Juggalos: Family or gang?

Published October 2, 2009 8:32 pm
SLC » Followers of the Insane Clown Posse say they're only music fans; police and prosecutors say they're a growing concern.
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Jeremy "Sheriff" Udy found his niche in the world when he discovered the Insane Clown Posse.

When Udy heard the Detroit-based rap group as they came on the music scene in the early 1990s, he was drawn to their raw lyrics about life, love and violence.

And at concerts where other fans of ICP gathered -- many with faces painted as "wicked clowns" to resemble the group's lead singers "Violent J" and "Shaggy 2 Dope" -- Udy said he found a culture where he felt accepted.

It's why Udy, 29, travels to shows from Tremonton whenever ICP makes a stop in Utah. There he mingles with other Juggalos and Juggalettes -- the names fans of ICP have adopted for themselves.

But in Utah, a debate rages about whether Juggalos are simply a group of music fans or a gang gaining momentum, responsible for several high-profile crimes in the Salt Lake City area recently.

For Udy, and others gathered in the parking lot of Saltair in Magna before Thursday's ICP concert, definitions of Juggalos as gang members in recent years are overblown.

"I'm a high school dropout. I never fit in high school. When I come to the Insane Clown Posse concerts, I feel like I'm one," said Udy, a bartender, in the parking lot of Saltair before the start of Thursday's concerts.

"[Juggalos] don't care what I've done in my past. I'm just part of them. Nobody looks down on me. Nobody thinks I'm different. If you're here, you're a part of a family."

He noted with a smile: "We're not Bloods. We're not Crips. We're just us."

West Valley City Police Detective John LeFavor, who teaches a Juggalos class to police officers, teachers and social services workers at the Utah Gang Conference each year, said the majority of Utahns who define themselves as Juggalos are not violent.

But those that are violent make headlines.

In January, a 22-year-old Juggalo was convicted of first-degree felony attempted murder for attacking a Kearns teenager with a medieval battle ax in July 2008. Scott Tyler Stapley attacked a 17-year-old boy with a four-bladed warrior ax with a spiky ball attached, causing severe injuries to the teenager's neck and shoulder.

Stapley's defense attorneys claimed the victim was targeted outside his home because he supposedly passed a sexually transmitted disease to one of his assailant's girlfriends.

Stapley's friend, Cody Jesse Augustine, 21, was angry he contracted an STD and believed the victim was the source of the disease, attorneys said. Augustine also was charged in the assault and his case is pending in 3rd District Court.

When the two were arrested, police noted they found a "hatchet man" necklace at the scene, and a Juggalo emblem on his vehicle.

LeFavor said police don't have a firm figure on the number of Juggalos in Utah, but said there are "thousands." He said Utah gang detectives estimate about 10 to 15 percent of Juggalos are engaged in criminal activity and meet the definition of a gang member.

LeFavor, who is considered an expert on Juggalos by law enforcement agencies across the country, has traveled to Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and California to share his knowledge about the Juggalo subculture. At the Utah Gang Conference, he explained Juggalos meet the criteria for a gang in some circumstances because they are a group of three or more individuals, they have a common name and symbol (many wear tattoos or necklaces with the "hatchet man") and collectively engage in criminal activities in some incidents.

Stephen Nelson, a prosecutor assigned to gang cases in the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said his office has noticed that Juggalo cases have become increasingly violent since they started appearing more frequently within the past five years.

Nelson said prosecutors have noticed a spike in the number of Juggalo cases filed in 3rd District Court, with charges ranging from minor infractions like truancy and underage tobacco use to more serious assault charges.

In addition to the battle ax case, Nelson cited felony aggravated assault charges filed against Tyler Bartell, 20, of Bluffdale in connection with attacking a group of undercover officers who asked him and other Juggalos to leave an LDS Church parking lot in September 2008.

Charging documents state that 10 to 14 young males ran at the group of officers with baseball bats, broken broom handles and golf clubs. They threatened to kill the officers, yelling "No one f---s with the Juggalos," charges state. Bartell, whose case is pending in court, was apprehended with a broom handle in his hand.

A publicist for the Insane Clown Posse declined to comment about what the group thinks of the allegation that some of their Utah fans are gang members.

Andy Pellegrini, a publicist for Psychopathic Records, said ICP doesn't comment on questions related to whether Juggalos are gang members or about Juggalo education classes presented to law enforcement and educators.

Steve Club, 34, of Salt Lake City, is familiar with the topic of ICP and gangs. Club became an ICP fan in the early 1990s and sports Juggalo tattoos. In recent years, police began hassling him about his appearance, he said. One of his friends removed a hatchet emblem from his car to avoid stops from police, Club said.

Club admits a small crowd of Juggalos are troublemakers, but said those few have given the entire group a bad name.

"It's not a gang. It's like Woodstock. It's a bunch of fans of music and that is all it is," Club said outside Thursday's concert.

Ria Swapp, of Payson, 15, attended Thursday's show with her mother and siblings. She said she admires "Shaggy 2 Dope" and "Violent J" for their rags-to-riches story and said their message is more than what some people see only as songs about drugs and violence.

She's been banned from wearing Juggalos attire at school, but finds a group of people who "understand all her problems" at every ICP concert.

"The world is so messed up and they're putting a mirror to the world," Swapp said, whose 9-year-old brother stood nearby with his face painted. "It's not just their music. It's that they grew up with nothing. They didn't go through any big labels to get to the top. They walked on their own two feet," she said.

"We've had so many of the same experiences."

mrogers@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mrogers@sltrib.com

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