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Hidden Valley tries to start anew

Residents of a neighborhood long considered Charlotte's most dangerous rely on grassroots change to battle violence and bad press.



In the past five years, a short drive down Sugar Creek Road near the I-85 exchange has become a morbid television tour of sorts.

On one side of the street you'll see the Cook-Out featured on a 2010 episode of A&E's The First 48, in which a woman killed a man because she didn't like the way he looked at her. On both sides, you'll see motels where other episodes of that true-life homicide drama have taken place.

Further down Sugar Creek, you'll notice a large dark green sign welcoming you to Hidden Valley. The History Channel dedicated an hour-long episode of Gangland to this neighborhood in 2009. "Killing Snitches" focused on the Hidden Valley Kings, the gang that ran the neighborhood for decades — dealing drugs, pimping prostitutes and trading guns illegally — until Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department task-force agents raided multiple homes in 2007, arresting more than 20 gang members, including the leaders. The episode's most riveting scene features eyewitness accounts of an infamous shootout in the Eastland Mall food court and a high-speed chase on North Tryon Street, that ended with Kings members murdering a man who dealt drugs on their turf without giving them a cut.

The arrests crippled the gang, forcing it into silence for years. But recent events suggest that the Kings are making a slow comeback, as former "BGs" — baby gangsters, or those who were in middle school when the raids happened — have stepped up and taken charge of the drug trade in the area.

As crime is on the rise, so are efforts from both police and residents to save Hidden Valley from regressing to a neighborhood plagued by gang violence and a bad reputation earned after years in the harsh spotlight.

ON AUG. 6, some Hidden Valley residents gathered for a block party at Tom Hunter Park during National Night Out, a nationwide effort by police and neighborhood leaders to raise awareness about crime prevention and show solidarity against neighborhood crime. CMPD officer Rob Dance emceed a dance competition from his cruiser's loudspeaker.

Dance is the North Tryon division captain. A third of the 45,000 people he serves reside in Hidden Valley. He enjoys events like National Night Out, during which police socialize with civilians.

"There's always going to be a few people committing crimes," Dance said. "But this night is about coming together with police. ... It's important to hear from the community about how we're doing. We're very pleased with the feedback we're getting."

Six years removed from the raids that put much of the Kings' leadership in federal prison — for more than 10 years in most cases — the mood was light. People of all ages congregated around Dance's car to watch the dance-off and eat free barbecue. The color green, which represents the Hidden Valley Kings, didn't dominate the crowd.

Residents shrugged off any mention of the gang.

Henry Cameron, a long-time resident of Hidden Valley, said he hasn't had trouble around his home in years. "I don't think it's a problem anymore."

But a slight rise in violent crime in Hidden Valley this year suggests otherwise. There were 46 violent crimes — many of which police attribute to gang activity — committed during the first three quarters of 2013, which makes this year well on its way to being one of the most violent in four years. (Violent crimes in Charlotte have decreased by about 3 percent between January and September of 2012 to the same time this year.)

Exactly one week after National Night Out, Charlotte police began rounding up suspected members of the Kings, bringing dozens into the station and charging some with crimes. The CMPD also requested from a judge an injunction, or court order, that would prohibit more than 20 alleged Kings members from meeting. Days later, a judge approved the request, which also bans the Hidden Valley Kings as an organization, leaving any new recruits or those not listed as defendants still liable for punishment if they are found associating with known members.

Similar injunctions have been successful at curbing gang violence in cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, where members of the Bloods and Crips are not allowed to congregate in areas where the gangs have been known to clash. But the CMPD's injunction takes the strategy to another level, banning gang members from meeting anywhere at any time, save for church and school. That makes it different from any anti-gang injunction in the country.

"[Our injunction] is aimed at the association of people, no matter where they are," said Ken Schul, a lieutenant who works under Dance and who is responsible for North Tryon Response Area 3, which covers Hidden Valley and the Sugar Creek corridor. "These crimes don't just happen in one area."

According to a 67-page affidavit authored by CMPD officer Brett Gant that traces the entire history of the gang, the Kings' turf is currently bordered by West Sugar Creek Road on the south, Reagan Drive on the west, North Tryon Street on the east and the intersection of Reagan Drive and North Tryon Street on the north. It is the largest area controlled by a street gang in Charlotte. Gant names the Greenville Mob, a gang based in the Greenville neighborhood bordered by Brookshire Freeway and I-77, as the Kings' biggest rival. Members leave Hidden Valley to carry out shootings against the Mob and other rival gangs in different parts of Charlotte.

After the judge approved the injunction, Wendell "Face" McCain — described in the affidavit as the current leader of the Kings — told a group of reporters outside of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse that police were singling him and others out because they were from Hidden Valley. Denying allegiance to the Kings, McCain said he is the founder of a record label called ICEE Money, which is based in Hidden Valley.

The ICEE Money website consists of one video, in which McCain, Kevin "Kevo" Funderburk and Terrance Cunningham — named in the affidavit as upper-echelon members of the Hidden Valley Kings — rap. These men and others flash guns at the camera; Cunningham holds one during his entire verse. The video ends with a disclaimer stating that no real firearms were used in the taping. Nevertheless, the CMPD mentioned it and other YouTube videos from those associated with ICEE Money in its affidavit.

ICEE Money's future is now in question as several people involved with the label are named in the injunction and can no longer meet. Numerous attempts to contact McCain and other suspected Kings were unsuccessful.

WHILE THE CMPD continues months-long probes aimed at dismantling the Kings, high-profile killings — some related to the Kings, others random — still occur, hardly helping the neighborhood's reputation. On June 18, a drug bust gone bad ended with a confidential informant in the hospital and a suspected Kings member dead.

The shootings happened when the informant and an undercover officer attempted to buy drugs from two teens in the parking lot of Hidden Valley Elementary School. The teens tried to rob the informant and ended up shooting him. The undercover officer and another officer in the area opened fire on one suspect, 17-year-old Jaquez Walker, killing him. After his death, the CMPD wrote in the affidavit that Walker was a member of the Hidden Valley Kings. The second suspect, 17-year-old Davion Drayton, was arrested at an acquaintance's house in Hidden Valley the following day.

Some Hidden Valley residents voiced concerns over the location of the drug deal, but police Chief Rodney Monroe defended the officer's decision, noting that school was not in session and that undercover police often have to let dealers dictate the locations of deals.

Brian Broomfield, Hidden Valley resident - MERT JONES
  • Mert Jones
  • Brian Broomfield, Hidden Valley resident

Brian Broomfield lives across the street from the school. He moved into the neighborhood on the day of the raids in 2007 and watched the scene unfold. "I had a box in my hand [and was] looking down at the TV and saw CMPD loading these guys into the wagon right down the street," Broomfield said. "It was the perfect time to move in; I was moving into an area that was being cleaned up."

He said he feels safe in Hidden Valley — if you aren't "engaged in that activity," gang members will leave you alone. But the former bounty hunter who grew up in gang-ridden parts of Chicago still witnesses crime and desperation from his stoop. He hates seeing young men sit for hours on end in freezing weather or women climb into departing cars, only to be dropped off 30 minutes later.

He supports the CMPD's efforts to clean up the area.

"It's a never-ending battle, but they are fighting it," Broomfield said.

Undercover work played a critical role in what Monroe called a "larger operation" on the day of the shooting in front of the elementary school. The operation, which time would reveal as more raids, was not only aimed at the Kings or Hidden Valley. In the early morning hours of Oct. 23, police rounded up more than a dozen drug dealers throughout the Sugar Creek corridor. The arrests, part of a four-month probe aimed at eradicating dealing, involved undercover buys in the parking lots of gas stations and fast-food restaurants near the I-85 exchange.

"When I came to this community, the first thing residents told me was 'We want the violent crime to stop,'" Schul said. "They wanted undercover officers in the community. ... It can be life or death, but it prevents crime, and we're going to keep doing it."

Broomfield pointed to troubled areas in and around the neighborhood that he said need to be cleaned up or cleared out altogether. He specifically mentioned the Fast Mart on Tom Hunter Road, "a constant crime scene."

On Aug. 29, a Fast Mart clerk shot and killed 21-year-old Javon Booker as he tried to rob the small grocery store. Many residents supported the clerk, tired of people they called "outsiders" coming to Hidden Valley to commit crimes. Booker was living in another part of town at the time of the attempted robbery. A candlelight vigil was held for him a couple of miles away from the store, near the NoDa neighborhood. Four people were shot that night. No arrests have been made.

Schul doesn't think the Fast Mart is a problem.

"I worked that scene in August, and I didn't hear that from the community," said Schul, alluding to Broomfield's concerns. "They told me the folks that run that place are part of the community. Everybody knows not to rob that store because they have weapons. This is where much of Hidden Valley gets their groceries."

Lamia Hanna, who opened the Fast Mart 11 years ago, said August's killing is a tough reminder of trouble she'd rather forget. In 2007, Hanna shot a man who was robbing the store. He died in the doorway. The store has been robbed more times than she can count, but she does not plan on leaving.

"I have had nobody tell me to leave. It's the people that don't come here that say these things," said Hanna, standing behind bulletproof glass installed after August's attempted robbery. "[Booker's] brother came in and talked to me after the shooting. He said he was sorry for what happened. I said I was sorry that his mother had to lose a son."

Lamia Hanna behind her bulletproof glass - MERT JONES
  • Mert Jones
  • Lamia Hanna behind her bulletproof glass

As she speaks, Russel Robinson, holding his young son, approaches the counter. Robinson, a regular customer since the store opened, said he has never felt unsafe in his years shopping at Fast Mart.

"It's other people that come in here and act crazy. It was safe before the glass," Robinson said, replying to a joke Hanna made while tapping on her newest security system.

Residents' accusations that outsiders come to their neighborhood to commit crimes are partly true.

"It's both," Schul said. "There are robberies happening from people that don't live there; there is domestic violence and gang violence happening from people who do."

And the neighborhood keeps making the news for the worst reasons, even when it isn't the scene of the crime.

On Sept. 29, 39-year-old Mara Garcia was found dismembered in an SUV outside of the Woodland Hollow apartment complex. The chief suspect, Garcia's boyfriend, was found dead by an apparent suicide in the home the couple shared only a block from where Garcia's body was found. Although the crime occurred outside Hidden Valley, many news outlets, including the Charlotte Observer, referenced the neighborhood in their coverage, prompting residents to send angry emails to the newspaper.

Police patrol the neighborhood daily looking for gang activity, and the CMPD consistently trains officers on the identities of known Kings members so that they become familiar with their faces, as officers like Schul and others working Hidden Valley already are.

Schul hopes that the CMPD injunction against the Kings works similarly to those filed two years ago against motels with the highest crime rates on the Sugar Creek corridor.

Prior to the injunction, renters with local addresses often only used the rooms for prostitution or to sell drugs, eliminating the risk of their houses being seized if they were caught. Motels regulated by the CMPD are no longer allowed to rent rooms to people from nearby ZIP codes.

"We used to have five to 10 robberies a week in those hotels," Schul said. "Constant calls for prostitution, drugs, murder. Now managers are controlling those issues beforehand."

It was a small sample to judge by, but Schul was reassured by September's crime stats following the gang injunction. In that time, no violent crimes were committed in Hidden Valley.

"Where we were having robberies and shootings on a regular basis, there's nothing," he said. "That's obviously great for the community."

October, however, was not so quiet. A drive-by shooting into a house on Tom Hunter Road that contained three toddlers prove there is still work to be done. Police believe the drive-by was gang-related.

BRIAN BOYLES, pastor at Northside Baptist Church off of Sugar Creek Road, feels a strong connection to Hidden Valley. His grandparents lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. His father grew up there, and Boyles, who was raised in east Charlotte, often visited as a child. As a member of Garinger High School's class of 1994, he attended school with some of the earliest Kings members.

Subtly hidden behind a large metal gate, Boyles' church is tucked away from the Sugar Creek corridor. Once beyond the gate, visitors drive past acres and acres of land before reaching the megachurch, where "millionaires and homeless people sometimes sit together on Sundays, and nobody even knows," Boyles said.

Though he didn't grow up in Hidden Valley, he has become a neighborhood staple. Last September, Boyles created a garden on the church's campus that now features four greenhouses, the products of which, he hopes, will feed the residents in Hidden Valley who need them the most. He plans to raise chickens and build a tilapia pond within a year. Ultimately he'd like to teach residents farming techniques he and volunteers have learned through practical application.

Brian Boyles, pastor at Northside Baptist Church - MERT JONES
  • Mert Jones
  • Brian Boyles, pastor at Northside Baptist Church

In 2012, 97 percent of the children attending Hidden Valley Elementary School qualified for lunch subsidies, which classified them as low-income. A recent study by the Mecklenburg County Health Department shows many parts of Hidden Valley are "food deserts," or areas without adequate food stores close by. Typically, residents who live in food deserts experience a higher rate of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

On Saturdays, Boyles and other volunteers fill bags with food from the garden, which produces everything from carrots and tomatoes to jalapenos and radishes. They head to Hidden Valley and knock on doors, not to spread the word of God, but to provide nourishment.

"We are not spiritually motivated," Boyles said. "I tell them where I am from but beyond that, it isn't that Billy Sunday-style at all." Of the 147 blocks in Hidden Valley, Boyles said volunteers cover 24, always returning to the same places to become familiar with those in the area. He also recently started a farmers market, before finding out that the season for farmers markets in Charlotte had ended. He plans to reopen the weekly market in the spring, where food will be sold for a dollar a pound. He hopes to make his market EBT eligible, which would open it to those on welfare benefits.

Boyles' wife Amy leads a ministry for prostitutes who work the Sugar Creek corridor. She currently counsels 12, whom she pays to make jewelry and learn job skills. Religious teachings take a backseat to removing them from the prostitution ring the couple discovered in Hidden Valley and providing them with skills they can use in the job market.

"There is no confrontation," Brian Boyles said. "We don't want to start a war in the middle of the neighborhood. There's just a lack of good male role models. They all believe their pimps are their boyfriends. They potentially believe the negative press about them. They think, 'Why not be a prostitute?'"

Speaking on the phone from Appalachian State University, 20-year-old Brianna Broomfield said her parents saved her from going down the same path girls she knew in high school traveled. Growing up in Hidden Valley was both a positive and negative experience, she said. It made her appreciate the struggle of living paycheck to paycheck and gave her a glimpse into the type of life she didn't want to lead. Seeing her parents work to send her to college inspired her.

"My parents, the way they raised me, they are the major reason I'm here," she said. "They had morals and values that not many of my neighbors had."

But she still struggled with negative connotations associated with being a "Valley Girl."

"People would talk down to me all the time," she said. "They'd say, 'You're low class. You're ratchet.'"

Brianna reluctantly tells members of her predominantly white sorority where she is from. "I tell them I went to Vance High School, and I get the side-eye. All these things come to mind that have nothing to do with me."

Her father, who works security for local schools, is optimistic about Hidden Valley's future, but only if the residents can forget their differences and work toward bettering the neighborhood. He served as the president of the Hidden Valley Community Association, a group of local leaders, but left after having differences with some members about the group's priorities.

"The HVCA became too concerned with being the NAACP," Broomfield said. "All these social issues and deciding their stance on things before the [Democratic National Convention] came. Let's talk about our neighborhood and figure out how we can fill some of these empty homes just sitting here."

Gary Dawkins, current president of the Hidden Valley Community Association, did not return calls for this story.

Broomfield and some neighbors recently started an Optimist Club that he hopes will pick up on the slack he said is left by the association. His plans involve reaching out to the growing Latino community in the neighborhood — about two-thirds of Hidden Valley's residents are African-American, and close to 20 percent are Latino — as well as teaching kids the skills they need to become more independent.

Like many Hidden Valley residents, Broomfield is proud of his community and doesn't appreciate outsiders stopping by for a photo op in the neighborhood made famous by biased television cameras. He said he doesn't trust politicians who only come to Hidden Valley for marches and parades, specifically naming City Councilman Michael Barnes, who represented Hidden Valley for eight years before being elected an at-large member this month.

"[He] hasn't proven that he has a passion for that neighborhood," Broomfield said.

He also emphasized that the residents living in the community have all they need to make change.

"We do have a long way to go, but it's not the responsibility of the City Council, CMPD or anyone else but us."

Our photographer Mert Jones hung out at the local precinct in Hidden Valley on Election Day. Here are photos of some of the HV residents she met.