June 10, 2007
Desperate to shore up its flagging ranks, the military is quietly enlisting thousands of active gang members and shipping them to Iraq. Will a brutal murder finally wake up the Pentagon?
He was groggy, thirsty, and in terrible pain. His bowels and kidneys felt like they were about to explode. Faint bruises, some the size of a soldier’s fist, others the size of a military-issue combat boot, were already forming on Sergeant Juwan Johnson’s skin. A trickle of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth.
It was almost a miracle he was able to stand, some of the soldiers who were with him that night would later recall. They were amazed he still had the blue bandanna clutched tightly in his fist. Things had gotten out of hand.
Only a few guys were supposed to be beating him—maybe three or four, definitely no more than six. They were men Johnson knew and trusted, soldiers he had fought with in Iraq. The beating was only supposed to go on for a minute or so. After all, they weren’t trying to kill him. They were trying to make him one of their own.
All he had to do was hold onto the blue rag and silently suffer through the slaps and kicks and punches. When it was over, he would become an official member of the Gangster Disciples, a man with connections all over the United States. Hell, all over the world.
But something had gone awry on that summer night at the Kaiserslautern Army Base in Germany. It seemed like everybody in that secluded pavilion, a grill house not far from the barracks, had taken turns pummeling the small young sergeant from Baltimore. In the frenzy, no one even knew for sure how long the assault had lasted.
When it was over, Johnson still held the gang’s "colors" in his hand. He had made it through, bloodied but still breathing. Back in Baltimore, when he played for the Carver Vocational-Technical High School football team, the five foot, three inch running back used to deflect hits from guys twice his size. He’d certainly survived worse torture during his 15 months in Iraq. He had a Purple Heart to prove it, earned after a Humvee he was riding in took a hit from a mortar, tossing him onto an Iraqi street and injuring his back.
Compared to that, this was nothing. Besides, Johnson had been looking forward to his "jumping in," the initiation rite of the Chicago-based gang. He hadn’t mentioned it to his wife, of course. Pregnant with their first child, she was obsessively fixing up the house; in just two weeks, he was due for a discharge. All he told her was that he was thinking about joining the Masons.
He hadn’t mentioned the gang to his mother either. He could only imagine how she would react. After all, she had pressed him to join the Army as a way of escaping the drugs and gangs of his famously tough neighborhood. He never would have been able to convince her that the Gangster Disciples were anything but street thugs. But he knew them as a much more sophisticated operation, one that offered him the kinds of rewards the Army had promised but failed to deliver.
Johnson figured he’d be fine with a little bit of sleep. He began swaying woozily as he shuffled to his barracks, and a couple of his buddies ran over and held him up. He told them he was all right, but they insisted. After tossing him in the shower, they stretched his battered body out on his bunk. Then they went out to a local club.
The next morning, on July 4, 2005, Sergeant Juwan Johnson, a decorated Iraq War vet and full-fledged member of the Gangster Disciples, was found dead from internal injuries. He was 25.
A few months later an autopsy ruled that Johnson had died of "multiple blunt-force trauma." But the initial military police report detected "no signs of foul play." For nearly one year, the death of Sergeant Johnson was a mystery to his distraught family. It wasn’t until May 2006, five months after the Army papered the base with fliers offering a $25,000 reward (later upped to $50,000) for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case, that investigators acknowledged a gang connection.
Ten months lapsed before the first suspect was charged. Since then, five soldiers have been charged in the case, according to a U.S. Army spokesperson. Only one of them, Specialist Bobby Morrissette—a friend who served alongside Johnson throughout his deployment overseas—has been slated to stand trial.
But according to gang experts, including one who has been called to testify, the real mystery is why it took the Army so long to accept that Johnson was the victim of a growing epidemic of gang violence that has infected all branches of the armed services. Lax enlistment standards have inadvertently allowed thousands of gang members to join the military, including young men who belong to the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings, and various white supremacist groups. But no gang has infiltrated the armed forces as deeply as the Gangster Disciples, a 100,000-member Chicago-based syndicate that has been linked to an assortment of crimes ranging from murder to mortgage fraud.
"There’s no doubt about it—the Gangster Disciples are the biggest [gang] in the Army," says Chicago Police Lieutenant Robert Stasch, who has spent 30 years tracking the group’s rise from a handful of street-corner hoodlums to what he calls "the most sophisticated criminal enterprise in the United States."
Founded three decades ago by Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples have worked to burnish their image, says Stasch. They have courted politicians and sought to enhance their legitimacy. At one point Hoover changed the group’s name to "Growth and Development" and tried to portray himself as the leader of a community organization. According to Stasch, "They even set up a political action committee?…?that would actually go to various cities and states, and even to the federal level, in an attempt to get gang-friendly legislation enacted."
Now, with the unintended help of the U.S. Army, the gang is extending its reach worldwide. According to a Chicago Sun-Times article last year, Gangster Disciple graffiti has been spotted all over Iraq. The gang’s initials and main symbol, the six-pointed star, have been tagged on concrete blast barriers, armored vehicles, and even remote firebase guard shacks. In an astonishing study of just three Army bases over the past four years, a Department of Defense detective identified more than 300 active gang members. Some experts estimate that up to 2 percent of the soldiers on active duty—perhaps as many as 20,000—have sworn allegiance to one gang or another.