Battling Butler County gangs: How a 2016 bar shooting started a rash of incidents

Editor’s note: The Journal-News investigated gang activity in Butler County earlier this year and produced this report first published on May 19, 2019.

Starting with a summer 2016 shooting at Doubles Bar in Hamilton, numerous people have lost their lives due to gang-related gun violence in Butler County, officials said.

In that incident on Hamilton’s West Side, one was killed and at least seven were injured. That violence set in motion a retaliation a shooting the next month that killed two people on Central Avenue in Hamilton and continued when 13-year-old Jaraius Gilbert Jr. was killed when 15 shots were fired across Front Street in August 2018.

Those shootings, multiple recent court cases and the culmination of a six-month investigation into a “drug ring” largely based in Middletown this month have underlined law enforcement’s battle against gangs.

The groups are especially concerning because of the cycle of violence they can support by way of retaliations, multiple local police chiefs said. They lure in young people because of the sense of community and belonging they provide, and their pressures force those same members to take sometimes-deadly actions, they said.

Even though recent activity can be traced to the Doubles Bar incident in 2016, the string of incidents and the people involved go far beyond that, officials said.

“The thing is, I don’t know if the people involved could answer that,” said Hamilton police Chief Craig Bucheit. “If you sat down and talked with them, they couldn’t tell you where it started or where it will end.”

During last month’s trial for Kameron Tunstall, who was convicted in Gilbert’s murder for conspiring with shooter Miquan Hubbard and providing the gun, prosecutors said the 2018 shooting involved two Hamilton gangs and was fueled by a Snapchat post that “disrespected” Kalif Goinss, who was killed at Doubles.

At his sentencing, Hubbard said he didn’t mean to shoot his “little cousin” Jaraius, but he received a 16-year-to-life prison sentence. Tunstall is facing a stiffer sentence next month.

Butler County police officials said collaboration among agencies that didn’t exist years ago is the reason more gang-related arrests have been made lately.

On May 6, law enforcement officials from five agencies raided nine homes, including seven in Middletown, after a six-month investigation into a drug trafficking ring in the Middletown area.

The agencies seized drugs, guns and 20 vehicles allegedly used in drug trafficking, said Maj. Scott Reeve from the Middletown Division of Police. He said Middletown police, FBI, ATF, Butler County Drug Task Force and Warren County Drug Task Force and five SWAT teams collaborated in issuing the federal warrants.

Middletown poice Chief Rodney Muterspaw said the drug dealers have a direct or indirect connection to the homicides of Teresa Shields, Benny Barefield, Kapriece Fuller and others in the city.

Benwan Edwards, 25, of Middletown, was taken into custody May 6 by federal agents and charged with drug trafficking. Edwards is the son of Barefield, 48, of the 800 block of Ninth Avenue, who was found shot 10:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 2018 in his red Buick Lucerne at the corner of Yankee Road and Ninth Avenue, Reeve said.

It was a rash of activity that Muterspaw said was a positive in the battle against gangs, but the issue continues to loom large.

“All you can do is hope to slow it down,” Muterspaw said.

Gang activity is “all about retaliation,” Muterspaw said. That means one deadly shooting will often lead to more gun violence, he said.

“People are sick of gangs,” Muterspaw said. “They don’t want them in their neighborhoods.”

He said once people are introduced to that gang culture and lifestyle, they don’t want to leave. It’s more attractive than working.

“It’s easy money,” the chief said. “It’s a family to them.”

Longtime Hamiltonian Sjuwana Springfield, whose nephew Londale Harvey was gunned down in a Lindenwald neighborhood in January, said the violence “needs to stop.”

Bucheit said there have been a “string of shootings. The connected part is what is not quite as clear. That is part of the challenge for us. Piecing that together.”

The street violence is related to guns, gangs and drugs, Bucheit said said, adding there are no boundaries to the criminal activity. He said there has always been a cross-community connection.

“There are connections between our community and every other community in the county involving criminal activity, and that would include gang activity, but I would say largely the issues we are facing, although they have connections outside the community, they are largely centered here in Hamilton,” Bucheit said.

Police have taken a number of proactive approaches to stop the violence over the years, which will continue into this summer, he said.

“They are geared to engaging young people in constructive outlets and activities,” Bucheit said. “It’s important to start young because by the time they are in their mid to late teens there is a strong influence in the neighborhoods and in the community — a corrupting influence that is pulling very heavily at these kids.”

Hamilton’s Rev. Shaquila Mathews, better known as “Pastor Shaq,” is one of those working to make a difference through mentoring youth in an effort to stop gun violence. She lost a brother to homicide when 37-year-old Calvin “CJ” Simmons Jr. was shot and killed in his home three years ago. That slaying remains unsolved.

“I think the kids want a place to belong,” she said. “They want someone to listen to them to validate them. If they are not getting it at home for whatever reason we give kids a sense of place to be and mentors to help guide.”

She founded Hamilton Young People Empowered (HYPE), a non-profit organization that helps young people through mentoring, after-school programming and open gyms. She also has been working with a Cincinnati-based program called Street Rescue, which accepts “community guns” in exchange for gift certificates. Community guns are weapons that gangs or other groups hide for use as needed, so they don’t have to carry weapons around constantly.

Katrina Wilson, community and criminal justice consultant and director of the prison re-entry programs in Butler and Warren counties, agrees with Mathews. She believes to combat violence, young people need to be given “hope” before they join a gang.

“Life is hopeless for them,” Wilson said. “They don’t care to die, to kill or go to prison.”

People associate with gangs, Wilson said, because they’re “looking for some place to belong and to get approval. It’s part of who we are as people. We want to feel significant.”

When it comes to gang violence, there are “no winners,” she said. While some families are planning funerals, others are attending court hearings for months.

“It’s a tragic loss of life on both sides of the guns,” she said. “How in the world did we get to this point? When we don’t value life and for what, temporary gain?”

Celeste R. Didlick-Davis, who runs 3R Development Inc., in Middletown, said more youth programs are needed so children don’t have free time and aren’t attracted to gangs.

“It’s a family,” she said. “They’re looking for that unconditional acceptance and love.”

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