Two groups of alleged gangs have been connected with 36 shootings in Owensboro in 2018 and 2019, according to documents filed in Daviess Circuit Court.
As first reported in Wednesday's Messenger-Inquirer, the groups, which call themselves "Bloods" and "Gangster Disciples," have been involved in shootings into homes, at cars and at individuals, according to court documents.
At least one of those shootings, on March 13, 2019, resulted in the death of a Hopkinsville man, Kevin D. White, on West Eighth Street. A double homicide, where two teens were shot to death and a third wounded in June in Whitesville, also has a possible connection, with two of the victims believed to have been members of the Bloods.
Both the Bloods and Gangster Disciples are national organized crime gangs. Whether the people calling themselves Bloods and Gangster Disciples in Owensboro are members of those larger organizations is unclear.
"We have isolated groups of people capable of committing violent offenses," Commonwealth's Attorney Bruce Kuegel said Wednesday.
But if they meet the legal definition of criminal gang activity is undetermined.
"I don't want to downplay the violence these individuals are capable of," Kuegel said. But Kuegel added, "I have not seen, nor am I aware of any organized ... Bloods, Crips or (other nationally recognized gangs) here."
Major Bill Thompson, head of investigations for the Daviess County Sheriff's Department, said people affiliated with large criminal gangs come through Owensboro and could live here. That would be logical, because Owensboro is in close proximity to cities with gang issues, such as Hopkinsville, Evansville and Chicago, Thompson said.
"I think citizens would be naive to think there is not gang activity" in the community, Thompson said, but said locals claiming gang affiliation might not have a larger connection.
Thompson said it could be locals calling themselves Bloods or Gangster Disciples do so "to gain themselves credibility."
An organized gang often has structure, with consequences for members who don't perform assigned tasks, Kuegel said.
"As far as what a true gang is, there are consequences and there is organization," Kuegel said. "I'm not seeing that (locally)."
Under state law, certain criteria have to be met for a group to be considered a criminal gang. It takes more than for just a group to proclaim themselves a gang. Some evidence of gang activity or recruitment includes an organizational or command structure, a creed or belief, an initiation ritual, a claim of territory, and a method of operation.
Trooper Corey King, public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police in Henderson, said organized criminal gangs such as the Latin Kings, MS-13 and the Surenos are known to be in Kentucky because of the drug trade.
But, "I just don't think they are setting up in Owensboro," King said.
Criminal gangs in Kentucky would have drug trade business in cities like Owensboro they tend to set up in rural areas, where there is limited law enforcement presence, King said.
"A lot of the well-organized gangs and well-known ones, they don't want a lot of attention on them," King said. "... You don't want the police and citizens putting eyes on you."
A person attempting to claim gang affiliation who's not actually part of a national gang runs a certain risk.
"I guess they can say that, but if a genuine gang member affiliated with the gang knows you're a fraud, bad things can happen to you," King said.
City Mayor Tom Watson said Wednesday the Owensboro Police Department has worked to curb violence in the city. OPD reinstated its "flex team" last June in response to violence on the city's west side.
In six months, the team issued 320 charges on drug offenses, issued more than 400 arrest warrants and filed 23 weapons charges, while increasing foot patrols and proactive patrols on west side streets.
"I have all the confidence in the world in the police department," Watson said. "They are doing everything they can to make us as safe as possible."
Tim Collier, a member of My Brother's Keeper, the grassroots group formed last year to work to reduce violence and drug crime among young people, said the organization is "trying to do preventative maintenance, to stop it before it happens."
The organization is working on ideas such as lowering the juvenile curfew in the city, and one creating a teen council, "to let us know what they need, instead of us telling them what they need," Collier said.
Collier said some youths who claim gang affiliation have little understanding of the gangs they claim.
"A lot of these kids are false-flagging," Collier said. "They are representing one gang, and are wearing another gang's colors. They don't know what they're doing. There are 10 and 12 year-olds throwing gang signs, and some O.G. is going to check them on it."
The community needs to be more involved, with more people volunteering to work with youths, Collier said.
"I'd like to see more volunteers helping with My Brother's Keeper and other organizations," Collier said. "I'd like to see more churches becoming involved. Don't wait until something happens."
Kuegel said, while it hasn't been determined the groups responsible for the shooting incidents are connected to organized gangs, they are still a major concern.
"They're around, and they don't hesitate to fire off shots," Kuegel said. "Those bullets, if they don't hit their targets, are flying through the community."
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse