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Story By John Murray
Deciding what gets published in a newspaper is not always an easy decision. There are issues of privacy and safety to consider, and some stories get held, and others never see the light of day. While reporting about an eruption of gang violence in Waterbury in 2018 the Observer was faced with a dilemma – publish a sensational story of drug trafficking, rap music and murder, or hold the story because the words in print could directly lead to another murder.
After being advised by the Waterbury PD that printing inflammatory comments by rival gang members could incite more violence, I decided to hold the story and let law enforcement do its job. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was convinced that the public was already aware of the shootings, and a tour inside the gang task force war room at police headquarters showed law enforcement was fully engaged. In the end, I held the story because I didn’t want to be a catalyst that led to another young man being senselessly gunned down on a city street.
Flash forward three years and there have been wire taps and dozens of arrests, including a federal indictment being handed down on September 16th that charged 16 members of the 960 gang with murder, attempted murder, and drug trafficking. While there are still gangs in Waterbury – ATM and the Ave. Boys – the Waterbury PD in collaboration with the FBI has muzzled part of the war.
During a press conference in front of police headquarters on East Main Street, Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo said, “Strong partnerships with the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Waterbury State’s Attorney, and the F.B.I., have made our community a safer place today.”
Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo
Since reforming the gang task force inside the Waterbury Police Department in 2017, law enforcement has seized weapons, confiscated drugs, raided homes and made dozens of arrests. Waterbury police have partnered with the FBI and ATF to bring federal charges against gang members (that might result in stiffer penalties and longer prison time).
Through the work of the gang task force it was learned that 40 shootings were linked to the gangs in the past 18 months, and 70 people were shot in Waterbury in 2017.
The police investigation will continue into gang presence in Waterbury, but with the latest arrests the Observer is more comfortable releasing information we obtained back in 2018. The shootings were over words, and we didn’t want our words to add to the deadly chaos. Here is the story we sat on for several years.
In the Autumn of 2017 a war broke out in Waterbury between two rival gangs, 960 and ATM, and shootings erupted across the city landscape. On November 22, 2017 a car crashed into a utility pole and then veered into a house on Wolcott Street, in Waterbury, and both occupants were dead when emergency crews arrived.
As the Waterbury PD processed the scene they discovered both men – Clarence Lewis, 22, and Antonio Santos, 19 – had been shot. The shootings were suspected to be gang related, and in January 2018 Lewis’s mother, Sheila Walker, reached out to The Waterbury Observer seeking help in finding out what happened to her son. She had spoken with the Waterbury PD, who were investigating the accident/murder, but she was frustrated with the lack of information she was getting.
I met her at her home on Albion Street on January 25th, 2018. There was a dead cat laying on the sidewalk in front of her home, a bible verse was taped to the front door, and there appeared to be bullet holes around the entrance to the doorway. I rang a doorbell, was buzzed in, and walked up a flight of stairs to her apartment.
The note greeting visitors to Shelia Walker’s home on Albion Street in Waterbury.
Sheila Walker is a spiritual woman and didn’t believe ATM was a gang. She insisted ATM was a small number of young adults bonding over their love of music. I talked for an hour with a grieving mother seeking justice for her slain son. Sheila told me that Clarence worked at Kohl’s in Plainville, played a lot of video games, and was always smiling and joking and listening to music.
Shelia Walker and a photograph of her with her son, Clarence Lewis.
“He wasn’t perfect, but he was a good boy,” Walker told me. She said ATM (Addicted To Money) was a small group of kids who made music and wanted to make a name for themselves.
As she spoke Walker had her Bible opened to Isaiah 56.
“Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the one who does this, the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.”
Walker told me about Zaekwon “Yung Gap” McDaniel, 20, who had produced a video confessing to shooting her son. Walker couldn’t understand how McDaniel could proclaim his guilt on a YouTube video and still walk around the streets a free man.
Sheila Walker was unaware that the Waterbury PD had already relaunched its Gang Task Force and were working with the FBI to identify nearly 200 gang members terrorizing the city. Yung Gap was under surveillance
The two gangs were mostly comprised of young black men, 17 to 25 years old, with territories on opposite ends of the city. 960 was centered in the Brooklyn neighborhood, and ATM was in the North End. I reached out to sources in the local music scene and discovered that the shootings were linked to rap videos the gangs were making that insulted their rivals. The shootings were linked to disrespectful words in the videos.
It was about respect.
Insults led to bullets, with young rappers trying to earn street cred with shootings that would translate to views of their videos, which would then translate into money. Some of the videos had been viewed 100,000 times.
One of Clarences’s friends said, “The 960 are trying to get the respect of the people around them, but how can family and friends respect someone who took two lives?”
Many of the rival gang members grew up together and were friends for most of their lives, but gang rivalry driven by drug trafficking, money, and rap music, inserted a dangerous wedge in the relationships. One described a war driven by “psychological turf over music.”
A scene from a 960 gang video.
Clarence’s sister said, ” We all grew up together,” she told me, “but half of them are in jail at 16 and 17.”
Clarence knew he had been targeted by 960, but his sister said he wasn’t afraid.. “He took the threat seriously,” she said. “He said if it’s his time, it’s his time. He wasn’t going to think about it. He wasn’t scared.”
Some of the 960 gang had been Clarence Lewis’s friends and had spent time in his home. They had eaten at his family’s table, and slept in his house.
What happened between Young Gap and Clarence Lewis? According to sources in the North End of Waterbury, it was jealousy over music. “They were doing the East Coast versus West Coast, Biggie versus Tupac thing here in Waterbury,” one source told me. “They were both trying to make it big.”
After the interview with Sheila Walker I met with Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo to get an update from the police about the shootings of Clarence Lewis and Antonio Santos. I asked Spagnolo if a story published about the gangs might incite further violence, and he said it could.
“They are looking for attention,” Spagnolo told me at the time. “I can’t tell you not to write the story, that’s your call.”
But in a war ignited by words, it was clear that more words – some disrespectful towards 960 and Yung Gap McDaniel, would not be helpful.
So I decided not to publish the information in 2018.
Ten months later Zaekwon “Yung Gap” McDaniel was arrested in connection with the killings of Clarence Lewis and Antonio Santos, and is now in jail heading towards a trial on murder charges.
Zaekwon “Yung Gap” McDaniel
Besides McDaniel, the following people were indicted last week as part of the lengthy investigation into the 960 gang:
Gabriel “G” Pulliam, Tahjay “Goon” Love, Zaekwon “Gap” McDaniel, Ezra “Ezzy” Alves, Malik “Pop” Bayon, D‘ Andre “Dopeman” Burrus, Justin Cabrera, Laderrick “Lexus” Jones, Jaivaun “Sav” McKnight, Julian “Ju Sav” Scott, Dayquain Sinisterra, Ahmed “Stones” Alves, Adrian “Goldo”Flemming, James “Little Cuz” Graham, Tavaughn “Teddy” Wright and Dimitri Blanding.
When I was leaving Sheila Walker’s apartment in 2018 she posed a question to me that looms over all the violence and shootings that have rocked Waterbury for the past four years. She spoke of “Yung Gap” McDaniel, the alleged killer of her son, who at that time was still free on the streets on Waterbury.
“Young Gap,” she said, “how do you think you’re going to make it big? You’re going to jail.”