A half dozen members of a Bronx gang called the Vatos sat on the stoop of a Vyse Avenue building in Morrisania on a recent Tuesday afternoon as a black unmarked van carrying plainclothes cops rolled by slowly.
“They’re watching us,” one of the cops noticed.
The teen and twenty-something gangbangers — affiliated with the larger Mac Baller Brims crew — glared into the van, seemingly unafraid.
They should be.
The Bronx Violent Crime Squad wants to put them out of business.
The Bronx team and four other borough-based squads were developed in 2018 to help build the strongest cases possible against gangs — who make their money selling drugs, stealing cars, heisting credit cards — and, sometimes, making drill rap videos, cops said.
The squad was created, in part, to keep young bangers who were caught from being immediately released due to the state’s Raise the Age Law.
The measure, enacted a year earlier, bumped the age at which a teen can be prosecuted as an adult up to 18.
“If you raise the age, and you lower what we call the consequences for bad behavior, then you’re going to get an influx of bad behavior because there’s just no accountability for it,” squad commander Capt. James Whitlock said. “So that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.”
And the numbers bear that out.
This year, there have been 219 shooting victims in the Bronx — an astonishing 40.4% increase from the 156 victims in 2017, before the Raise the Age Law passed, NYPD data show.
Shootings also increased in the NYPD’s Brooklyn North Precinct, which contains the borough’s most crime-ridden precincts. The number of people shot there jumped 22.3% from 103 in 2017 — to 126 in 2023.
In Manhattan North, which also sees a high level of gun violence, the number of gunshot victims increased by 50.9% from 55 in 2017 to 83 in 2023, the data show.
This increase in gang violence fueled a nearly 35% citywide jump in gunshot victims from 479 in 2017 to 644 in 2023.
Before the van pulled up, a lookout on East 174th Street warned the group that police were coming.
“These are the drivers of violence here, hanging out in broad daylight,” said Sgt. Anthony Donato, a supervisor on the squad that investigates shootings and other crimes when gangs are believed to be involved.
“They watch every car that goes by,” another cop in the squad added.
A few doors down from the gangsters’ spot, neighbors — including residents of a senior center — who are often the collateral damage in gang warfare raging across the city, also took in the sunlit day
“There’s hardworking people just trying to enjoy themselves,” one of the NYPD squad members said, shaking his head. “And they are the victims.”
Rapping About A Killing
Kather Werts, 17, was an affiliate of the Vatos — the name stands for Vyse Avenue Takeover — when he was killed in Morrisania in 2020 by two gangs — called Sevway and Spectway — who were enemies of the Vatos that joined forces.
“You need to send the police right now,” said an elderly woman who called 911 to report seeing Werts’s body.
“Please somebody, they have to get out here,” she begged. “This is too much, this is too much.”
Last month, 11 members of Sevway and Spectway were indicted for Werts’s murder, as well as on additional counts including three non-fatal shootings, robberies, and drug possession.
“This case in general highlights what’s going on in the streets right now,” said Whitlock, who grew up in Harlem in the 1970s and ’80s and saw families lose loved ones to gang violence.
“You have these two crews who have historical gripes with each other,” he said. “It’s passed down through generations and now we see the newest generation coming up. And what the newest generation is doing is, they’re exploiting this through social media and music.”
In one video posted on YouTube a year after Werts was slain, the crew rapped about killing him and mocked the victim’s weight.
“Wanna know who killed Kather?” one crew member raps in the video. “Your little homie ran, he should’ve ran faster. I forgot he’s a little fatter. Bullets hit his brain, we saw his brains splatter.”
The teen’s heartbroken mom went to court every day, the officers said.
“When these guys were finally arraigned, she met the investigators outside and thanked them,” Sgt. Donato said of his squad’s sleuths. “They did a really good job. They made the evidence solid so these guys are going to be put away now.”
Werts’s killing was part of a troubling rise in shootings over a two-year span in the neighborhood’s 42nd Precinct. The number of gunshot victims skyrocketed by 228% — from 7 to 23 — between June 1, 2019, and June 1, 2021.
The work of the Violent Crime Squads — whose team members collect video from shooting scenes, know gang members by name, research their social media, and build rapport with possible informants — has been paying off with a series of high-profile cases across the city.
One of the Bronx Violent Crime Squad’s investigations culminated in the federal indictment of the gang Sev Side and the arrest of drill rapper Kay Flock, 20, who has earned an estimated $1 million for his music.
Drill rap, a violent sub-genre that’s frequently tied to street gangs, is often flagged as the motive behind shootings when members taunt each other.
The February indictment charged Kay Flock — who was born Kevin Perez and rose to fame in 2020 with his hit single “Shake It” — with conspiracy, murder, and assault with a deadly weapon.
He was also charged with the gang-related murder of Hwascar Hernandez, who was shot to death on December 16, 2021 in the Hamilton Heights section of Upper Manhattan.
The indictment tied Perez and and fellow gang members to a shocking string of seven shootings in the Bronx that terrorized residents between June 2020 and February 2022.
In Brooklyn, drill rapper Sheff G, born Michael Williams, was named in an indictment in May charging him and other alleged members of 8 Trey Crips with murder, gun violence, and other crimes.
One of the genre’s biggest names, Sheff G made his mark with his 2017 hit single “No Suburban.” The rapper, worth about $5 million, also founded his own Winners Circle record label.
“What we learned during the course of this investigation is that Sheff G used a lot of the money he earned to help facilitate further gang activity, encouraging gang members to participate in violent crimes,” Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez said at the time.
His song “No Remorse” even heckles the district attorney with the lines, “Still duckin’ courts and the DA, look (you) gon’ see how we play.”
Another entrenched Brooklyn gang is the Brownsville-based Woo (“We On Our Own”) gang.
Last year, 32 Woo members were charged with murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy in connection to 19 shootings with 14 victims.
Several of the shootings were allegedly part of a grander scheme to take out members of the rival Choo gang, also Brownsville-based, authorities said. One of their victims was a 3-year-old girl who was shot and wounded as she left a Brooklyn daycare last year when a Woo gang member mistook her dad, who was holding her hand, for a Choo member.
Drill rap pioneer Pop Smoke gave a shout-out to the gang in his 2019 song “Meet the Woo.” The rapper was killed the following year in a Los Angeles home-invasion robbery that’s still being investigated. It was unclear if the murder was gang-related.
In the Bronx, the Mac Baller Brims are the largest subset of the national Bloods gang and have been considered one of the city’s most violent, according to police. The gang formed in 2001.
Mac Baller Austin Morrishow is wanted in the shooting of a 5-year-old girl who was riding in her parents’ car at East 214th Street and Holland Avenue in Williamsbridge over the July 4 weekend. The gunfire occurred outside a vigil for another shooting victim.
Morrishow and an associate allegedly thought they were exchanging fire with gunmen in a car who they believed to be firing on them.
Bullets struck the child in the back, cops said — but the shooters may have been set off by the vehicle backfiring, cops said.
The little girl, who needed surgery on her wounds, survived.
The Mac Baller Brims commit violence beyond their turf, too.
Last month, three members were indicted in connection to a string of brazen gunpoint robberies at lower Manhattan smoke shops in Chelsea, Union Square and the West Village, prosecutors said.
MS-13 — which started as a gang to protect immigrants from El Salvador in Los Angeles in the 1980s– spread worldwide and has a major presence in Queens, law enforcement insiders said. MS-13 whose name is short for Mara Salvatrucha — “gang of street smart Salvadorans” — is known for chopping victims up and sending videos of the dead to their families.
Twenty-two MS-13 members were indicted last month for a wave of “brutal violence” in the borough, officials said.
“The murders and other crimes of violence allegedly committed by these defendants were brutal, cold-blooded and utterly senseless,” Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace said.
In 2020, MS-13 members were charged with the 2018 murder of Andy Peralta, 17, in Kissena Park in Flushing. Three members allegedly stabbed and strangled him — before posing for photos with his body.
“We’re the beast that kills all those animals,” an M-13 member raps in the song “Quienes Somos Nosotros.” “Machete in hand, we’re on the hunt. We kill our enemies anywhere in cold blood.”
But even after all the takedowns, the gangs revive with younger members – and new names, Chief of Detectives James Essig told The Post.
“We’re talking 14-year-olds and 17-year-old kids,” Essig said. “Then you know what you get? You get the taunting on social media, the gang alliances, the accessibility to guns and nonsense happens. Stupid, stupid.”
Dedric “Beloved” Hammond, 44, a former member of the FSU, or “F–k S–t Up” crew from Harlem who served eight years in prison for attempted murder and robbery, said most old gangs are irrelevant and the young crews “run themselves.”
“The youth is the ones doing their own beefing, it’s not even about older dudes, they outgrew us, they all on their own,” said Hammond, who works to try to prevent gang violence. “Now most of the beef is social media, it’s rap beef, it’s drill music.”
Their brutality shocked even hardened NYPD veterans.
Essig recalled a June 19 incident where a 16-year-old boy was fatally shot in the head in a “very brutal homicide” in a gang-infested area of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Essig said.
The teenager was on Marcus Garvey Boulevard between Willoughby Avenue and Hart Street at 5:47 p.m. when he was confronted by two males wearing black masks.
“He put up his hands and they shot him in the head,” Essig said.
Additional reporting by Matthew Sedacca.
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