LAFAYETTE, Ga. — As far as criminal organizations go, the fall of North Georgia's Ghostface Gangster leaders came pretty simply.
Investigators did not tap phones for months, deciphering an intricate code for drug sales, drop offs and murders, like on "The Wire." They didn't prepare a wonky trial centered on tax evasion charges, like in "The Untouchables."
Instead, Georgia Department of Community Supervision Officer Ryan Matthews scrolled through the cellphone of Casey Lee Gamble, who he said was one of three local leaders of the Ghostface Gangsters. Because Gamble, 27, was on parole for a methamphetamine manufacturing conviction, Matthews was free to stop by his house to check-in on him — and his technology.
Matthews said he found videos from August and September that showed "beat-ins" and "violations," supposed signs of an organized gang. Like a fraternity with harder drugs, the "beat-ins" show current members attacking recruits as a form of initiation. The "violations" are beatings for breaking gang rules.
Matthews, along with the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office, built a case around the videos. They also relied on Facebook photos of some members flashing gang signs, as well as interviews with members. In November, the circuit's drug task force arrested Gamble and 15 other people for violating the state's Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
"This gang is the most violent gang there is in our community," Matthews testified in a court hearing for one of the defendants in the roundup. "One reason is, they are not real structured. And they just do what they want. They sell drugs and, you know, drive-by shootings. Just all kind of stuff."
Gamble pleaded guilty in December, receiving a 15-year sentence. He is supposed to serve five of those years in prison and spend the other 10 on probation. (At least eight other defendants have pleaded guilty as of Thursday, a review of court filings showed.)
The Ghostface Gangsters are the largest gang born in Georgia, according to the Department of Community Supervision. Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force Commander Dewayne Brown said there are more Ghostface members in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties than anywhere else in the state.
In addition to Gamble, Brown identified two other local leaders arrested in the November roundup: Travis Amos Wellborn and Thomas Clifton Gaines. The two are scheduled for a joint trial in Walker County, with jury selection beginning Monday morning.
Brown, who has investigated drugs in the region for 12 years, said he has never before seen a local trial where the Street Gang Act is the primary offense. Public Defender David Dunn, who has practiced for 36 years, and Clifton "Skip" Patty, who has practiced for 45 years, also said they have not seen a trial like this in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Chris Arnt said other gang-related cases here have either involved smaller groups or defendants from outside the circuit. Two members of the Bloods were arrested after traveling from Rome to Chattooga County in June 2014. Around the same time, prosecutors tried cases against some Fort Oglethorpe men who identified themselves as members of the Stunt Squad.
"They weren't very organized," Arnt said. "If they're organized now, it's inside a penitentiary."
Similar to racketeering charges, Georgia's Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act is a tool for prosecutors to more severely punish organized criminal activity. In this case, built around video-taped fights, most of the defendants would have faced charges of affray, a misdemeanor that carries a charge of up to one year in jail.
But with prosecutors arguing that these beatings are part of the organized structure of a gang, they can charge the defendants with felonies that carry mandatory minimums of five years in prison.
Larry Stagg, who represented Gamble, said the advanced punishment is driven by financial incentives. Local prosecutors receive grants to study gang enforcement. Police departments, in turn, receive grants to arrest gang members.
"It is awful stiff for basically an affray," Stagg said. "There wasn't a whole lot else going on but eating barbecue and drinking beer."
He added: "The more gang activity they find, the more grant money they get. Until the grant money was on the table, there wasn't prosecutions for this offense."
Catoosa County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jeremy Keener first heard about Ghostface Gangsters in 2015, when he became a narcotics investigator. Drug offenders began dropping names, telling investigators about Ghostface members with ranks like "sergeant." Keener said he called counterparts at the Chattanooga Police Department, who had not heard of the gang at the time.
"Within three or four months, the same guys were calling me," he said. "Saying, 'Tell me everything you can about Ghostface.'"
According to a U.S. District Court indictment for a pending racketeering case, seven Cobb County Jail inmates formed the Ghostface Gangsters in 2000. For years, it was largely a prison gang for white inmates, offering protection, drugs and cellphones. Unlike other white gangs like the Aryan Nations, it was not centered on racist ideology.
In the early years, Keener said, the gang was unorganized outside of prison. They tried to play in the drug trade, with little success. But according to the federal indictment, one of the founding members started to organize the group more in June 2016. From Hays State Prison in Trion, he allegedly kept a roster and instructed one member to appoint leaders over 12 regions throughout the state — basing the gang's division of labor on the structure of the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services.
Brown said the gang's local rise is a matter of demographics. Among Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties, 90% of the 175,000 residents are white. Naturally, most of the defendants sent to prison from here are white. While locked up, they connect with Ghostface leaders. They then return home, some of them holding onto their connections.
The relationships extended beyond Ghostface, to cartel members with presences in Mexico and Atlanta.
"And because they weren't a white supremacy type of thing, that's where they were able to make a lot more connections," Keener said.
In November 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration launched an investigation into Wesley Gage Weldon, of Ringgold, and seven other defendants. According to guilty pleas in the case, Weldon and some co-defendants picked up shipments out of Atlanta and wired money to Mexico. Some of the defendants in the case were Ghostface members, Keener said. (Some defendants also beat a man, stripped him, tied him up, rolled a hay bale over him and abandoned him in a Ringgold field in January 2017. The victim later escaped.)
Also in January 2017, members of the Drug Task Force allegedly found 9 pounds of methamphetamine in the home of Randall Scott Rounsaville, whom Brown said was one of the local leaders of the Ghostface Gangsters. Rounsaville pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga on Feb. 4; he will be sentenced June 10.
Keener said the gang has become more organized over the last four years. After the November arrests, Matthews said other members of the gang tried to decide how to replace their local leadership. He said they found Joshua Brian Stephens, Erick Kristopher Kahn and Steven Brian Heberer in a home on Sunset Circle in Rossville with guns, methamphetamine and heroin.
"They were trying to restructure," Matthews said. "They were talking about it, writing notes and stuff."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.