Devil Dogs escape close public scrutiny

The Arizona Republic/February 20, 2000
By Edythe Jensen

A violent, White supremacist gang has thrived in Gilbert, masked by the trappings of middle-class respectability and the notion that boys from good homes couldn't be thugs.

Known as the Devil Dogs, the gang has recruited the sons of prominent families to help insulate it from public scrutiny, according to a jailed member and a former police chief.

So many Mormons were members of the gang in the mid-1990s, for example, that a Taco Bell that became a gang hangout would call church leaders instead of police when trouble started.

Far fewer Mormons now belong to the Devil Dogs. And several prominent Gilbert families have publicly denounced it.

The gang's survival appears to reflect a combination of successful tactics and intimidation by gang members, and a tendency among Gilbert leaders to downplay the problem. The gang's survival is an especially troubling phenomenon in a placid community of red-tiled homes, three-car garages and a median income of $66,000.

Although most violence-prone gangs are made up of disenfranchised teens looking for money, drugs or territory, police say, the Devil Dogs already have status.

"They're shrewd," said Fred Dees, who retired two years ago after 24 years as Gilbert police chief. "They're not like any other gangs I've ever seen. "This White Power group already has power and money. They're out for hatred, which is sick."

Law-enforcement officials speculate that gang members courted some sons of prominent local people, specifically: Jacob Delecki, son of Gilbert School Superintendent Walter Delecki, and Brent Benson, son of Steve Benson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Arizona Republic and a Gilbert police reservist.

Philip Jason Lee, a former Devil Dog serving six months on assault charges, said gang members befriended Jacob Delecki primarily because of his father's status.

Lee, who attended Highland High School with Delecki, said he tried to warn him.

"He didn't believe me," said Lee, 17. "He said they were his friends." A police report named Delecki as the driver of a car that took two Devil Dogs to and from a gang assault on Taco Bell patrons last year. He was named in the report as a witness and was not charged. Walter Delecki conceded he was naive about his son's friends and is now more aware of the violent nature of the gang. But he stressed he never asked for special treatment.

As for his son, on whose behalf the father spoke, "We have eliminated his communication with these kids.

"Parents have to be very diligent these days," Delecki said. "When you hear the words 'party' or 'hanging out,' you pray." Dees, the former police chief, said Jacob Delecki was not the only son of a prominent family who was courted by the gang.

Brent Benson, 19, said he attended parties with the Devil Dogs and was at the scene of two gang assaults. But he said he never was a member. "I knew they picked fights for no reason," he said, "and I thought that was stupid."

His father, Steve Benson, said he became concerned when he found out some of sought to influence police investigations. "I can see how kids would be drawn to a popular group," Benson said. "And parents want to believe their kids would never get sucked into a group like the Devil Dogs."

Believed formed in 1993

Police say a White supremacist gang has been in existence in Gilbert since at least 1993, when it formed under the name "Hitler's Youth." Investigators say a changing group of 15 to 20 hard-core members had been carrying on the gang's influence, while hangers-on may have bolstered the ranks. Seven members already have been prosecuted and pleaded guilty for their roles in beatings that left one teenager disfigured and put another in the hospital.

Court records indicate unidentified gang members are responsible for several other attacks in which the victims were too afraid to come forward. After one attack outside a Gilbert fast-food restaurant, witnesses refused to identify the gang members to police because they feared retribution, police said.

And two parents of Highland students said their sons were attacked by barking gang members.

"All of a sudden, there were gang members circled around us, cussing, and my son was terrified," said one of the parents, who asked not be identified. Photos seized from the home of a gang member show they have the firepower to back up their intimidation. Gang members can be seen mugging for the camera with high-powered rifles and handguns, while others flash the raised Nazi arm and the three-fingered White Power salute.

Focusing on Gilbert

The Arizona Attorney General's Office is now focusing attention on Gilbert "because we are very concerned about the alleged White supremacist nature of this group, the assaults and the potential for further assaults," Lee Stein said.

Ten of his department's attorneys showed up last month at a Summit to End Hate and Violence, and he has offered his help to the school. Town leaders continue to place the size of the gang at a 10th of police estimates. Mayor Cynthia Dunham called the larger estimates "some blatant misinformation that was spread throughout this community."

Many members are good students and star athletes. A football coach, a school athletic director and a former mayor have all written letters or stood up in court to vouch for teens convicted in Devil Dogs attacks.

Former Mayor James Farley, who wrote in behalf of convicted member and former wrestling star Glenn J. Cribbin Jr., said he's convinced there is no White supremacist gang. The Devil Dogs, he said, only "exist in the imagination of police officers with an agenda."

"Gilbert is getting a black eye, undeservedly," Farley said. "We have some thugs, and they need to get their noses bloodied. But they don't need to go to jail on assault charges with hate-crimes tags on them. "They acted like jocks are supposed to act, obnoxious and aggressive." Farley and others noted that the victims of two of the three prosecuted gang assaults were White.

No ordinary gang

However, police say gang members shouted racial and sexual epithets at victims during the attacks. And Deputy County Attorney Jim Blake said it is not unusual for White supremacists to use racial slurs against people of any race.

It may seem odd, Blake said, but he added that the Devil Dogs are no ordinary gang.

Former Houston Elementary School Principal Pam Hill said she saw evidence in the early '90s of parents rearing their children "to believe they were better than other people."

"You have parents who tell children not to play with other kids or you can't hang around with these kids because they don't go to church with us or they don't live in our neighborhood," Hill added. Dees, the former police chief, said he also was troubled by what he saw in the early 1990s: Clean-cut high school boys with nice cars, fat allowances and a mean streak.

They wore nice clothes and got good grades, he said. But they also etched the letters "WP" for "White Power" on their hats, killed cats and spray-painted racist and satanic symbols. Problem not ignored

Dees said they also had parents who complained to top town officials that police were "hassling" their children. But town and school officials insist they haven't ignored the problem. They point to the formation of community groups, involvement of religious leaders and the town's recent anti-violence summit.

Highland High School Principal Ken James said that, starting in the mid-1990s, students were suspended for displaying White Power symbols or swastikas, flashing gang signs or bullying other students on campus. Councilman Steve Urie, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Mormon leaders were among those working behind the scenes to stop the gang activity.

About three years ago, church leaders drove around to gang hangouts to break up the group and work with the families of known members, he said. At least one popular hangout, a Taco Bell restaurant, would call Mormon leaders, not the police, whenever gang members started causing trouble, Urie said. Police acknowledged that self-policing worked when the gang was predominantly Mormon. But they say that is no longer the case.

'Aura of invincibility'

And Detective Michael Sanchez said that despite their good intentions, church leaders' involvement may have emboldened all gang members. "It created an aura of invincibility," Sanchez said. "The kids thought we couldn't touch them, that they could get away with it, because they'd gotten away with it in the past."

Urie said church members are currently split. Some parents are no longer active, he said, because they defended their children involved with White supremacists after church leaders condemned the intolerance. Former Mayor Dale Hallock was active in the Mormon Church's push to stop gang activity about three years ago. But he grew concerned that a few parents were teaching hate in the home.

"We need to embarrass these people badly," Hallock said. He added that he is advocating that all Gilbert churches take vocal public stands against racism and hatred. Although Walter Delecki said gang activity on school campuses is met with swift punishment, former Devil Dog Lee said schoolyard intimidation is common, out of sight of teachers and administrators. Gang members regularly encircle their victims on the Highland campus, barking like dogs and intimidating them to tears. "Everybody likes to be the tough guy," Lee said. "Tough guys got the girls."

In jail together

Lee's jailmates include convicted Devil Dogs Barry Nutter and Matt Torres. Glenn Cribbin Jr. is in a separate jail facility. Former gang associates Kenneth Couturier, Michael Spears and Kevin John Papa face sentencing during the next few weeks for their admitted roles in the beatings. Urie said he is concerned that housing members together in jail will give them time and reason to regroup when they get out.

And police say the Devil Dogs on the outside are still very much alive, continuing to threaten former associates and victims. Last week, the mother of a Devil Dog victim, who asked not to be identified, received a note on her door.

It reads, "You nigger bitch, you will pay. It's not over yet. wyb." The woman, who is White, turned the note over to police, who told her "wyb" could mean "watch your back."

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