Prisoners in their own homes

YOUNGSTOWN -- No, don't come to the house -- it's safer if we talk on the phone.
A reasonable request of a reporter driving a distinctive orange Vindicator car, considering the fear that has gripped Ayers Street.
Drug users call the run-down area La La Land.
"The neighbors won't want their names used," said Lt. William Powell, vice squad commander. "They're afraid of reprisal."
The East Side neighborhood high above the Wilson Avenue steel mill graveyards has its share of visible safeguards: beware of dog signs, telltale ADT yard markers and fences.
Many of the two-story houses, built with spacious porches 75 years ago when steel was king, seem to be struggling to maintain a semblance of order and to fight off the signs of age. Others, with boarded windows, peeled paint and sagging garages, seem to have given up.
Gunfire? "Oh, hell, yes."
Drug sales? "Constant."
Vandalism? "Yeah, if they think you called the police on them."
Cops say the Ayers Street Playas, a Bloods-affiliated gang, ruled their turf by intimidation.
Gave up calling police: After bricks sailed through their upstairs and downstairs windows, and garbage landed on the porch, a long-married retired couple in their 70s decided to keep their mouths shut. They didn't call the police anymore.
They didn't leave the house at night, either. Better to stay home with the pets than go out and return to find the place firebombed.
Things are better since the indictment two weeks ago of 14 Playas on charges of criminal gang activity and trafficking in crack. Nine bonded out of jail.
"It was nasty," the 73-year-old man said of the bricks and garbage. "They were blaming us for calling the cops."
Different atmosphere: Now, cars can travel the street and not have to dodge the drug dealers and their dirty looks, his 72-year-old wife said.
"We're not as afraid as we were before. It's been really nice," she said. "I want to die peacefully in my bed. I don't want to be shot."
She didn't want their names used, saying "We won't have a house left."
The drug sales, she said, were out in the open. When the cops came, the sellers would scatter, wait a bit, and then come back.
"They were parking their cars in vacant lots on the street and selling the drugs from there. I betcha there was 50 to 60 boys there with their girlfriends," she said. "They'd stay until 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning -- I couldn't go to bed."
Her husband said a lot of neighbors want to be in court for the trial, to put some pressure on the prosecutors.
However, the two don't think Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains will be successful.
"It's going to be the same. Gains isn't going to do anything," the wife said. "I don't think he knows how to do anything. ... I have no confidence in him at all."
Staying anonymous: A 66-year-old man, eager to talk about the Playas but scared of the consequences, tried to explain his reluctance.
"You can't put my name in -- then you'd be jeopardizing my life. Say you got a hornet's nest and you get the workers angry in the nest. What will they do? They'll attack, OK?" he reasoned. "They still all have guns. ... I've lived here 30-some years. You learn a lot being in the area. I know how they think. I don't want to antagonize these guys. ... We have to live here."
He said the gang's way of life "just went down the tubes" and they need someone to blame, now that they're out of jail.
"Let me explain something to you. These people cannot be on their best behavior," he said, no matter what their lawyers may have said. "They can't hold a job. Never worked in their life. They came up this way. This is all they know, is the streets and the drugs. When you take that away from them, all they have is an attitude and a gun."
He expected the judge who set bonds to prohibit the gang from hanging out together. That didn't happen.
"Guess what? I've seen them together. That's all they know is trouble. That's just the way they live," he said. "The police were outstanding -- they made the arrests, they did their job. After that, there's nothing police can do until they do something else again -- which they will."
Revolving door: The Playas, he said, have a history of being in and out of jail.
"Do you know how we know when one's in jail? We don't see him for a while and then pretty soon he surfaces again," he said. "It's the same identical thing -- in and out, in and out."
Mahoning County jail records back him up. A lot of arrests -- theft, drug abuse, carrying concealed weapons, felonious assault, murder, drug trafficking and possession of criminal tools -- but few convictions.
The vice squad commander said if you shoot at someone and you're not convicted, it adds to your legend. The Playas' legend can be heard on the music CD they peddle, "June Nature (seasonal disturbance)."
Not too bothered: Other than condemning the drug sales, a 67-year-old woman who has lived on Ayers for 40 years doesn't have a problem with the young men, several of whom grew up with her children. They always say hello to her.
Her husband, though, calls them names.
"I don't know what makes these kids go wrong," she said. The neighborhood, she predicted, will be quiet for a while -- it always is "once they get busted, then they start up again."
Police Chief Richard Lewis and FBI Special Agent Andrew G. Arena call the Playas organized crime at its most basic level.
"They don't bother me," another longtime resident said of the gang. "I don't be outside. I stay in the house and mind my own business. I don't want to get involved."
Her last words were among the first words spoken by a woman who has lived on the street 21/2 years.
"I'm barely here. I go to work at 6:30. I don't want to get involved," she said. "I go to work, my son's, church and then come home and iron my uniform -- that's it."

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