Law enforcement officials are tracking a drop in gang activity in some tribal communities that they say is the result of a sweeping take-down of Native Mob gang leaders earlier this year.
A federal indictment in January charged two-dozen alleged members of the Native Mob with crimes ranging from conspiracy and racketeering to drug trafficking and attempted murder.
The Native Mob has terrorized tribal communities in the region since it formed in the early 1990s. Tribal members hope the latest arrests will permanently weaken the crime organization. Gang experts describe the small town of Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation as ground zero for Minnesota's Native Mob operations. Some of the gang's top leaders lived in this area and have strong family ties here. About a third of the recent arrests happened here.
Federal authorities say gang members allegedly distributed illegal drugs, from crack cocaine to ecstasy. They worked together to hinder or obstruct officials from identifying or apprehending those wanted by the law.
As he drives through a residential area on the north side of town Dave Ulberg, a Leech Lake tribal narcotics investigator, points out the gang's crack houses.
"This is Tract 33," Ulberg said. "This is probably the most active area for drug dealing."
Ulberg was involved in some of the 12 recent Native Mob arrests, which also took place on the Mille Lacs and White Earth reservations as well as in the Twin Cities.
Federal authorities say a dozen of the Native Mob members indicted in January were already in jail or prison on other charges.
Since those arrests, Ulberg said the number of search warrants for suspected crack houses is down an estimated 70 percent, and warrant searches for other drugs are down 40 percent.
"It's slowed down a lot. Crack is almost non-existent here," Ulberg said.
Federal officials estimate the Native Mob has more than 200 members, primarily in Minnesota and the surrounding region. They contribute to a huge crime problem in tribal communities. U.S. Justice Department statistics show overall crime rates on reservations are typically twice as high as they are elsewhere.
Minnesota law enforcement officers say the Native Mob is responsible for most of the gang-related violent crime in the state, including the Twin Cities. The recent indictments say gang members used guns and baseball bats to intimidate enemies and punish those who cooperated with law enforcement.
Ulberg said since the arrest sweep, more people on the Leech Lake Reservation are sharing crime-related information with law enforcement without fear of retaliation. He said the arrests, which targeted the Native Mob's top leadership, damaged the gang's organizational structure.
"I think they got hit very hard. And I don't think it's just a temporary lull," Ulberg said. "I don't think it will be the complete end of them, but they're definitely not as strong as they used to be, right now."
In addition to the racketeering charges filed against all 24 Native Mob defendants, many of them face numerous other charges including: attempted murder in aid of racketeering, tampering with a witness, using and carrying firearms during and in relation to a crime of violence, and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
A MOTHER SPEAKS UP
Leech Lake tribal member Crystal Goose was keenly interested in the recent indictments. Her son, Jeremee Kraskey, was a member of the Native Mob. On a cold February night last year, Kraskey, 32, was shot and killed in a south Minneapolis alley. Investigators told Goose the murder appeared to be gang related.
In the living room of her Cass Lake home, Goose has set up a shrine decorated with eagle feathers and pictures of her boy.
"I have a whole corner just for Jeremee. Those are his ashes," Goose said.
Officially, Kraskey's unsolved murder is not part of the current Native Mob indictments. Goose hopes the recent indictments will lead to justice for her son, who she says was active in the Native Mob for a year before he was killed. Goose said when her son joined the gang, he tried to distance himself from her.
"He called me on the phone and he said 'Mom, you're no longer my family. I have a new family now, the Native Mob,' " said Goose. "And I cried, of course."
Goose says gangs still have a tight grip on her community, and she worries there are young men waiting in the wings to take over the gang.
The solution, she believes, is for community members to speak up when people they know are involved in gangs. Goose wishes she'd have done that when her son was still alive.
"In order for this to stop, the grandparents and the parents have to quit harboring and sticking up for their children they know are committing these heinous crimes," Goose said. "It doesn't do any good to sweep it under the rug, because this can happen to anybody. I never thought it would happen to me."
FAR FROM OVER
Experts say criminal investigations into Native Mob activities are far from over.
There are at least 10 unsolved homicides in Minnesota that may be linked to the Native Mob and numerous other related cases still under investigation, said Mike Martin, a gang expert with the Minneapolis Police Department. Marin works closely with tribal and local law enforcement agencies across the state.
Martin said those gang members in custody are under pressure to talk. Most of the defendants in custody are in their 20s. If convicted in federal court, they face sentences between 20 years to life in prison, with no chance of parole.
"In a case like this, it's not unusual for some of the defendants to cooperate and provide information that would lead to other arrests or indictments in the case," Martin said. "The ones who are still out and about are going to be worried that they're going to be next... And I think that understandably so, they should be worried."