Two summers ago, a history of violence in the troubled Hidden Valley neighborhood in north Charlotte came to a head when 17-year-old Jaquez Walker attempted to rob a confidential informant buying drugs in the parking lot of the local elementary school and Walker was shot and killed by police.
Within months, police were rounding up suspected members of the Hidden Valley Kings, a gang that allegedly ran drugs and guns out of the neighborhood for nearly 20 years. A raid by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and federal agents in 2007 had crippled the gang, but a resurgence in 2013 led to police action that hadn't previously been seen anywhere in the country.
An injunction filed shortly after the round-up in August 2013 banned the existence of the Hidden Valley Kings by making it illegal for the more than 20 suspected members named in the document to be in each other's company. Similar laws had been passed in California and other cities prohibiting suspected gang members from congregating in certain areas, but Charlotte's injunction was a first in its broad scope, stating that suspected members couldn't be together at all.
Two years later, residents are crediting the injunction and the vigilance of their own neighbors with bringing the crime rate down significantly. The neighborhood saw a 33-percent decrease in violent crime in 2014 compared to the previous two years. Four shootings in 2014 marked the lowest number in more than a decade, and police say they hardly hear complaints about the Kings anymore.
It was perhaps fitting that the 24th annual Hidden Valley Parade, held on September 12, wrapped up at the Hidden Valley Elementary School parking lot, where one of the neighborhood's most high-profile incidents had happened just two years previous.
The 2015 parade and festival, held in the field behind the school, was titled "From Gangs to Greatness," and the feeling among many of the residents and community leaders in attendance was one of turning a corner and shedding the bad reputation Hidden Valley has suffered in the media and among outsiders.
Greg Phipps, Charlotte City Council representative for District 4, which includes Hidden Valley, said the efforts of residents to take control of their own neighborhood have paid off.
"This event means a lot because this is a much-maligned community, a lot of it unjustifiably so," Phipps said. "It's one of Charlotte's largest communities, and it's in transition, but people are working really hard to change the face of Hidden Valley. There's a lot of promise, a lot of good things happening, and I think we're on the right side of the momentum here."
A 2009 episode of Gangland on History Channel titled "Killing Snitches" profiled the Hidden Valley Kings and added to the notoriety of the neighborhood.
John Wall, who has lived in Hidden Valley since 1973, said it's unfair that the media only mentions Hidden Valley in the context of gang activity, and he believes that sort of attention could threaten the existence of the community.
"We know what happened to Piedmont Courts and to Earle Village [both crime-ridden Charlotte communities that no longer exist]. They went away," Wall said. "We don't want that to happen to our community, because we have a rich, diverse history. That's not fair to the community, to perpetually associate the Hidden Valley community with Hidden Valley gangs. This community is more than gangs; there are 16,000 residents in this community, 4,500 single-family homes, 12 apartment complexes, 30 churches, hundreds of businesses, to always focus on that negative path is wrong."
Ella Williams, president of the Hidden Valley Community Association, helped organize Saturday's parade and festival. She said she hopes to leave behind the darker parts of Hidden Valley's past, and praised the efforts of residents who she said have played a large role in the recent drop in crime. She said neighbors have been phoning in any suspicious activity in the neighborhood and will continue to do so.
"CMPD issued the injunction but they don't live here, we do, so we have to protect our neighborhood," Williams said. "We have to work hard and be vigilant about what's going on in our neighborhood. As a result of doing that, our community is a lot stronger than it was."
The injunction was only in effect for one year, and expired in August 2014. Since then, CMPD officer Greg Altizer, who has worked as a community coordinator in Hidden Valley since 2000, said he's seen Kings members getting back together "here and there" but doesn't know that they're necessarily committing organized crime together.
He did say it was "unfortunate" the injunction was allowed to expire and that nobody has discussed renewing it.
"From my perspective, I've seen the group try to stay together," Altizer said. "They try to stay out of sight, of course, and that's the difficulty for me riding around in a marked police car every day, because they all sort of scatter when I come around so it's hard to say from a community perspective, but attending the community meetings regularly, I don't get a lot of complaints about the Kings anymore."
Altizer said the neighborhood has changed greatly since he first arrived 15 years ago.
"When we took over this area, the Hidden Valley Kings were kind of in full swing with all their activities," he said. "It used to be the shootings, the drug sales, all the violent crime in Hidden Valley. Now we've got some property crime issues we're trying to deal with, but altogether I've seen the neighborhood progress from a lot of violent crime to property crime and smaller issues like that."
Neighbors and police will need to stay vigilant, as CMPD records show 13 shootings in Hidden Valley through August of this year, already up from the four in all of 2015. But police do not believe those are gang-related.
Some of the alleged Kings members named as leaders of the gang in a 2013 affidavit have continued to pursue a music career together, performing around town as ICEE Money and Jack City Committee. The affidavit claimed ICEE Money was a front to help promote the gang's drug and gun sales.
Following approval of the injunction by a judge in 2013, Wendell "Face" McCain, named by police as leader of the Kings, denied any involvement with the gang and told reporters he was the founder of ICEE Money and it was a legitimate record label.
A member tweeting from the Jack City Committee Twitter handle first agreed to an interview for this article but stopped responding to requests soon after that.
In two "Hood Affairs TV" videos posted on YouTube in 2014 shortly after the injunction expired, members of Jack City and ICEE Money, including Face, said they took up rap around 2012 to legitimize the experiences they'd lived in the past.
"A lot of these artists are studio artists, they ain't really doing what they're saying," Face said in the video when asked why he formed ICEE Money. "We felt as if, we lived the shit, they talk about us, so shit, why not?"
The group released its first mixtape, The Injunction, shortly after its namesake law expired in 2014. Members of ICEE Money and Jack City perform regularly in Charlotte.
Dana Washington, deputy director of the U.S. District Attorney's Office Western District, joined the Charlotte office in 2006 and helped build a case against some of those arrested during raids in 2007 and afterward. Washington attended the festival and said it's important for his office to stay in the community and work at prevention as opposed to intervention.
"Arresting people has its place but that doesn't solve the problem. It has to be a multi-pronged attack, and we need the community," Washington said. "We can't do a big operation like [the one in 2007] and then turn our backs and walk away and say, 'Whatever happens happens.'"
Washington said prosecutors with the USDA's office are working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to join the upcoming North Star literacy initiative, a program CMS will roll out soon that involves volunteers helping children who are reading below grade level. He said volunteers from his office will work exclusively with Hidden Valley Elementary School, to help build relationships in the community beyond the criminal prosecution they've been involved with.
"That's the community we've impacted once before and we were looking for a vehicle to come back in and this is it," he said.
For Brian Smith, assistant minister at Sugar Creek Church of Christ, just across the street from Hidden Valley, Saturday's festival carried a feeling of hope that things can change when people fight for it.
"I've been in the community for 30 years, and today helps me to realize that communities and people, we all have a past, and at some point we have to be courageous enough to say, 'What are we going to do about it?'" Smith said. "I'm so proud of Hidden Valley residents, everybody that's taking the bull by the horns and saying, 'What can I do to make a difference and make a change?' I see a better future for the kids who live in this neighborhood."