138 arrested in 4-month antigang and violent crime operation

Gangs, guns and drugs were the targets of a four-month operation by federal, state and local law enforcement officers that resulted in 138 arrests in Gaston and Cleveland counties, officials said Tuesday.

Called “Southern Snare,” the multi-agency antigang and violent-crime initiative seized 56 firearms, including four assault rifles, narcotics with an approximate street value of $178,000 and an estimated $15,000 in U.S. currency.

Anne Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, announced the results of an operation that began in May and ended Sept. 5.

By combining local agencies’ boots-on-the-ground intelligence with the expertise of federal and state law enforcement agencies, she said, “we can make a more effective disruption of gang activities.”

“It’s not just about being tough on crime,” Tompkins said. “It’s about being smart on crime. It’s about pooling expertise.”

The 138 defendants face state charges in connection with the investigation, but Tompkins said there’s a possibility some will be prosecuted on federal charges. The investigations are ongoing and may result in more charges against the defendants.

“Southern Snare” was led by the U.S. Marshal Service in coordination with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Charlotte Field Division; ICE/Homeland Security Investigations; North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation; North Carolina Department of Public Safety; Gaston County Police Department; police departments in Shelby, Kings Mountain and Gastonia; and sheriff’s offices in Cleveland and Gaston counties.

U.S. Marshal Kelly Nesbit said charges against those arrested ranged from street-level drugs to homicide and that 25 different gangs were identified, including the United Blood Nation and Mexican Mafia.

Gaston and Cleveland counties were targeted because statistics showed “they had seen an uptick in gang activity,” Nesbit said.

He said the concept of a cross-jurisdictional, multi-agency operation isn’t new and that the agencies involved in “Southern Snare” have had “long-standing relationships built over many, many years.”

Those relationships will continue, he said, adding that initiatives like “Southern Snare” bring relief to communities “afflicted by gang activity and the violence it brings.”

Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford felt the operation has made a positive impact. By taking criminals off the street “the chaos they create goes away and also some of the fear,” he said.

Having state and local law enforcement involved “really brought a lot of resources to the table,” said Ledford. “We already had a good relationship going.”

He thinks the partnerships at work in “Southern Snare” will continue to grow.

Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger said “Southern Snare” shows how numbers of law enforcement officers can work together effectively.

“It sends a message to criminals that county lines don’t matter,” he said. “We’ll track you down.”

Gastonia Police Capt. Edward Turas said “no city stands alone without a gang problem.”

He wouldn’t name any specific streets in Gastonia that were targeted during the operation.

“We focused on individuals,” he said. “Gangs migrate everywhere. I can’t point a finger to any one location. They’re mobile. They migrate all around the area.”

In a release, Kings Mountain Police Chief Melvin Proctor said the multi-agency operation sent a message to “criminals who think they can conduct their illegal activities in our area.”

“The Kings Mountain Police Department will work alongside our federal and state law enforcement partners to protect the safety of the communities we serve,” Proctor said.