From Staff and Contributed Reports
Greene and Perry counties have been on the front lines of an apparent turf battle between rival gangs that has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries across the state in recent weeks.
Five state inmates and a 13-year-old boy have been killed since just before Christmas and multiple other people have been injured. Local and state officials attribute the rash of violence to a power struggle between the Vice Lord and Black Gangsta Disciple street gangs.
It isn’t exactly clear what set off the gang battle, but the first public outbreak happened Dec. 20 in Waynesboro when a drive-by shooting at an apartment complex left a 13-year-old boy dead and six other people with gunshot wounds they would survive.
According to eye-witness reports, a vehicle drove up to Waynesboro Apartments, also known as the ‘High Rise’, around 8 p.m. and opened fire. Six people standing outside the apartment complex were struck by one of at least 15 rounds fired from the vehicle. Zachary Benard died after being hit by a bullet while inside one of the apartments. Police called the youngster “an innocent victim”.
The violence spilled into Greene County on Christmas Eve when an exchange of gunfire in the parking lot of the McLain Express convenience store sent two men to the hospital. McLain Police Chief Brent Purcell said ambush-style shooting at around 8 p.m. involved multiple weapons and dozens of rounds being fired. Purcell said the two gunshot victims, who returned fire with their own weapons, were sitting in a parked car on the side of the convenience store when multiple assailants attacked from a wooded area nearby.
“Several weapons were used in the shooting,” Purcell said. “We recovered shell casings for three different weapons from the shooters.”
On Christmas morning, around 3 a.m. shots were fired at Oakwood Apartments on 2nd Street in Beaumont. No injuries were reported, but Perry County Sheriff Mitch Nobles said several shell casings were recovered from the scene.
Two more men sustained gunshot wounds during yet another shooting outside McLain on Sunday, Dec. 27. That shooting occurred around 3 a.m. at a residence across Hwy. 98 from the Big K convenience store and also reportedly involved multiple shooters and weapons.
Nobles announced the arrests of six people on gang-related charges on New Year’s Day, but none of those individuals are charged with the shootings.
More to come?
Wayne County Sheriff Jody Ashley told officials there over the weekend he received a disturbing video that indicated additional violence may take place.
“I was sent a video of some young men who were holding guns and talking about more violence,” Ashley said. “I have called MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigations) and told them that we have a gang problem. They have agreed to come in and assist us in addressing this.”
“We will be having multiple road blocks and will be making arrests. We want to let these gangs know that they are not wanted here in Wayne County.”
Ashley shared the video with this newspaper. In the upper left-hand corner of the video is a tagline stating “Battles, Mississippi.”
Early in the video, multiple, large bags of what appear to be marijuana are laying on a trampoline. Children can be heard in the background playing and laughing. A number of young men show off various handguns and automatic weapons, with some of the men showing other men how the weapons operate. While most of the audio on the video is hard to discern, some of the men can be heard stating there are going to be shootings “in the hood,” along with other supposed threats of violence. Some of the men in the video can be plainly seen while others hide their faces by looking down or looking away from the camera. A good portion of the video is shot with the camera pointing down toward the ground or directly at weapons being held by men. “We have automatic weapons available but from what I saw on the video, we are outgunned.”
Prisons erupt with gang violence
Whether the violence started on the outside and made its way inside the state prison system isn’t a matter of record, but gang battles at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) have been deadly over the past week, nonetheless, with four inmates killed in gang-on-gang violence and many others injured.
Denorris Howell, 36, was found early this past Sunday morning in his cell at Parchman, covered in blood with a neck wound. Howell was the fifth to die since violence erupted a week earlier with a stabbing at South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville.
Prison leaders are calling the gang fights “major disturbances,” but Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton described what’s going on at Parchman as “gang-related riots.”
Prison officials have released minimal amounts of information and have declined to confirm the names of the gangs “for security purposes”, but multiple reports indicate there is an ongoing confrontation between the Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciple gangs.
Terrandance Dobbins, 40, who was killed at SMCI, was the first MDOC casualty in the current outbreak of violence. The deaths of Walter Gates, Gregory Emary and Howell have since followed.
Gates, 25, was stabbed and several other inmates were injured Tuesday at Parchman during a fight that spread to multiple units of the sprawling prison. Then on Thursday, Gregory Emary, 26, was killed at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility, a county-run jail that holds state inmates. Also Thursday, 32-year-old Roosevelt Holliman was fatally stabbed at Parchman in a fracas that led to multiple injuries.
Corrections officials have refused so far to say how many people overall have been injured, or whether there have been other violent incidents in prisons.
Candice Dobbins, the sister of Terrandance Dobbins, said she’s been told violence began spreading after her brother’s death.
“Now they’re going to war,” she told the Clarion Ledger.
Candice Dobbins said she first learned of her brother’s death after a stranger who has a relative in a Mississippi prison phoned her. She said state officials later confirmed the death, but have answered no questions, leaving her to try to glean information from inmates.
Mississippi’s prison system has struggled to fill guard vacancies, with Hall saying it’s difficult to attract people with salaries that start below $25,000 a year. Some guards end up bringing illegal drugs and cell phones into prisons. Criminal charges were filed in 2014 against 26 state correctional officers.
Some prisons, including SMCI, have areas where many prisoners are housed in bunks in one large room, instead of individual cells. SMCI was locked down for almost all of 2019, in part because of guard shortages.