'Beat-in' on display in Walker County Ghostface Gangsters trial

'Beat-in' on display in Walker County Ghostface Gangsters trial

May 21st, 2019 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Zane David Smith

Zane David Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Four men stood shirtless in a wooded backyard. One spread his legs, squatted deep and sprung into a crouch. Then, they rumbled.

Zane David Smith, a Ghostface Gangsters gang recruit, fended off three men in order to get "brought home," the initiation for new members. The fight lasted about a minute in a secluded yard on Aug. 4, 2018.

Smith testified Tuesday in Walker County Superior Court that he was recruited to the group by Travis Amos Wellborn, with whom he worked on construction projects. He said Wellborn was one of the highest-ranking members of the gang in the LaFayette area. He said Wellborn ordered him to fight that day.

The shaky footage from the video showed the shirtless men exchanging punches as onlookers shouted, "Let's get it! Let's get it!" They then grilled hamburgers and drank beer in Wellborn's father's backyard off West Reed Road.

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Deanna Reisman argued Wellborn is one of the leaders of the Ghostface Gangsters in Northwest Georgia, pointing to his recruitment of new members such as Smith. Wellborn is on trial on seven counts of violation of the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism Prevention Act.

Thomas Clifton Gaines, one of the three men who fought Smith on Aug. 4, is also on trial, facing five counts of violating the street gang act. He also faces a charge of affray, a misdemeanor.

Smith testified for about three hours Tuesday in handcuffs, orange Crocs-like shoes and a neon green Dade County Jail inmate work shirt and pants. He faces one charge of violating the street gang act and one charge of affray because of his participation in the initiation fight. He testified to get a better plea agreement in his own case but said the district attorney's office has not promised him anything. His attorney, Steven Miller, said Smith is being held in Dade County instead of Walker County for his protection.

"My family has been threatened," Smith said. "I have been threatened. There's a hit on my head. Yeah, there are repercussions."

An all-white gang, the Ghostface Gangsters originated in the Cobb County Jail around 2000, according to a federal indictment in a separate case. Georgia Department of Corrections officials say the gang has built a presence in the prison system over the past two decades. Beginning around 2015, local drug detectives say, the Ghostface Gangsters became players in the methamphetamine trade in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, which covers Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties.

Their power comes from prison connections, said Drug Task Force Commander Dewayne Brown. As an all-white gang, they offered protection to new inmates. But because they were not founded on racist beliefs, the Ghostface Gangsters built ties with other prison gangs. This led to connections in the drug trade, officials said. (Their status as a white gang has also afforded them the ability to work with racist groups such as the Aryan Nations.)

Thomas Clifton Gaines

Thomas Clifton Gaines

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

To convict defendants for violating the Street Gang Terrorism Prevention Act, prosecutors have to prove they took concrete steps to build a gang's strength. In this case, Reisman is pointing to the video of Smith's initiation, as well as a video of an initiation on Sept. 29, also in Wellborn's father's yard.

But defense attorneys Tom Weldon and Stephen Blevins argued Tuesday that the gang label is misplaced. They said the supposed gang leaders in Northwest Georgia are undisciplined and disorganized.

"There's not much structure?" Blevins asked during cross examination.

"There's not," Smith said.

"There's not much organization?" Blevins asked.

"They tried structure," Smith said. "But everyone pretty much does whatever they want."

Smith said he left the gang on Sept. 20 because he didn't want to follow Wellborn's demands. Sometimes, he was supposed to meet up at a moment's notice. He also got in trouble for using methamphetamine, a violation of the gang's rules. But at the same time, he said, other members of the gang also did drugs without punishment. He specifically named Gaines.

"There were no consequences for you leaving Ghostface?" Weldon asked.

"Not at the time," Smith said. "No."

Members of the drug task force and the Department of Community Supervision arrested 16 people in November for participation in the Ghostface Gangsters, including Gaines, Smith and Wellborn. The case hinges on the videos of the "beat-ins," as well as testimony from people affiliated with the gang.

Michael Anthony Crowe, also arrested in September as part of the sweep, testified Tuesday that he attended the Ghostface Gangsters meeting in September at which another initiation ritual occurred. When one of the fighters broke a gang rule, Crowe punched him 13 times. The incident is captured on a video Reisman played for the jury.

Travis Amos Wellborn

Travis Amos Wellborn

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

At Wellborn's instruction, the rule breaker — Justin Brown — holds his hands above his head, offering himself no cover. Crowe then repeatedly punched him in the chest. Crowe testified Tuesday that he went to the meeting because another member of the gang invited him. He said he never attended another meeting, but he pleaded guilty in February to affray and one count of violating the street gang act.

He received 15 years' probation and must complete a drug treatment program. (A drug task force officer said he found what looked like methamphetamine in an RV when they arrested Crowe in November.) Crowe also must not have any contact with Ghostface members in the future, and he is not allowed to enter the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

He said he is testifying because members of the gang have threatened his family, including his baby daughter.

"My daughter is a newborn," he said. "I've done what I've done. But my daughter has to suffer."

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.