'Prosecutors under my watch will send people to prison':
Houston County is seeing a rise in violent crime, much of it gang-related.
That includes some high-profile homicide cases, but prosecuting those crimes can be a whole different ballgame.
It's a scene Houston County people see all too often -- memorials to victims of gang violence.
"It's out-of-towners, people coming from this place, that place, this place; because they know, it's money here," Gary Rountree said.
Rountree says he's noticed more violence on Warner Robins' north side.
"Most of them trying to be just like that, a thug, bully. They want to be seen. They don't want to be low-graded. That's what's going on," Roundtree said.
The father of four and grandfather of seven says the youth wants respect.
"They be saying, 'What you saying? What you say, mother...?' or something like that. 'You heard what I said? What you say? OK, just wait until I come back,'" Rountree said.
Back in June, three homicides in just 48 hours shocked Warner Robins.
"The people of Houston County are fed up. They are fed up with the violent crime. They are fed up with the shootings. They are fed up with seeing children hurt and people dying, and they should be," Houston County District Attorney Will Kendall said.
Kendall says his office believes two of the three are gang-related.
All three happened on the northeast side of Warner Robins within four-miles of each other.
"I think, in part, justice is set up to when people go off to prison, they are supposed to be reformed, pay their debt to society, and come back into the civilian world as better citizens or capable citizens. I am not saying that always happens. It's not perfect, but certainly, my job is to serve the best interest of justice; and if we've got gang members running around the streets, hurting people and robbing businesses and things like that, we are going to send them to prison," Kendall said.
Recent gang related activity across Warner Robins
While gang cases start out on the streets, eventually they turn into a case; and then, they wind up at the Houston District Attorney's Office.
"Although there are many problems that plague Houston County and communities across the nation, criminal gang street activity is one of them. One of the issues right now is serious, violent felonies in Houston County, which the large majority of them being perpetrated by criminal street gang members," Kendall said.
But Kendall says prosecuting gang members isn't easy.
"You have to collect the data first, because you have to be able to go into court and say these people are a part of a gang, an illegal gang; and these are the things that tell us that so. In prosecution, you don't get to charge somebody with criminal street gang activity just because they are a gang member who created a crime. There has to be a nexus, and it has to be in furtherance of that gang. It could be drugs, robbery, an aggravated assault. It could be a number of things, but there has to be some kind of nexus that would basically be in furtherance of what that gang is doing," Kendall said.
"They don't believe anything is going to happen to them," Spivey said.
Kendall says, as far as he knows, Hartwig's office had not prosecuted gang cases since at least 2018, and that put Kendall's office in a hole.
"There is no database. I have little to no previously-established resources or foundational data or information to go off of to move forward in prosecution of gangs, but the good thing is law enforcement continues to keep notice, whether it's heightened activity from gangs, where people are validating gang members. In the last five, 10 years, it never stopped the jails to documenting people to vetted gang members who have the tattoos and who admitted to being in a gang and things like that, so there is some information out there; and there's something to be said about the ability to start fresh. I mean, sometimes starting with nothing is better than having someone else's product and figuring out how to use it. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. I just think, while I am here, we have to attack the issues," Kendall said.
Nine months ago, Kendall's office launched a Joint Law Enforcement Gang Task Force with more than 150 local, state, and federal officers.
Now, they've rolled out a software called Formulytics to create profiles on gang members.
"It's just a software that we pushed out to all law enforcement. They are able to log in on a web platform and then put together reports on gangs," Kendall said.
Kendall says once they prove suspects are gang members, they can compound charges.
"If it's a burglary which would be 20 years, you can still tack on the criminal street gang activity and potentially send these folks that are essentially being a nuisance in the community, causing violent crimes in Houston County, send them off to prison for a long time, and that's what we expect to do," Kendall said.
Kendall's been in office just over a year and hasn't convicted any gang members, but now has some cases in the pipeline.
"It's a lot time, effort, and a lot of resources; and I expect as time goes on, that we will build our cases and build the data that we need in order to prosecute people. We've got folks that have been picked up on warrants for criminal street gang activity, so the system is working as it should; and I expect this time next year, before we get two years out, we will have some folks sent off to prison and taken off the street," Kendall said.
The DA's office has closed over 3,100 cases in the past 12 months.
"That is an all-time record. That's never happened here in Houston County. Usually, we get 32 [hundred] - 3,400 cases, separate felony cases. This year, we are on pace for 42 [hundred] - 4,500 if things keep going the way they are," Kendall said.
Rountree says he's seen a change, too, with more police patrolling the neighborhood.
"They are on top of it. That's the way it looks to me, and that's a good thing, keeping everybody safe," Rountree said.
That's one way Kendall says they're catching up on their gang knowledge.
In August, they had around 60 concentrated patrols on Warner Robins' north side.
He said that generated more than a thousand contacts for police.
"We as law enforcement and prosecutors put our feet down and hold these folks to the fire. Law enforcement will work together, despite the manpower issues, to do concentrated patrols, to have task forces and things like that; and the prosecutors under my watch will send people to prison. I don't think it's out of our grasp. We've actually built a huge foundation of information, so far, in what I perceive is a very short time," Kendall said.
We reached out to Hartwig, but he did not respond.