anything to prove themselves.
And experts say Travis' story of joining young is all too common; they say gangs recruit kids as young as eight years old.
That's chilling news when you see places like Redbud Park in Canton, where young children are surrounded by gang graffiti. In Jackson, you'll find fresh paint from the Ghost Town Gangsters on a daycare center called Little Dreamers Academy.
Next time you drive down Interstate 55, take a close look. You'll spot the six-pointed star of the Gangster Disciples on the sign for exit 98 B in Jackson.
Youth Court Judge Bill Skinner said that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gangs in Hinds County.
"These guys are out there. This isn't just a California problem. This isn't just a Chicago problem. This is a Jackson, Mississippi problem, this is a Hinds County problem," said Skinner.
"In the last year and a half or so, we've seen our gang population in Hinds County double. We went from seeing one or two gang members every two or three weeks [in Youth Court] to seeing a couple a day."
It's not just happening in Hinds County. Investigators said it's growing like a cancer in Madison and Rankin counties, especially when it comes to the Simon City Royals, an Aryan gang that originated in Chicago.
"The latest rash of auto burglaries in Madison and Rankin counties, people breaking into unlocked cars. That was the Simon City Royals, trying to get money to support their drug habit, or trying to pay dues to support the gang," said Harold Gray, gang investigator for the Madison and Rankin County District Attorney's office.
Gray is also president of the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators.
Gray said the Simon City Royals first came on the radar back in 2008, when officials arrested a number of suspected gang members after a near-fatal fight at a Richland trailer. This week, WLBT's cameras captured SCR graffiti on the back of an abandoned building near North Park Mall in Ridgeland.
"The gang culture has crossed all socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial boundaries. It's everywhere. It affects everybody," said Gray.
"What's even more frightening is when the parents don't even know or never had a clue," said Capt. Victor Mason, with the Hinds County Sheriff's Department.
Mason, a long-time gang expert, works to identify young gang members who go through Hinds County Youth Court.
Spotting gangs in your neighborhood isn't necessarily as blatant as graffiti on a wall. It can be as simple as a baseball cap. Turned to the left, that could mean someone's in a gang under the People nation, which includes the Vice Lords, one of the metro area's most prominent gangs. Turned to the right, that could be a sign someone's part of the Folk Nation, which includes the Gangster Disciples and Simon City Royals.
"Check your own house. Try to see why the child is wearing more red everyday. More blue everyday," said Mason. "The people who come to the house, see who they are."
"We've got to do a better job in Jackson Public Schools and Hinds County Schools of teaching them how to identify gang members, because these kids are flashing signs, they're wearing colors, doing all this gang activity in school, and the teachers don't have a clue what they're even looking at," said Skinner.
Jackson Public Schools said its security department is available, by request, to train teachers and students how to spot and prevent gang activity. But it no longer has school resource officers to help with the task. A spokesperson said JPS is working to secure funding for them by the next school year.
Meanwhile, the Jackson Police Department said it doesn't keep statistics on how many crimes are gang related, and no longer has a "gang suppression unit." A spokesperson said Jackson doesn't have a gang problem.
"If you think that, I've got some beach front property on Lamar Street, because we've got a gang problem," said Skinner.
"Communities and their leaders here, some of them are reluctant to adopt an image that we have gangs," said Gray. "It is here, and the longer it goes unaddressed, the worse it's going to get."
Gang experts estimate there are about 2,000 gang members in the tri-county area.
"It's serious to the point where we can lose a whole generation of 14 to17 year olds. We can just wipe that whole generation out, we can just count them off. The ones that don't get killed will have criminal records," said Mason.
Skinner said we may be able to find solutions by looking to Jackson's past.
"We had an issue with gangs in the early 80s, mid-80s in Jackson. And we attacked the problem head on, and I think you saw a big reduction in gangs because we didn't wait around for something to happen," said Skinner. "We've got to go back to that. We've gotten kind of complacent... Now you're starting to see this resurgence."
Still, officials say we're not seeing murders over colors or turf like we did in the 80s. Now, we're seeing something else.
"A lot of the kids that get charged with drug charges at school - gang related," said Skinner. "A lot of these kids pulling the house burglaries - they're involved in gangs."
Mason points out that metro area gangs don't have a real organizational structure, but says imitators and duplicators can also bring down communities with violence and crime.
Meanwhile, with gang tattoos clearly visible on his face and a criminal record, Travis said it's hard for him to find work, and has this advice for youngsters.
"My advice is not to sell no drugs, steal no cars, car jack nobody. Get you a job," said Travis.
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