NEW BEDFORD — When 24-year-old Aaron Gant Jr. was gunned down while a passenger in a South End car on New Year's Eve 2015, police described him as an "innocent bystander."

Detectives said there had been a "personal dispute" between youths associated with competing New Bedford neighborhood gangs in two different cars and while Gant was in one of the cars, he was not the intended target.

Determining who is in a gang and who is not in New Bedford can be complicated.

Some in the South End said Gant was a responsible young man who took care of his grandmother and even though he was friendly with some bad guys dealing drugs and carrying firearms, he was not a gang member. Detectives, however, said they had investigated Gant for gang membership and he met the criteria.    

Both New Bedford Police and the Bristol County Sheriff's Office have a list of criteria to determine gang membership — whether that's a loosely organized local gang or a city affiliate of bigger national gangs. Detective-Sgt. Shane Ramos, head of the city's Gang Unit, said there are 20 gangs in New Bedford — five neighborhood gangs and 15 national gangs, including the Latin Kings, the most organized of the national gangs in the city because of their "clear rank structure."

There are about 200 "validated gang members" in New Bedford, ranging in age from 14 to 25, Ramos said. "A lot of these (approximately 200 gang members) are validated to a particular neighborhood (gang)," he said.

Some neighborhood activists, however, say that in some city neighborhoods the youth who are active in drug crime and the youth who are clean have often grown up together. The kids mix socially, they say, and the use of the word "gang" is neither accurate nor helpful. 

"It's a bunch of bullshit," said John "Buddy" Andrade, a community activist long active in the neighborhood where Gant was killed. "Monte Park is a park named after a World War I hero, not a gang," he said. "The Monte Park gang doesn't exist."

Andrade, who runs the South End neighborhood's Old Bedford Village Development Corp. community planning group, argues that the issue is less about gangs and more about drugs.

"These are drug dealers to me. This West End/South End thing is a fallacy. It's all about drugs and controlling the drug money," he said. 

Whether you call them drug dealers or gang members, however, prosecutors have now linked three murders in the South and West ends beginning with Gant's shooting a year-and-a-half ago and ending with 19-year-old Brad Lourenco's shooting two weeks ago to a group of the same young men. 

Lourenco was shot and killed as as he sat with a crowd of people at Roberto Clemente Park, a few blocks south of where Gant was killed. Both of them were shot in the head. 

When 23-year-old Keeland Rose and 20-year-old Ivan Fontanez Jr. were charged with Lourenco's murder on June 12, Assistant District Attorney Robert DiGiantomaso said that the crime was connected to Fontanez' half-brother being shot in the foot in the West End the prior week.

DiGiantomaso also noted that Keeland Rose was himself stabbed during the August 2016 stabbing murder of 15-year-old Mateo Morales in the West End. And 21-year-old Luis Class, who along with a juvenile was charged with Morales' murder, was in the car when Gant was shot to death. 

One of the men arrested for Gant's murder, 24-year-old Angel Acevedo, had himself been shot a few months earlier in the North End. He had also been shot the previous May on another North End street.

A point system for gangs    

The validation process, used by the Gang Unit, as well as sheriff deputies at the Bristol County House of Corrections, involves checking off boxes with assigned point values for various categories like self-admissions, tattoos, gang symbols, to substantiate gang involvement. Once an individual has 10 points (see related box), he is considered a validated gang member.

The Gang Unit regularly shares information about validated gang members with the Sheriff's Department, the courts and federal law enforcement agencies. 

The neighborhood gangs at Monte Park and United Front (now Temple Landing) have been responsible for "the majority" of the recent shootings and shots-fired incidents in New Bedford, Detective-Sgt. Ramos  said. 

The gangs at United Front and Monte Park are not criminal enterprises, he said, but they are dangerous.  

The city's gang problem is a community issue and the public has to get involved in order to correct it, according to Ramos.

"These problems are deep-rooted. The problem is everyone's problem. Everyone has to get involved to solve these gang problems," he said. 

Police understand, however, that people who live in neighborhoods where gangs are present, are often reluctant to talk to police because of fear.

"Nine out of 10 times it's because of the fear," he said. "We all have to come together to stop the violence."

Officers respond to a possible gang-related call (such as shots fired) and there is no apparent victim or witnesses, Ramos explained.

"You're left with putting together a puzzle without pieces," he said. "These kids do these shootings with impunity. There are no consequences and it is easy to do it a second or a third time." 

But many times people do witness the crime and they have to come forward, he said.

"We can't make something out of nothing," he said. 

No rhyme or reason

The reason teens join gangs differs from kid to kid, according to Ramos, who urges parents to monitor what their teenage children post on social media.

"We live in a day and age where the internet and the neighborhood are bringing up your children," he said. 

For some teens, involvement in a gang brings "a sense of belonging," especially if they are from a broken home, he said. Some, however, join simply because gangs are popular with their age group. 

The violent disputes between the gangs in New Bedford are not turf-related and often make no sense at all to police, he said.

"A lot of times there is no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it can be a Facebook post. For the most part, we're talking about school-age kids. It could be something that happened in the hallways of New Bedford High School."

The Gang Unit and the Sheriff's Department develop intelligence through a number of ways, including individuals' social media pages, surveillance and interactions. "We can validate a kid through social media. These kids, they advertise their whole lives," he said. "We try to have a rapport with these kids (both gang members and their friends)."

The information goes into a NBPD database and is used to match the individual with a particular gang and for use by prosecutors and judges at court hearings, he said.

The term "gang member" is not used loosely, Ramos said. "We just don't label these kids. We validate them, and there is some documentation to support that."

A different view

Andrade, however, defended the near South End neighborhood and said he does not believe New Bedford's local neighborhood cliques are "gangs" in the true sense of the word. 

"I don't see our problem as a gang problem," he said.

But the the drug-dealing and use of guns by some individuals labeled gang members makes them dangerous even if there is no Monte Park Gang, Andrade acknowledged.

"Any person with a gun is a dangerous person," he said.

The association of Monte Park with a gang is harmful to the neighborhood's reputation, Andrade said. Home buyers, for example, are redirected away because of the association.

And some teens are classified as gang members merely because of their associations with validated gang members, he contends. 

"Not every person is a gang member," he said. In some cases, these are childhood friends or relatives, and they're not associating with a gang member for any gang activity, Andrade said.

"A lot of these kids have been pushed into this by social conditions, poor parenting, lack of jobs and dilapidated housing."

 Follow Curt Brown on Twitter @CurtBrown_SCT