At the stroke of midnight and into the predawn this past May 20, the little unincorporated Galveston County town of Bacliff was roiling with squadrons of cops of every description, from small-town police to the Department of Public Safety's Narcotics Service to the FBI and DEA.
This was the culmination of this ad hoc task force's two-year investigation of Bacliff's 4th Street Players — a street gang claiming affiliation with the Bloods, the predominantly black, Los Angeles-based gang founded in 1972 — and a few of the ten alleged members hauled away that night on charges of dealing cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine sported the gang's tattoos: "Kliff Side," "4SP," "4th Street Playa," "4th Street Blood," "Playa 4 Life," "MOB (Member of Bloods)" and "Paw Prints."
The address of the gang's headquarters and birthplace was furnished by the FBI — 4410 4th St. in Bacliff — and if you drive there today, you'll see three pairs of red sneakers dangling like strange fruit over a power line overhanging the street.
On their MySpace pages, the members and associates still more clearly showed their Blood colors — several claiming affiliation had customized the backgrounds of their pages with flame-red bandannas, while others had music playing by New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne, who recently claimed affiliation with the Bloods. (Others featured gangsta rap tracks performed by some of the set's more musically inclined members.)
These kids call each other "my nigga," sport long baggy shorts and several have customized red bandanna-patterned Houston Astros hats. Other pics show them smoking weed and packing AK-47's and pump shotguns. One who was not arrested had this message of support for his recently incarcerated homies on his site: ""FREE RED, SEAN G, SHO, NUT, JASON, RICKY G, LIL G 50/50 4SP 1 LUV 500UUPP LIL JOE."
Others sent shout-outs to their 'hood — flashing tats repping "The Wicked Sticks," which along with "The Kliffside" is another of Bacliff's many nicknames.
When you travel there, you can see that the Wicked nickname fits — Grand Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, is lined with little more than a nonstop succession of beer joints, liquor stores and gambling halls, while the town's back streets offer up vistas of ramshackle abodes and general deprivation not often seen outside of Appalachia. (It's Gulf Coast-style poverty, though; often as not, these houses have the hulks of rusted-out boats in their tiny yards instead of trucks.)
Poverty is nothing new, nor is it earth-shattering news when street gangs peddle drugs (and get busted for same). What is unusual about the 4th Street Players Blood set — from reputed leader Jason James Ruppert, a.k.a. "Lil' J," on down — is the fact that every single one of them, like 70 percent of Bacliff's roughly 7,000 inhabitants, is white.
"Bacliff right now is the problem child [in the area]," says "Gator" Miller, the editor of regional entertainment sheet Night Moves and the publisher of the Seabreeze, a monthly newspaper that is one of the best reads among small-town papers in America. "It's pretty close to Kemah. There's criminal activity there. The sheriff doesn't have enough resources to go after it, and these guys go up to Kemah and jack tourists, and there's a lot of violent crime over in Bacliff. The deputies tell me they spend 90 percent of their time in Bacliff."
And while there are plenty of nice houses and good people in Bacliff, especially along the waterfront, the overall impression of the town is that much of it is a white ghetto almost as hardcore as the roughest parts of Houston's South Park or Fifth Ward.
Stats bear this out — there are nearly as many unemployed as owners of college degrees, the median house price is $80,000 and 22 percent of the populace is below the poverty level, as against 15 percent for the state of Texas, with 8.9 percent of Bacliffians making half or less of the poverty level. Lou's, the town's one true grocery store, is well stocked with booze, cigarettes and canned food, but offers little else other than wilted vegetables and whole aisles of all-but-bare shelves.
For some kids from the area, it is all too easy to be lured in by the prospect of quick, easy money, just like the fantasies the dope boy rappers sell. Bacliff is awash in vice. With fewer than 7,000 inhabitants, Bacliff has to be one of the smallest towns in Texas with its very own strip club. There are "game rooms" all over town, many open around-the-clock and offering enticing targets for stickup kids. (A man was killed in one such robbery this past Fourth of July.)
For such a small town, Bacliff has an astounding number of bars. In fact, its ratio of taverns-to-citizens rivals those of many hard-drinking British seaside resorts. "This is the only town I know that has churches next to bars that are next to gambling halls, and then repeat that all over town," says local resident Jack Nelson.
Bacliff was never supposed to have been a year-round place of inhabitation. It was first built in 1910 as a vacation resort called Clifton-By-The-Sea, but several hurricanes, the rebirth of Galveston after the 1900 storm and the rise of rapid transportation rendered its charms less potent. Why go to Clifton-By-The-Sea (which is actually on the bay) when you can head down to the open water in Galveston, Florida or even the Caribbean?
But if it made a less-than-ideal vacation spot, it was a decent enough place to live, for a time. Galveston Bay wasn't so polluted back then, nor was the shoreline as eroded as it is today. The shrimping industry was booming. "There was still a beach in Bacliff, and cliffs," remembers Miller. "There were still flying fish in the bay."
Miller recalls that the land was so cheap in the 1950s that The Galveston Daily News bought a huge parcel and awarded free homesites to new subscribers. "If you canceled your subscription, you lost the homesite, and they gave it to someone else," Miller says. "So now, there are a lot of really fucked-up titles in Bacliff, and that's why there's no big business there. Kroger doesn't want to build a store and have somebody come out of the woodwork with title to the land."
Miller remembers the town as fairly well off until a downturn hit the shrimping industry in the '80s. Since then, there has been an exodus of the well-off to places like Dickinson and San Leon and an influx of people with nowhere else to go — impoverished illegal aliens, sex offenders and other felons. Bacliff's tiny lots are still cheap, and some owners have attempted to maximize income from them by putting multiple trailers on one lot.
Sergeant J.D. Wilson of the Galveston County Constables says that the absentee landlords don't care about their run-down properties and background checks are seldom run. "When they are renting out a 60-year-old mobile home with huge holes in the floor, they don't care who they rent to, as long as they get their money."
It's that mean-streets, trailer-trash vibe that the 4th Street Players picked up on and ran with, but instead of adopting traditional badass white-dude personas like outlaw bikers or rockers, they adopted their own version of black street culture, as codified by gangsta rap (see "Bacliff Wiggers: The Other Kind of White Gang").
It's probably no coincidence that the decline of the shrimping industry and the rise of gangs in Bacliff came at the same time. "This has always been a working-person's town, but the shrimping industry is just a catastrophe right now," says Miller.
Miller had a front-row seat for both developments. After the death of his wife, he raised four kids alone a couple of blocks away from the 4th Street Players' unofficial HQ.
"My last kid turned 18 in 2002 or somewhere around there, so I have firsthand experience with living in that community and having these guys with the red outfits running around."
According to Miller, 4SP was the white Anglo response to a tough Mexican street gang from the other side of Grand Avenue — the Brown Assassins. Tired of being hunted for sport by the B.A.'s, and inspired by gangsta rap and movies like Colors, two kids started calling themselves the 4th Street Players in the early '90s.
Miller says that 4SP was born in an extremely unsavory place: "There was an old guy — he's dead now — an old pedophile that lived in a trailer there on 4th Street," he says. "He had no children, but he had video games and swing sets and monkey bars in this fenced compound, and he provided sanctuary for these guys for years."
Miller says the gang's crimes started small — at first they were content to swipe bicycles (including his own and his son's, which they promptly spray-painted red), break into cars and peddle pills they had swiped from their parents' medicine chests. Also, the gang's weapons in the early days were laughable. "They were armed with stuff like nunchucks," Miller remembers. Few regarded them as anything more than a nuisance. "They were just real poor kids," Miller says. "The neighborhood hoodlums. It wasn't a big deal."
One woman — we'll call her Mary — with three sons who affiliated with 4th Street denied it ever got much beyond that, federal indictment or not. "Back in the day, and I'm talking probably eight, nine years ago, they used to call themselves the 4th Street Bloods. But it wasn't a gang. It was really nothing. They didn't terrorize people. They smoked pot, and probably some of them did go further, but that's where I don't have any knowledge, 'cause my kids never really went that far."
Miller says two gang-related events drove him out of his house in Bacliff. One night he got a frantic phone call from his son — he was trapped in a house with the 4th Street kids outside wanting to beat him up.
I loaded my shotgun and went to get him," Miller says. "The 4th Street kids told me, 'Motherfucker, we'll kill you,' and I said, 'Start killin'.' They didn't, but I was watching my back for a long time."
Not long after that, he popped around the corner to the store. There was a scuffle in the parking lot. "I look over, and there was a kid dressed in red on the ground and he is cut straight across his belly and there's blood everywhere," Miller says. "He was wearing red basketball shorts and a red shirt." While Miller didn't get a good look at the assailant, he believed the knifing was the work of the Brown Assassins.
And so Miller moved to Dickinson in 2003, and today spends more of his time in the bars of San Leon.
They say that the toothbrush was invented in Bacliff. If it had been invented anywhere else, it would have been called the teethbrush.
— Local joke
Local residents will tell you that Bacliff's problems have worsened in the last ten years. Husband and wife Jack and Wendy Nelson were interviewed in front of their trailer, a block or two from 4th Street's HQ.
"I grew up here, and I used to be able to ride my bicycle all over town and not worry about anything" says Wendy Nelson. "Now the kids won't get out of the road, the drugs are taking over, the gangs are taking over. If my kid goes around the corner out of my sight, I make him come back home."
Jack Nelson says that his carpentry tools have been stolen five times, and that Bacliff's problems stem more from drugs — specifically crack and meth — than gangs per se. "We don't have drive-bys or anything like that. It's just a bunch of bored kids looking for easy money. I bet you I could walk down this street right now and find two drug dealers and 15 people that are under the influence. It's bad."
People are fighting back. According to Miller, September 11, 2004, was a historic day for Bacliff and San Leon. A town hall meeting was held in which the citizenry demanded local officials clean up the town.
But, they added, don't go overboard: Miller said that many people in the town, himself included, want to be allowed to drink, smoke weed and gamble with abandon, but they want the line drawn at crack and meth.
"I actually got up and said, 'These people' — meaning the police — 'have known me all my life. They know that I would never sell drugs, but they also know that I have been known to take a toke. I just don't see a problem with people recreationally having a few drinks or a couple tokes off a joint, but there's a serious problem with these crackheads because they are a crime wave.'"
The gangbangers say that Bacliff has always had its crackheads, and that all they did was provide a service in stopping them from having to travel to the ghetto in Dickinson to score. That is exactly the problem, Miller believes. "Most of the crackheads don't have cars," Miller reasons. "If you run the dealers out of town, the crackheads won't live here. They will move to League City or Houston or Dickinson or somewhere where they can get their dope."
Miller says that two officers in the Galveston County Sheriff's Office — Major Ray Tuttoilmondo and a young deputy named Brent Cooley — grasped best what the townspeople were saying. "Cooley really made it his business to do what the people asked," Miller says. "That's why even the people he arrests have a grudging respect for the man. He's fair, and he's doing what the public wants."
Neither cop would talk to the Houston Press for this story — Cooley referred all inquiries to Tuttoilmondo, who in turn passed any questions off to the United States Attorney's Office. That office declined comment, saying the crack, cocaine and meth cases against the alleged gangsters has yet to come to trial.
Gang members weren't talking either. The "stop snitchin'" ethos is strong in Bacliff. Indeed, a friend and I got in a very sketchy situation with some admitted Mexican-American gang members in a bar we had been warned not to go to, both because we were asking too many questions and because I stupidly wore the wrong T-shirt. "Get your Alamo T-shirt-wearing ass the fuck out of this bar," advised a stocky, thirtysomething ex-con with a beard and long hair. Even the barmaid taunted us as we literally backed ourselves out the door.
But the town is airing much of its dirty laundry on a Topix messageboard (http://www.topix.com/houston/2008/05/feds-bust-10-alleged-gang-members): In a remarkable thread of more than 150 posts and counting, Deputy Cooley emerged as a legend of Bacliff's 'hood.
Some called him a hero, while others made allegations of corruption of every sort imaginable. Poster after poster came on and defended the 4th Street Players as good men just doing what had to be done to feed their families, and calling out the police for all manner of misdeeds. Someone purporting to be Cooley himself responded a couple of times at length, saying that the people who were arrested were not charged with being bad people or bad fathers or mothers, that people were confusing harassment with enforcement, and denying the corruption allegations.
"You don't like me because I DO MY JOB!" the post continued. "People say drugs is a 'VICTIMLESS' crime. Tell that to all the mothers and fathers I have talked to in Bacliff and San Leon over the years who have cried and cried to me over and over again about how much they love their children but have been robbed, assaulted and victimized by their own kids for the last time — all because of the drugs that are so 'HARMLESS'!"
"There is no gate, wall or moat around Bacliff or San Leon that is keeping anyone here," the poster continued. "How you choose to live your life is simply that — how you CHOOSE to live it. My job is not to drive around and stop people just to talk to them about making something out of their lives. That was your parents' job, not mine...Trust me, there are days I hate this job. So feel free to express yourselves and blame me, it's your 1st Amendment Right to do so."
Bacliff, which clings to the southern fringes of the 281 area code, is one of the last wild places in Greater Houston, for now.
"You have to intentionally go to either Bacliff or San Leon because you've gotta turn left off the highway," says Miller. "It's kind of a hideout." Miller says that the constables in the town in days gone by were lax in the extreme. "Those old boys said, 'I don't care what you do as long as you don't do it in my town.' And it was a hideout for many years — if you were wanted by the law, if you were on the dodge, if you were runnin' some kind of criminal activity. Back before meth labs became real popular, they had 'em all over Bacliff and San Leon because they operated largely protected under the watchful eye of the local constables. But Matranga got in there and she's a tough motherfucker, and she doesn't let all that happen."
Salty, good-humored Pam Matranga became Precinct 7's Constable in 2004, and Miller thinks things are improving on her watch. "She's a great constable, but she has no paid deputies," he says. "There's not a lot she can do, but she does much more than we've ever seen before out of the constables."
Like a lot of people in Galveston County, Matranga once had a preconceived notion of Bacliff and San Leon, and it wasn't favorable. "Bacliff gets a bad rap," she says. "It's a very, very lovely community. The people here will reach out. There's a benefit almost every weekend for someone that needs help."
"Felon City" is another nickname for Bacliff/San Leon, and to Matranga, it is something of a misnomer. She says that it's not that the natives of the town are bad people — it's the people that come in from the outside. "Well, you know, you can come and rent a house down here for $200 a month," she says. "If I'm just getting out of the pen, that's where I'm gonna live. You can just kinda blend in and mind your own business, and then there's the gangs."
Another aspect of life there that attracts a criminal element is understaffed law enforcement. "Because it's an unincorporated area, it's enforced by the Sheriff's Department," she says. "Do they need more support over here? Yes, they do. Is it out of control? I think I've seen a lot of changes since I've been here in the last four years."
Bacliff has a high number of sex offenders — one per every 225 citizens, as compared to one per 594 in Houston — and Matranga's office tries to keep close tabs on them, as well as making sure that seniors don't fall prey to crime. As for the drugs, there is not a lot her office can do, she says. "We do everything we can. If I don't have the money I need to go into a drug house, then I'll have my guys go over there and sit in front of it and screw up their business. We've run a couple of 'em out that way."
She has a fairly nuanced view of the gangsters in her town. "We're now dealing with gangbangers' children. It's the economics of the area. It runs the whole gamut. It comes from children who perceive that they don't have any family life — they want to fit in, they want to be a part of something, and these gangbanger people embrace that. Sometimes with the way their home life is, that is the only family that they have."
Matranga acknowledges that Bacliff has serious woes. "There's stuff in place, but is there a problem? Yes, we have a drug problem over here, obviously with them coming in on the gangbangers and stuff like that. But it's something that's being addressed, and it's gonna take awhile."
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And Bacliff will probably change, from without if not from within. A gated residential compound full of two-story brick houses that wouldn't look out of place in Clear Lake has popped up on Bacliff's south side, and property values along every coastline in Texas have steadily risen for years. Matranga points out that there are 700 new homes going up on Bayshore Drive, Bacliff's most pleasant and wealthy thoroughfare.
As progress inches closer, residents suspect that there will be more pressure on law enforcement to clean up the town. "No 1 gave a shit about Bacliff, except Bacliff, intell they started building houses," opined one spelling-challenged keyboard gangster on the Topix board.
Miller is not so sure that things will ever change in Bacliff without drastic measures — like tearing down huge swaths of it. "Just looking at it from an aerial view, you can see that it's destined to be a ghetto," Miller says. "There's no room there the way the streets are laid out, and the only way to relieve that would be if the county came in and condemned half the streets and let grass grow through."