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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended October 27, 2000
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News about Mormons, Mormonism,
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Sent on Mormon-News: 27Oct00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

LA Times Says Mormons in Gilbert, AZ In Denial Over Gang Violence

GILBERT, ARIZONA -- In a major article detailing the trouble Mormon-dominated Gilbert, Arizona has had with gang violence, the newspaper claims that Mormons and city officials have failed to acknowledge the gang trouble. It also says that Mormon culture has led witnesses and victims to prefer handling the trouble through the Church, rather than with the local police. The article ties the gang to both racism and to a mafia-run drug ring.

The center of the difficulty is a gang, now called the Devil Dogs, that the article claims was founded by a group of athletes at Higland High School, some of whom were Mormon, according to police. In its six or seven year history, the gang has been invovled in violent incidents involving seemingly random attacks, many of which had racist or homophobic overtones. The Times details four horrific attacks, including an assault on an Asian-American couple in which the attackers yelled ethnic slurs and an attack on two men in which anti-gay and white power slogans were yelled.

The gang's founder, Michael J. Papa, eventually became friends with the son of mafia turn-coat and former hit man Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, who was in Phoenix as part of the federal witness protection program. Gravano used the gang for muscle to protect his growing ecstasy drug ring, Arizona's largest. When Gravano was arrested in a raid last February 24th, at least a dozen of those arrested in the same sweep were connected to the Devil Dogs gang.

The allegations in the article involving Mormons come from claims by victims that the town's Mormon culture protected some of the perpetrators and kept town authorities from the problem. For example, employees at a Taco Bell where gang members hung out called the local LDS bishop when incidents occurred instead of calling police, according to former Gilber police detective Mike Sanchez. He claims Mormon culture was an impediment to solving the gang problem. "The whole thing is part of the Mormon culture--'We don't have a problem, we can deal with it.' A circling-the-wagons type of thing. That's the way they do it in Gilbert. They see it as an internal problem. All the leaders of the town are in the church. It's how things are done."

An LDS city concilman, Steve Urie, confirms that the workers at Taco Bell called Church leaders instead of police, "It was easier to call the [LDS] stake president to handle it than bring in the police. It was [the Taco Bell employees'] decision. The stake presidents did talk to the youngsters and try to straighten them out."

Arizona NAACP president Wilbert Nelson goes farther than Sanchez, however, saying that LDS Church influence in town is at fault. "It is the heart of the problem--we can't dance around that," Nelson added. "The heart of the matter is that church leaders in the Mesa-Gilbert area have tremendous influence. The issue is not discrimination. The issue is the institutional foundation upon which the discrimination is founded."

But city councilman Urie disagrees. He says LDS Church influence is merely a perception. "One may perceive that because someone is LDS and knows people across town, then they may have a higher status. What I can say is that we have higher standards of moral conduct for ourselves than we expect for others, and when one of our kids does something that is not right, we are very disturbed." The LDS Church's Arizona spokesman Wilford Andersen says the Church's teachings are not the problem. "I hope that the youth members of our church are not participating in racism of any kind," he said. "If they are, they are doing so against the teaching of our church.I am not suggesting that every member of the church is without fault, but as a church and as an institution, we teach that all men and women are brothers and sisters. If there are members of our church [involved in gangs]--and I'm certain there are, as there are in other churches--it's not coming from the church."

Meanwhile, school superintendent Walter Delecki, who is not LDS, dismisses the claim that the Devil Dogs are racists, noting that many of their victims are white. "White supremacists don't beat up white people, to my knowledge," he said. (However, Delecki didn't address claims that the gang is homophobic.) Delecki also claims that the charges that Mormons get special treatment are not supported by the facts. "We've had that accusation, and I haven't seen any facts. That's not how I run this district or work with people. There is a lot of religious bigotry here: In my opinion, it's from the people who are anti-LDS. This town has been accused. I haven't seen it. Be factual. In my 22 years here, no one has been treated better or lesser because of their religion or ethnicity."


A Culture of Violence and Denial
Los Angeles Times 26Oct00 D2
By Julie Cart: Times Staff Writer
The havoc wreaked by white supremacist high school athletes is downplayed by an Arizona town's elders. Then a drug bust finds the teens acting as muscle for a former Mafia hit man.


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