[March 4th, 2009]
More than two years ago, a well-publicized FBI report warned of gang members infiltrating the U.S. military. And while gang violence was spreading on bases, cops say returning gangsters are putting their new combat skills to deadly use in their old neighborhoods.
Now, as the military continues to suffer low recruitment approaching the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, a first lieutenant in the Oregon National Guard says he wants to take a convicted gangbanger off Portland’s streets and send him into a new combat zone—Iraq.
Police describe Levell Peters—who grew up in Northeast Portland but now lives in Vancouver, Wash.—as a longtime gang associate who’s affiliated with both the Rolling 60s and the Kerby Blocc Crips.
He’s also a private first class in the Oregon National Guard set to deploy this year with the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, according to a letter by Lt. Michael Davis, a lawyer with the Oregon Military Department.
But the Guard faces a hurdle in deploying Peters, 22: He was convicted this year of a felony in connection with a drive-by shooting last year in North Portland. And his probation forbids him to carry a weapon—even if he’s armed by the U.S. military.
In a Feb. 10 letter to Peters’ probation officer, Davis asked that Peters’ probation be modified so he can begin training in April and deploy with his unit this summer. Multnomah County Circuit Judge Marshall Amiton is expected to rule on that request later this month.
Davis’ letter says that in Iraq, Peters will be “under the supervision of the U.S. Army and subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” and that he’ll be “completely removed from negative community influences, to wit, gang members.”
But three nationally recognized experts on gangs and the military tell WW it’s a lousy idea to send people with Peters’ history into combat.
“People are under some terrible misunderstanding that the military will change gangbangers,” says Hunter Glass, a retired police detective and private consultant. “You can’t beat blueprinted behavior out.”
Davis did not reply to repeated emails and phone calls, and Peters declined to comment.
“This is a young man who is trying to improve his life,” says Peters’ attorney, Gary Bertoni. “Certainly I would disabuse anyone of the notion that he entered the Army so he could receive training and go back to the neighborhoods.”
Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson, who investigated last year’s shooting, says Peters is known to police as a Crips associate previously involved in a drive-by outside Benson High School. Court records show
convictions arrests for assault, harassment, disorderly conduct, reckless driving and other misdemeanors.
“This is not a guy you want serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere,” Simpson says. “He can’t be trusted.”
On Feb. 24, 2008, Simpson says, a house on North Commercial Avenue where Peters’ infant son was staying got shot up. The next day, Simpson says, Peters and three friends went out seeking revenge.
According to Simpson, they climbed into a 2008 Chrysler Sebring with Peters behind the wheel and drove through North Portland. They began chasing a Ford Taurus, and Peters gave his gun to a friend who opened fire, Simpson says. The Taurus returned fire and was joined by a Ford Explorer also taking shots at Peters’ Chrysler, Simpson says. The three cars drove several blocks firing on each other until police arrived.
No one was injured. But Simpson says that could change if the shooters had combat training.
“The spray-and-pray stuff they’re doing as gangbangers—that’s not what they’re doing in the military,” he says. “They’re doing precision shooting and explosives.”
When the shooting occurred, Peters had already joined the Guard. A grand jury indicted him for attempted murder and other charges on July 28, 2008, and he was arrested by U.S. marshals while training at a camp near Boise, Idaho.
On Jan. 28, a judge acquitted Peters of attempted murder but found him guilty of unlawful use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail with credit for time served and three years of probation.
After Davis asked for changes to Peters’ probation, Peters appeared in court Feb. 26 accompanied by his mother. Bertoni asked the judge for more time to review the Guard’s request, and a hearing was set for March 11.
Along with gang members, increasing numbers of convicted felons have found their way into the military in recent years under so-called “moral waivers” when they’re recruited.
“Obviously, it’s a huge problem,” says John Hutson, president of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce Law Center and a former Navy judge advocate general.
“The military is responsible to kill people,” he says. “It is responsible for the potential of great destruction of property. So you have to ensure that those people who are involved with that kind of activity are of the highest caliber.”