PORTLAND — After a news report that the handgun used by suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to shoot at pursuing police officers was funneled through “violent” gangs in Portland, the city’s police chief and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent on Tuesday downplayed any link between “loosely affiliated criminal groups” in Portland and national gangs.

At a news conference Tuesday, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said, “Absolutely, the city of Portland is not the home of any of those gangs that are listed in the story.”

But law enforcement agencies in the Portland area have been monitoring members of the Little Rascals Gang — mentioned in the report — for 20 years, according to former Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, also a former Portland police lieutenant who now represents a section of Portland in the Maine House of Representatives.

“I go back — it would have been maybe 20 years ago — we started to see the arrival of Asian youth having gang affiliations with Lawrence and Lowell (Massachusetts),” Dion said, referring specifically to the Little Rascals Gang. ‘It’s not a new issue, but it appears to be becoming more prominent.”

The report cites FBI sources who said the 9 mm semiautomatic Ruger used by Tsarnaev was purchased at Cabela’s in Scarborough and funneled through members of “violent” drug gangs in Portland.

The gun was first purchased by Danny Sun Jr. of South Portland, originally of Los Angeles, who said he passed it to Biniam Tsegai, 27, of Portland, an immigrant from Eritrea known as “Icy,” according to the report. How the gun ended up with Tsarnaev remains unclear. Tsegai remains in prison following his indictment on three federal counts of possessing and distributing crack cocaine.

During a June 2013 hearing on a motion of detention, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Conley told Justice John H. Rich, “To call this defendant’s criminal history combined with his history of contact with the Portland police troubling is to grossly understate the fact of the matter.”

Most of the court documents related to Tsegai’s arrest remain sealed. There is no publicly available document that links him to gang activity in Portland.

However, according to the Los Angeles Times report, federal and state law enforcement officials have for years investigated the gangs — the True Somali Bloods, the Little Rascals Gang and a faction of the Crips Nation — in Portland.

Aaron Steps, a supervisor and special agent for the FBI in Portland, said that while a task force was organized in 2011 to investigate gangs, the gangs in Maine are “not what you see coming out of in Hollywood.”

“What we have in Maine is not the same as what they’ve got in L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago,” he said. “Maine is one of the safest states in the nation with one of the lowest murder rates.”

“What we have here are essentially loosely affiliated groups of people — who depending on who they are — occasionally or frequently refer to themselves as a gang,” he said. “It’s not the same as elsewhere. (But) any time you have money and drugs, there will, on occasion be violence. But we do not — and I want to be very clear here — have (major gang activity in Portland). It’s not what you see coming out of Hollywood.”

Sauschuck also referred to “loosely affiliated criminal organizations” that he said are primarily focused on the drug trade. “At times, those groups take affiliation with some (organizations) and they’re called one thing or another in the community or on the street,” he said. “I do not believe we have an ongoing issue here with violent criminal gangs.”

Asked specifically about the local faction of the Crips Nation gang mentioned in the Los Angeles Times report, Steps said he would not speak about specific gangs or those alleged to have been involved in acquiring the gun and channeling it to Tsarnaev. Sauschuck also declined to comment on the gun and when he knew of any connection to Maine.

Steps also declined to comment about where in Maine police believe so-called gang activity takes place, noting, “This is the Internet age. People have cellphones and people are mobile.”

Asked if Maine is serving as a pipeline to bring drugs in from out of state and take guns out, he said, “At some point it comes down to simple economics. It’s money, it’s drugs, it’s prostitution. Once you get into that realm where you are engaged in criminal activity for profit, I would say anything, pretty much, is fair game.”

In October 2011, the FBI’s National Gang Threat Assessment indicated that southern Maine was home to as many as 4,000 gang members — up from no detectable gang presence three years prior to that.

Eric Berry, then president of the Maine Gang Task Force, said at the time, “The FBI did a study and they found that there are 11 nationally recognized gangs. And nine are in Maine. There are so many different groups, you can’t say they’re coming from Boston or New York. When we talk about gangs, we talk street gangs, motorcycle gangs, racist groups. It goes across the board in Maine.”

But the FBI said the presence of notorious national gangs was limited, and the primary threat was from “neighborhood-based violent street gangs.”

But Dion, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that without specific data on conviction rates — and exactly what constitutes a gang — it will be hard to tell how prevalent the problem has become.

“It appears to be an accepted fact that we have a gang presence in Maine,” he said. “My follow-up question is: What are the numbers telling us?”


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