Sheriff: Beaufort Marines behind repeated gang recruiting effort
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Beaufort-based Marines traveled to Columbia at least four times to recruit teenagers as potential gang members at the behest of a gang leader in Florida, Richland County officials said Wednesday.

"There was no recruiting for the U.S. Marines. ... It was a recruiting trip to get the people here to join a national gang out of Fort Lauderdale," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. "The whole purpose was to get these young men up here to be part of that gang."

Lott spoke to reporters Wednesday to expand on the arrests of four Marines from the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station and 14 other young men at what he called a gang meeting at a vacant building once used as a community center.

All were charged with trespassing and one of the adults faces a weapons charge. All are free on bail, Lott said.

Several of the young men being recruited were 13, 14 and 15 years of age, and some of their parents continue to insist that their children are not involved with gangs and that the authorities have blown the incident out of proportion, Lott said.

The sheriff said photos taken from computers at the Beaufort military base not only revealed who was being recruited for the gang, but that meetings were held at four different sites in the Columbia area.

The photos showed the young men and juveniles wearing gang colors and forming gang symbols with their hands.

"This was the fourth trip that the Marines made to this area," Lott said, adding his deputies were helped by military investigators at the Beaufort Air Station.

"I hope this will erase any doubt that this is real," Lott said of what he termed was a growing gang problem in the community. "There is still some denial going on in our community."

Lott said he was aware of reports elsewhere in the country about military service members being involved in gangs and that South Carolina wasn't immune to the problem.

The gang members in South Carolina used computers at schools and public libraries to contact a gang leader in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., about joining their national gang. The gang leader in Florida contacted one of the Marines in Beaufort, who was a member of the Florida gang, and directed him to meet with the young men in Columbia "to test them out" and see if they could join the gang, Lott said.

The previous meetings were in a high school parking lot, at a local amusement park, and in a private residence. The arrests came at the fourth meeting, held at a former community center, after someone observed the meeting going on and called the authorities, Lott said.

The sheriff said the Marines had been turned over to military officials. He directed questions about their status to the Beaufort air station, and a call seeking that information wasn't immediately returned.