HARLEM — The day the NYPD came pounding on his door in June, Kenneth Thomas was home from his second year at Jefferson Community College in upstate Watertown, trying to figure out how to get to Pennsylvania where he had lined up a summer job as a youth basketball camp coach.
Police told Thomas' mother her 20-year-old son had an outstanding warrant for a minor charge in The Bronx and would be released quickly. Cheryl Jean Brown gave her son $10 for the cab ride home.
More than four months later, he still hasn't returned.
Just a few classes shy of his associate's degree, Thomas is being held on Rikers Island on $500,000 bond and facing charges that could keep him behind bars until he's 40.
Far from a minor violation, Thomas was charged with conspiracy to commit murder as part of a sweeping indictment — which prosecutors say is the largest involving gangs in city history — alleging that more than 100 people plotted a deadly turf war between youth gangs at Manhattanville and Grant houses, which resulted in two murders and 19 people injured in 50 shootings.
But many of the young men involved in the indictment were hit with conspiracy charges for crimes they committed as minors.
Posts and videos on Facebook feature prominently in the indictment. Many of those charged have grown up together. Of the 100 people charged, 25 are under the age of 18 and the youngest is 15.
Thomas was 17 in November 2011 when prosecutors say he and other teens were in possession of the same loaded 9-mm handgun that was used to kill Harlem basketball star Tayshana "Chicken" Murphy two months earlier as part of that violent feud.
A month later, Thomas was allegedly with another group that relied on a 12-year-old to ferry the same weapon, which was then used to shoot at rival gang members. Thomas was also at the December 2011 party where his friend Walter "Recc" Sumter was shot and killed, after Sumter made disparaging comments on social media about Murphy's death, according to the indictment.
"This conspiracy charge makes it look as if he was the biggest gangster in the world," said Brown, Thomas' mother. "He is a college student who was just affiliated with the wrong group of people at the wrong time."
Brown is just one of many critics who question prosecutors' strategy of using conspiracy charges to dismantle youth crews, which some say is a heavy-handed tactic that unfairly sweeps too many young black and Latino men into the criminal justice system.
"They can't buy cigarettes, rent a car or buy a beer until they are 21, but we are willing to revisit something these kids did three years ago before their adult brains were formed," said Glenn Martin, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA who spent six years in prison.
"This shows we are too focused on punishment and need to focus on individualized assessment."
David Brotherton, a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies gangs, said use of conspiracy charges is akin to stop-and-frisk and "Broken Windows" policing, where minor offenses are targeted to prevent bigger crimes.
"It's the steamroller approach to criminal justice," Brotherton said.
Darrell Rhett, 20, was 17 when he shot at a rival gang member as part of the "Money Avenue" crew, which was centered around Morningside and Manhattan avenues and 116th Street and aligned with the Manhattanville Houses' "Make it Happen Boys" against the Grant Houses youth gang "3 Staccs."
On Feb. 26, 2011, Rhett and three others chased and shot at multiple members from "3 Staccs." Rhett was picked up shortly afterward and eventually pleaded guilty to gang assault charges and was sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. He is currently serving his sentence at Marcy Correctional Facility.
Rhett's sister Angela Dunmore, 32, a case manager, says her brother is scheduled for release in June 2015 and was working on his GED so he could enroll in college once he was free.
Instead, on June 4, 2014, when police raided the Grant and Manhattanville houses, Rhett was re-arrested in prison for the same 2011 shooting, only it was now superseded by the new conspiracy to commit murder and gang assault indictment, which means he could face years of additional prison time.
"My brother stood up like a man in front of the judge and took his punishment," said Dunmore. "How can you punish someone twice for the same crime? How is it legal?"
It is legal. The strategy stems from the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that was first used in the early 1970s to dismantle the Mafia.
The charge is difficult to fight because a suspect doesn't have to be found guilty of committing a crime, just involved in the processes that led to it.
For the gangs, that means such things as posting messages or threats to Facebook, posting videos on YouTube or hanging out with a large group of people, one of whom may have a gun.
"Once they bring the RICO Act into it, it is difficult to fight because the evidence required is much less," Brotherton said.
Many states passed laws allowing them to use RICO-like charges to prosecute organized criminal enterprises in the 1970s and 1980s, but it wasn't until the end of the 1990s that police and prosecutors began using conspiracy charges to dismantle gangs.
Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly launched Operation Crew Cut in October 2012 to deal with a growing number of youth gangs, and the conspiracy charges were the centerpiece of that effort.
Vance has used them to dismantle 16 gangs and youth crews across Manhattan, with 14 conspiracy indictments since the 2010 formation of the DA's Violent Crime Enterprises Unit. Prosecutors in Queens, The Bronx and Brooklyn, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office and the city's special narcotics prosecutors office have also employed the strategy.
"New York is not a gang city but you have prosecutors running around acting like it is when in fact we have very few gangs and none of the gang wars of cities like Los Angeles or Chicago," Brotherton said.
Dalkys Vicente, 34, a maintenance supervisor, and Julian Burrell, 36, a vocational counselor for the mentally disabled, say their 18-year-old son, Ralphie Garcia, was one of those needlessly caught up in Vance's indictment.
Garcia was 15 years old in 2011 when he was arrested for allegedly being in possession of a .40-caliber gun that prosecutors say he and fellow members of "3 Staccs" were planning to use to shoot at rival crews "Money Avenue" and "Make it Happen Boys."
In 2013, Garcia was arraigned on the gun charge and was sent to an intense supervision program where he stayed mostly on the straight and narrow. He avoided the West Harlem area where former gang members hung out, carefully planning his route to and from GED classes to avoid setting foot on those blocks as required by a judge overseeing his probation.
He began speaking to other young people about the perils of gang life.
"I realized the mistakes I was making didn't have a positive influence on my life or anyone around me so I opted out," Garcia wrote in response to questions from DNAinfo New York in August, when he was being held on Rikers Island. "I feel hurt. I tried so hard to help other people not to come in here and now I'm in here."
Dominique Steward, director of the youth advisory council for the city's Department of Probation, said Garcia had worked hard to change "unproductive behavioral patterns." A guidance counselor at Garcia's alternative high school wrote that he saw Garcia "develop into an excellent person" with "unlimited potential," according to court records.
The day he was arrested in June, Garcia was slated to start a job at the new Shake Shack at JFK Airport. His family thought officers were there to do a surprise check as they had done many times before. Instead, Garcia was arrested.
The gun charge from 2011 was now being included as part of a larger gang conspiracy indictment.
"He realized that he was headed to prison for a long time or, even worse, death," Vicente said inside the neatly kept Harlem apartment that Garcia shared with his mother, stepfather and sister before his arrest.
"We were starting to see the kid we were used to. We were seeing the old Ralphie return," added Garcia's stepfather, Burrell. "Now he's back to zero."
In September, Garcia's lawyer, Eugene Nathanson, was able to negotiate a plea bargain where the teen pleaded guilty to the latest gun charge as a juvenile and was recently released after spending more than three months in jail because his family could not afford the $75,000 cash bail.
Nathanson said prosecutors were aware Garcia was on a good path and they shouldn't have threatened that by sending him back to jail, where he was forced to defend himself against gang members from his former crew and rivals.
"It was a poor use of prosecutorial discretion," Nathanson said. "There may be a legitimate conspiracy charge here but I don't think there are nearly as many as the prosecutors are bringing."
Some prosecutors, such as the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, say they support the use of the conspiracy charge to dismantle youth gangs, but are careful to tailor its use.
For example, a recent indictment in Operation Crew Cut snagged 10 members of the "280" gang in Morrisania. It was the fourth indictment since 2012 designed to eliminate four warring gangs in the 44th Precinct. Fifty people have been indicted and 24 guns have been seized.
“Every investigation is different. However, in these four related cases, we focused on 10 or 12 members of each gang’s leadership and those involved in acts of violence,” said Kati Cornell, a spokeswoman for the New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor.
Steven Goldstein, the chief assistant district attorney for the New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor, testified before an April City Council hearing on Operation Crew Cut that one of the agency's goals was to "hone in" on the leading and most violent gang members.
"Success in gang cases is not simply measured by the number of defendants arrested," he testified. "More important is making sure the right people are arrested."
Vance said he has no qualms about using conspiracy charges.
"Conspiracy law is not something that's new," Vance said in a recent interview at a Saturday Night Lights basketball clinic at Manhattanville Houses that he launched to keep kids out of trouble. "It's been used to grow cases against groups that are organized for generations."
Vance rejected the notion that the conspiracy charges could sweep kids on the fringes of youth gangs into prison unnecessarily.
"We are making sure that folks who are in an indictment are individuals who have a relationship to what's going on," Vance said. "I think we choose carefully."
Thomas' family couldn't disagree more. Thomas' goal was to finish his four-year degree and play basketball at Iona College in New Rochelle once he graduated from community college.
"Kenny was doing well for himself. He wasn't thinking about that gang stuff anymore," said Thomas' father Kenneth Thomas Sr.
They say his decision to hang with the wrong crowd shouldn't lead to a murder conspiracy charge.
"What gets me is the conspiracy charge doesn't even require him to touch the gun," said Thomas' sister Iman Freeman, a recent graduate of the Washington College of Law. "He just has to be seen with people he's known since he was 2 years old."