The John Does got an identity Thursday. Police took the mask off the fearsome Liberty City gang, unveiling federal drug, gun and money-laundering charges that could send 15 accused street gangsters to prison for life.
Among the accusations: five murders, including that of Cynthia Brown, a government witness killed in 1997 two days before her scheduled testimony against Corey Smith, the reputed leader of the John Does.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott said the John Doe charges - announced with a second indictment against the rival Cloud Nine drug gang - reflect a sophisticated 15-month law enforcement effort to "take back the streets from drug dealers" by using wiretaps, surveillance and multiagency shoe leather.
"These two indictments represent a major blow to two of the most significant narcotics gangs operating in Liberty City, and in the case of the John Doe organization, perhaps, by far, the most violent, " Scott said at a news conference.
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"Some may ask, won't another gang just step up and take the place of the John Does and Cloud Nines of the world?" he said. "They want to face us with [the threat of] life imprisonment charges? We're willing to take them on."
More than 200 police officers and federal agents fanned out across Miami-Dade County early Thursday, seeking 25 people. Eight were already in jail on other charges, one was in the hospital paralyzed from a gunshot wound, and 12 were picked up at home or on the streets. Four are still at large.
Miami Police, who started the probe, said the John Doe gang has controlled a substantial part of the powdered cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana trade in Liberty City and Overtown since at least 1994.
Members operated at least 11 "drug holes" - Scott called them "convenience stores" for drugs - and used deadly force to expand and consolidate their territory, investigators said.
The Cloud Nine gang also sold drugs, police said, but the 10 members under indictment are not accused of violence.
The John Doe indictment accuses gang members of killing five people in the course of drug trafficking:
* Leon Hadley, a rival drug dealer shot to death Aug. 21, 1995, allegedly by Smith and two other men.
* Calvin Cook, shot to death Sept. 28, 1996, by three members, allegedly "following the orders of Corey Smith."
* Dominique Johnson, a rival drug dealer shot to death Nov. 7, 1996, allegedly by Smith.
* Brown, the key witness to Johnson's murder, killed July 23, 1997, two days before she was scheduled to testify against Smith, who allegedly "arranged for and caused the murder." Brown's death forced prosecutors to drop a murder charge against Smith.
* Marlon Beneby, a John Doe drug seller, who was shot July 23, 1998, and died later, allegedly at the hands of Smith's No. 2 man, Latravis Gallashaw, in a "dispute concerning profits from drug sales."
The John Does hit the streets in the early '90s, when they went by the name Lynch Mob. Members sold drug paraphernalia and were enforcers for other gangs. Eventually, they began selling marijuana. They acquired their own drug holes and employees, branching out into cocaine and crack.
"Like all corporations, they just got stronger and stronger, " said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick White, who is coordinating the prosecution.
When the group's former leader was arrested for murder, Smith took over, White said. The indictment alleges Smith oversaw a network of lieutenants, street sellers, lookouts and "table men" who packaged drugs for distribution.
Miami Police Detective Luis Diazlay, in court documents, said the John Does met daily at 1504 NW 58th St., the home of Smith's mother, Willie Mae Smith. A police search there uncovered two handguns and two hand grenades. Police charged Corey Smith - already a convicted felon - with illegal possession and held him without bond Nov. 12.
Smith's lawyer has said Smith is being unfairly targeted by police because they had to drop the murder charge against him. But investigators say Smith's arrest history, wealth, lifestyle and lack of employment suggest he's a major drug dealer. Upon his most recent arrest, his 24th, officers seized $185,000 cash.
Court documents show police listened to more than 2,500 phone calls on Smith's and Gallashaw's phones. Officers heard alleged gang members using everyday words as codes for drug dealing. "Collard greens" meant marijuana. "Toys" meant guns. "White shoe" meant cocaine.
Smith is implicated in all five murders outlined as "overt acts" in the indictment. Scott and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said they will review the cases for possible state prosecution. But some of the cases would be difficult to prove individually, and even if convictions resulted, the state penalties would be no higher than the life imprisonment already available under federal narcotics laws.
Rundle defended her office's handling of drug cases, saying no matter the number, state law doesn't provide "teeth" to keep low- and mid-level violators in jail.
Federal prosecution "is one of the strongest weapons we have in our arsenal against these drug dealers, " Rundle said. "We can put these guys away for life. We don't have to worry about them being released in 12 hours, going back to the same street corners, dealing the same old stuff."
The indictment also accuses Eric Stokes and Julius Stevens, two John Doe lieutenants, with attempting to kill Anthony "Little Bo" Fail on Dec. 11, 1998, shooting more than 30 rounds into a house occupied by four adults and five children.
Fail was a former John Doe member whose bitter split with the group has sparked about a dozen fatal shootings in Liberty City since August, police said. He was captured early Tuesday in West Palm Beach after an intensive, eight-day search. Fail was not indicted Thursday.
The Rev. Richard Bennett, a Liberty City minister who has supported police efforts, said residents of the impoverished neighborhood are tired of living with violence but cannot afford to move to safer places. "This will do a great deal of good in our community, " he said during Thursday's news conference, adding that he hopes police will continue to be a forceful presence.
Miami Police Chief William O'Brien said his department is committed to keeping the heat on.
"Can we, police, stop the drug sales in Miami and Liberty City alone? No, we can't, " he said. "Police alone are not the answer to crime. Society's total approach to crime is the only answer. However, with that being said, we will work to arrest as many drug dealers as we can."
It won't take long to see another round of charges. Miami-Dade Police are wrapping up a lengthy probe of the Boobie Boys, Vonda's Gang and other drug groups - also expected to end with a federal indictment. And investigators are not through with the John Does.
"We have people inside the group cooperating, " said Miami homicide Lt. John Campbell. "We're already looking at who our next target will be."