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LONG ISLAND, NY -- It was around midnight one steamy Saturday when two gang members with the street names Clown and Baldy were cruising Freeport, looking for someone to kill.
Clown, whose real name is Jose Mendez, was a cherub-faced 16-year-old Freeport High School dropout with his second child on the way. Baldy, born Maynor Murcia, was a 25-year-old construction worker with a shaved head and a hard stare.
Driving along a residential street south of Merrick Road, the pair spotted their victim: a young man in a Yankees cap who they thought was a rival gang member. Jumping out of their Nissan Altima, they pumped nine bullets into his back and head.
But Miguel Adames, 22, had no gang ties, police said. Soft-spoken and shy, his passions were baseball and hip-hop and his dream was to be a music producer. He was gunned down as he headed to his home, just three blocks away.
Mendez and Murcia, who in separate confessions would later describe what happened that night, last month began serving 20 years to life for the murder. But as Adames' family and friends commemorated the first anniversary of his death on Tuesday, they were still coming to terms with the loss.
"If anyone didn't deserve to be killed like that, it was Miguel," said Jonathan Hernandez, who runs a Freeport recording studio and was with Adames the night he died. "That's what really gets me. He went out of his way to avoid trouble. All he liked to do was make music."
That anguish is echoed in communities from Hempstead to the Hamptons, where authorities say pockets of gang activity persist despite five years of aggressive federal, state and local crackdowns. During that time, at least 33 people have died and dozens have been injured in gang-related attacks on Long Island, authorities say.
Progress and increase
"We have made great progress but there are still a lot of gangs out there," said Det. Lt. Andrew Mulrain, who heads the Nassau police Special Investigations Squad.
The number of identified Long Island gang members has grown in five years, from about 4,500 to about 5,500, according to figures provided by current or former Nassau and Suffolk authorities. But police say a primary reason the number identified has increased is that law enforcement agents are sharing intelligence and are better trained to spot gang members.
They note that Long Island remains one of the country's safest suburbs of its size and say they have weakened the gangs substantially by arresting hundreds of members, including scores of leaders.
Without the coordinated crackdowns and improved intelligence, "I can tell you with certainty that gang activity would be a lot worse," said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer.
In Freeport, a bustling, ethnically diverse South Shore community of 50,000, law enforcers have reduced the estimated gang population from 300 to 220 members since Adames' murder and only about 10 percent are hard-core, according to village police Chief Michael Woodward. "We probably have more to fear from the West Nile virus" than from gangs, he said.
But Freeport residents say gang fights still erupt sporadically and some young people are on guard. "There are a lot of places in this town where you can't go and where you can't wear certain colors," said Adrian Galvin, 27, a deli worker.
The neighborhood of tidy, mostly modest homes near the corner of Church and Raynor streets where Adames was killed had its share of crime, but was not considered a gang spot. Once dubbed Little Dominicanville for its large Dominican population, its most recent arrivals have come from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
But two blocks north, police and residents say, brawls were erupting between suspected members of the rival gangs MS-13 and the Latin Kings. Most MS-13 members are Salvadoran, Honduran or Guatemalan. The Latin Kings are primarily Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
Mendez and Murcia were both MS-13 members. Neither lived in Adames' neighborhood.
Until he joined a gang, Mendez wasn't so different from the man he killed. Both were sons of immigrants, the Mendez family from El Salvador and the Adames' from the Dominican Republic. Both had come to Freeport to give their children a better life. Adames was born here, and Mendez came as a young boy. While Adames' passion was music, Mendez excelled at soccer and math.
But as a teenager, Mendez began openly boasting of his gang membership and carried a blue-and-white bandanna - MS-13's colors - in his pocket, fellow students said. By ninth grade, according to his attorney and court papers, he had dropped out, fathered the first of his two children and adopted the street name "Payaso," Spanish for clown. Mendez's attorney, Michael Dergarabedian, called him "a very impressionable young man who was looking to older kids in the street for acceptance and protection."
Mendez may have shot Adames to earn his stripes - gang slang for gaining full-fledged membership, said Nassau prosecutor Martin Meaney.
Freeport police mentor and visit the homes of youths at risk for gang activity - part of dramatically expanded gang-prevention programs across Long Island. But no one asked them to work with Mendez, said Woodward. Freeport school officials declined to comment, citing student privacy laws.
Community workers praise such programs, but they say far more is needed to give kids alternatives to gangs.
"We've got to stop treating these kids like third-class citizens," said Sergio Argueta, an ex-gang member who heads the Hempstead-based group Struggling to Reunite Our New Generation, which campaigns against gang violence. "Hook them up with the captain of the football team," said Argueta, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for state Assembly from the 18th district. "Stop sending them to new prisons and old schools."
Unlike Mendez, Murcia did not have deep roots in Freeport. Prosecutors say he was an MS-13 soldier who immigrated to Long Island three years ago from Honduras, and went by the street name "Pelon," Spanish for baldy. Neighbors described him as a loner who worked in construction to send money to his relatives back home.
In separate sentencings at Nassau County Court in Mineola last month, Mendez and Murcia apologized for killing Adames. But neither showed emotion.
Adames' relatives and friends wept. Many wore T-shirts bearing a photo of the victim in his high-school prom tuxedo, smiling with his dark hair swept carefully back from his dark eyes.
In one earlier court appearance, Mendez passed within inches of Adames' sister, Marisol Cruz of Freeport. "How are you going to live with yourself, knowing you are a murderer?" Cruz demanded before burying her head in her hands.
Adames had worked at a local Home Depot and was about to start music production courses at the Institute of Audio Research in Greenwich Village. Friends and relatives said he preferred producing hip-hop tracks to partying. They also said he was careful to steer clear of gangs - a caution that may have gotten him killed.
The night Adames died, he was leaving the recording studio of his friend Hernandez on Merrick Road when an acquaintance suggested they check out an acquaintance's party two blocks south. But when they approached, Hernandez said, they thought they saw gang members outside and decided to turn around.
Adames was so anxious to leave that he immediately crossed the street to the unlit corner of Church and Raynor streets. As Hernandez was about to follow him, shots rang out.
Adames' relatives are still coming to terms with his twist of fate. "I lie awake at night wondering if Miguel would be alive if only he had gone into the party, if only he had walked in another direction, if only there were more lights on the street," said his other sister, Teodora Adames of Florida.
Adames' bedroom remains as he left it the night he died. A row of Yankees caps and a teddy bear sit atop his dresser. Jay-Z discs line a shelf.
"I sit outside his room sometimes, thinking he must be coming home," said Adames' mother, Sofia Cruz, who makes weekly visits to the grave of the son she calls Miguelito (Little Miguel).
A utility pole on the corner where Adames was shot has become a second shrine. It is adorned with flowers, candles and loving notes. "We will never forget you!" reads one.
It may be a while before residents around Church and Raynor forget, either.
"I used to sit on the front steps with my wife and son and dog, greeting people who walked by," said Martin Sandoval, a baker who has lived on Church Street for eight years. Now, Sandoval added security cameras to his house and warily eyes passersby. When the family sits outside, it's out back, behind a fence.
"It feels like when they shot that young man, a bit of the neighborhood died," Sandoval said.
At a glance
An estimated 5,550 people are currently identified as gang members on Long Island
4,500 people were identified as gang members on Long Island in 2003
At least 33 of the 297 slayings reported on Long Island since 2003 were gang-related
Gangs are present in more than two dozen Long Island communities
The Long Island Gang Task Force, an FBI-led task force of federal, state and local officials, has helped arrest scores of gang members since its creation in 2003. More than 65 of them have been prosecuted under federal racketeering laws.
Sources: Nassau and Suffolk police departments; former and current Nassau and Suffolk police; Nassau and Suffolk law enforcement officials; FBI, U.S. attorney's office
LOCAL PREVENTION AND REHABILITATION PROGRAMS INCLUDE:
STRONG Youth Inc., myspace.com/strongyouth, 516-408-3798, Hempstead-based group provides workshops, mentoring across Long Island and in Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt and Bellport schools.
Council for Unity, councilforunity.org, 212-701-9440. Manhattan group created gang prevention workshops and classes at Nassau County Jail and Riverhead, Central Islip and Brentwood schools.
HEVN (Helping End Violence Now), hevn.bravehost.com, 516-485-5660. Hempstead faith-based coalition offers community outreach, counseling.
Freeport Police Department Adopt-a-Cop, www.freeportny.com, 516-378-3784. Police mentoring for students in the Freeport School District.