Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Study shows young crooks use social media to brag of criminal exploits

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With his picture plastered all over the news and Winnipeg police on high alert last week, Terryl Izzard did what seemingly every gangster on the run does these days.

The Mad Cowz member fired up his computer, went online and raised a proverbial middle finger to society.

Izzard, 18, cheekily changed his Facebook profile picture to his publicly released mug shot and joked with friends about the fact he had yet to be "scooped." Police finally caught up to him 48 hours later, and Izzard's online presence has been temporarily muted while he remains in custody on drug-trafficking charges.

Izzard's bravado is far from unique. As a new study reveals, gangs and gang members are increasingly using the Internet to raise their own profile. Social media have given them the platform to increase the type of prestige and power that often lure them into the illicit lifestyle in the first place.

Nearly 600 criminally involved youths from five major American cities were interviewed for the study, which was recently published online by Justice Quarterly. The authors of the report -- Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and doctoral student Richard Moule of Arizona State University -- concluded cyberspace is now providing another home for so-called turf wars, often to their own detriment.

"Gang members illegally download media, sell drugs, co-ordinate assaults, search social network sites to steal and rob, and upload deviant videos at a higher rate than former or non-gang members," the study found. "Gang members recognized the importance of the Internet, but sites were used mainly as status symbols. Instead of exploiting the Internet for criminal opportunities, YouTube, Facebook, or other social media are used much like an "electronic graffiti wall."

Police are becoming just as tech-savvy, recognizing the Internet is now a valuable investigative tool. In Winnipeg, gang-squad officers routinely monitor Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Bebo accounts linked to many well-known members.

Last year, an aspiring Winnipeg rapper was sentenced to 10 years for drug and weapons offences to which he frequently made reference in a handful of videos posted online and seized by police.

In another recent case, police charged a couple of members of a local rap group who had posted a video online in which they made threats against musical rivals and showed off what appeared to be a large arsenal of high-powered weaponry.

The five-minute U Want War? clip appeared on YouTube and involved a half-dozen young men posing for the camera, handguns visible in their waistbands and warning of retribution against a "rat." The video then flashed to a graphic shot of a dead rodent in a trap. There are numerous references to shootings, graves, coffins and snitches, often spliced in with images of several guns spread out on a table.

And who can forget Winnipeg's "Laughing Girl," who infamously mocked the fact she was caught in a speeding stolen car that killed an innocent cab driver a few years back. The gang-affiliated teen told police she didn't care the man was dead, then later went online and posted pictures of the deadly crash.

"Holy, can't get enouugh of me," the teen quipped in a Bebo post reacting to the media attention. "(Expletive) deaaadly" she wrote beneath another picture of the crumpled cab.

David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, said much of the online gang activity found in the recent study mirrors what is playing out on the streets.

"For the most part, gang members are using the Internet for self-promotion and braggadocio, but that also involves some forms of criminal and deviant behaviours," he said in a release.

A 2011 Winnipeg homicide involved a 14-year-old gang member allegedly gunning down a 20-year-old man in the North End. Police believe the killing was revenge for an earlier gang-related slaying of a 15-year-old boy. Police admitted there were simmering gang tensions that had been fuelled by online comments made by members of both groups.

Former Manitoba Hells Angels member Dale Donovan found an unusual way to tell the world he might be in danger a few years ago -- he posted info on his MySpace account. Donovan showed off a letter from the RCMP that indicated he was the target of a potential threat. He then invited visitors to comment, offering his own unique two cents on the threat: "Get in line and pack a lunch." Sources told the Free Press Donovan's actions were in keeping with the outlaw biker creed that they can take care of themselves without help from police. Several local Hells Angels maintain active online accounts, where they post photos of everything from their tattoos to their motorcycles to their dogs.

Many other local gangsters routinely pay tribute to jailed or killed members through their online accounts.

According to the recent study of nearly 600 U.S. gang members, 20 per cent reported their group had their own website or social-media page. About 25 per cent said they used the Internet to search out information on other gangs and more than 50 per cent watch gang-related videos online, such as fights or music videos.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2013 B1


Updated on Monday, May 6, 2013 at 6:35 AM CDT: adds photo

1:49 PM: Removes link to subscriber-only report.

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