Last month’s sweeping indictment in Charlotte of the United Blood Nation included the names of 83 defendants – and a whole lot of nicknames.
They range from the violent – “Trigga,” “Kutthroat” and “Murda Mo”; to the geographic – “Montana,” “Black Montana,” and “Billy Kilo Montana”; to the co-ed – “Lady Rage,” “Lady Rude” and “Lady Uno B”; even to the cinematic, as in Travis “Fridaay Daa Thuurteenth” McClain.
Whether the nicknames are color-coded –“Redd Lion,” “Red Hot,” and “Rugged Red;” in tribute – “Gotti” and “Gucci;” or pot pourri, “Hungry,” “Quick,” “P-Wheezy,” they’re often at the center of courtroom debates over whether they unfairly influence juries, legal battles that can have life-and-death consequences.
“They’re highly prejudicial,” says Charlotte attorney Claire Rauscher, who recently represented one of the dozen UBN members indicted in connection with the 2014 gang hit on Doug and Debbie London of Lake Wylie, S.C. “But the problem is that a lot of the communication and evidence admissible at trial contains those names.”
Rauscher helped represent Briana Johnson, the daughter of a Concord police officer. She is also known in federal documents by her gang nickname of “Breezy B.” Johnson, who drove the get-away car the night the Londons were killed. She has pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing.
Charlotte attorney Rob Heroy, who represented Malcolm Hartley, the Londons’ killer, says it was easier defending his client when he was not being identified by his UBN name, “Bloody Silent.” Hartley is now serving a life sentence without parole after pleading guilty to fatally shooting the couple to keep them from testifying against gang members who tried to rob their mattress store.
While the prosecution’s use of gang nicknames before a judge and jury does not lead to a conviction by itself, Heroy says the practice can be a highly effective and damaging branding campaign against defendants.
“It’s already one big strike against you if the prosecutor at the beginning of the trial asks the jury, ‘What are the chances that ‘Killer Tom’ is innocent?’ ” Heroy says. “Even if you get the nicknames taken off the indictment, the jury is still going to hear the prosecutor talk about ‘Big Psycho’ or whatever the horrible name is.”
Sometimes the nicknames don’t have to mentioned in court. Several years ago during a gang trial in Baltimore, a defense attorney used a Band-Aid to hide the tattoo “murder” on his client’s neck. Prosecutors persuaded the judge to have it removed – leaving the nickname in full view of the jurors.
Prosecutors and federal investigators say nicknames remain relevant for a practical and vital reason – because that’s how the defendants are known to witnesses and others who might provide evidence. Jurors, they say, must become familiar with the aliases to understand recordings or transcripts from wiretaps along with other key bits of testimony about specific people.
“They have to be indicted under all the names by which they are known or have been arrested,” says former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, who oversaw several major gang crackdowns in Charlotte and across western North Carolina. “If you have a nickname, I guess you have to own it.”
Nicknames have been part of gang lore for more than a century, from vintage figures such as “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd to the more recent John “The Teflon Don” Gotti.
They also cross cultural and linguistic lines. The 2015 indictment in Charlotte of 37 members of the Latino MS-13 gang included monikers ranging from “Smurf” to “Little Psycho,” “Most Wanted” and “Lunatico.”
Following the multi-state crackdown of UBN last month, federal prosecutors listed nicknames with 79 of the 83 persons taken into custody. Some of the defendants have two or three aliases, including Pedro “Magoo/Light/Inferno” Gutierrez, the reputed New York godfather of the entire East Coast gang.
The Observer regularly includes nicknames when writing about gang cases. Some readers have criticized the paper for both glorifying the gang lifestyle or demonizing the defendants before they go to trial.
Shannon Reid, a UNC Charlotte faculty expert on criminal gangs, says law enforcement’s use of the aliases “plays into the gravitas and mythology” of the gangs and emphasizes the threat to public safety.
In actuality, Reid says, many of the nicknames are assigned by family or friends to their bearers as early as age 7 or 8, often for innocent reasons. In other instances, a tough-sounding alias might provide a teenager with added protection and a higher neighborhood status but doesn’t necessarily guarantee criminal behavior. On the other hand, Jamell Cureton, who pleaded guilty to helping plan the Londons’ deaths, lived up to his nicknames of “Murda Mel” and “Assassin.”
Most gang members, Reid says, grow disillusioned with the lifestyle and leave after a year. But their nicknames may stay in law enforcement gang databases indefinitely.
“Names like Big Turtle and Little Psycho feed the mythic image. When you go to court, you don’t want that image anymore,” Reid says. “They don’t realize that these names have lasting consequences.”
And those consequences can be severe.
Both Hartley and Cureton avoided a death penalty trial by agreeing to plead guilty to the Londons’ murders. Heroy says federal prosecutors, under the direction of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may no longer be so willing to deal.
Under Justice Department rules, death penalty decisions in federal cases are made in Washington, D.C., not by local prosecutors. Heroy says he expects up to six capital murder charges to come out of the latest gang arrests due to promises by Trump and Session to be tougher on gangs. In trials where a life may be on the line, gang nicknames can further criminalize a defendant in a jury’s eyes, Heroy believes.
Up to now, defense attorneys have had little success culling the colorful aliases from trial or court documents – due largely to the fact that nicknames are often the primary identification for the gang and their associates.
Or as Heroy sums up a frequent line of thinking from judges: “That’s the name they went by. So they’re stuck with it.”