An innocent college student died in reignited Fort Worth gang feud
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Avery Colter is no longer facing a capital murder charge. He faces charges of deadly conduct and unlawful possession of a firearm, his attorney, Lex Johnston, said on Thursday.
A decade-old gang feud has flared up in Fort Worth, leaving three people dead in 10 shootings in the past month.
Among the victims: 19-year-old Briuna Harps, who just finished her first year of pre-med classes and was headed to Atlanta to spend the summer with her dad. But first, she stopped by the Autumn Chase Apartments to see her sister.
As Harps and another woman stood in the parking lot of the South Riverside complex on May 17, police suspect a Crip opened fire in retaliation for a drive-by carried out by some Bloods that happened days earlier, according to an internal memo obtained by the Star-Telegram. Harps and another woman were not the intended targets, but they were hit. Harps later died at a hospital.
Of the nearly 900 documented gang members in Fort Worth, only about a dozen are involved in the feud, police said. Still, gunfire rings out most weekend nights near East Berry and South Riverside, according to a source close to the investigation who spoke with the Star-Telegram on the condition of anonymity. On May 24, police received six reports of shots being fired within 30 minutes.
“We’re on the side of town where everyone carries a gun,” an East Berry business owner wrote in a text message. “It’s just the neighborhood unfortunately. But we’ve never had issues like this before.”
Now, Harps’ family is begging for help from the same community that took her life.
“I shouldn’t have to come to Fort Worth to identify my child who is killed over senseless stuff,” said Briuna’s father, Timonthy Harps. “It’s the community. They need to talk to the police, and you can’t say you want better for the community and our kids if they’re not going to work with police.”
Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said the situation is reminiscent of gang problems the city had in the 1990s, but she’s hopeful they won’t escalate more than they have.
The feud dates to 2010, when a 32-year-old member of the Bloods, identified as Michael Kenneth Carter, allegedly shot at a 42-year-old member of the rival Crips, according to the memo, which does not say what prompted the fight.
Carter was then in and out of prison, unrelated to the shooting, and the feud was put on hold — until he was released in March 2018.
Then, on Aug. 12, 2018, Carter allegedly shot at another Crip — a 31-year-old man — in the 700 block of East Robert, according to the memo. The shooting had been about the fight that happened eight years earlier, the memo says. Carter was arrested in the shooting but posted bond and was released from jail in September.
He awaits trial on charges of engaging in organized crime, aggravated assault and being a repeat offender. A plea deal that would send him to prison for 20 years was offered on May 28, according to court documents.
The August shooting led to “a lot of back and forth threats over social media and the telephone,” according to the memo.
Three months later, a woman in her 30s called police to report that she and her family had been receiving threatening and harassing calls stemming from that shooting. The woman is related to the victim of the August shooting, a police report says.
According to the police memo, court documents and interviews with witnesses, the following shootings are attributed to the feud:
▪ On May 12, Derrick Coble, 36, identified as a Glen Garden Hard Head, was shot at in the parking lot of 2 Live Club, at 2408 E. Belknap. He was sitting in a dark blue Jeep Liberty. Four days later, a car matching that description was seen leaving the scene of a drive-by shooting in the 1000 block of East Richmond.
Police have searched that house three times in the past year, finding drugs, drug paraphernalia and a Glock 19 handgun. Willie Starlling, 33, was arrested on felony drug charges after a May 4 search. Starlling remains jailed on a $4,500 bond.
▪ On May 16, men who shouted “on Blood” from an orange Dodge Caliber opened fire toward people gathered at a convenience store in the 800 block of East Davis. One of the people was sitting in a car with his young son when bullets hit his car. No injuries were reported.
The shooting prompted influential Crips to urge retaliation against the east side Bloods. One of the shootings resulted in the death of Harps at the apartments.
▪ Members of the Bloods, while Michael Carter was present, a court document says, allegedly shot up a drug house in the 4500 block of Richardson Street on May 18. Christopher Earl Turner Jr., 29, of Itasca, was killed.
▪ Tony Austin Jr., 28, was fatally shot outside of Ace Auto Repair & Tire in the 1300 block of East Berry Street on May 21. Avery Levar Colter, 27, was arrested on suspicion of capital murder, though an arrest affidavit says he didn’t fire the fatal shot. On Thursday, the charge against Avery was changed to deadly conduct and unlawful possession of a firearm. Damorian M. Allen, 26, of Fort Worth, was booked into the Fort Worth Jail on Wednesday afternoon, accused of being involved in the shooting. Allen is charged with murder, but police did not comment on his role in the killing.
In surveillance video, Austin can be seen getting out of the backseat of a silver car with his left hand in his pocket. Another unidentified man gets out of the other side of the car and fires a handgun toward Austin — police allege the gunman was shooting at a car across the parking lot. Austin falls backward and a handgun falls down next to him.
The shooter gets back into the car, and the driver takes off. Austin was shot in the head.
“It’s good a detective took a good look and did not charge him (Colter) with murder,” his attorney, Lex Johnston said Thursday. “It was obvious he didn’t commit it.”
▪ Coble, who has been tied to the Jeep that was seen at multiple shootings, was arrested on May 31 by federal authorities on a charge of felon in possession of a firearm, according to a criminal complaint. He’s being held in federal custody. An undercover officer allegedly purchased crack cocaine from Coble on April 23. He was driving a blue Jeep Liberty and is accused of having various drugs and a Glock 19 on him.
“The targets of opportunity are supposedly being chosen simply because of their historical Crip or Blood significance,” the police memo says.
The med student
Briuna Harps graduated from Fort Worth Wyatt High School last year and valued her education above anything else, her father said. It was the same high school that much of her family — including her mother — had attended.
Harps’ father, Timonthy, said she was a “very special young lady” who had a passion for helping people.
“She loved school from the very beginning,” Timonthy Harps said. “She was always an honor roll student, and she did phenomenal in her first year of college. Out of my five kids, she was the one who never gave me any trouble.”
In March, she celebrated passing her midterm exams at Midwestern State University, according to posts on social media.
Harps plans to move his other daughter and her young children to Atlanta. He doesn’t want his loved ones in Fort Worth.
Briuna was buried in Fayetteville, Georgia.
No arrests have been made in Harps’ death and police haven’t released any more information.
Altogether, 10 shootings are attributed to gang violence since May 12 in the area of East Berry and South Riverside, according to court documents. But one source said much of the nightly gunfire isn’t reported to police.
An East Berry business owner who spoke with the Star-Telegram on the condition of anonymity alluded to a cultural problem within the neighborhood.
“Even though everyone has a gun, doesn’t mean that anyone should have started shooting,” he said, reflecting on the fatal shooting of Austin.
He said many patrol officers have an attitude as if the area doesn’t matter. It’s just another gang fight.
“There’s a lot that goes on in our side of town that should never happen,” he said. “But no one cares. And I don’t know why. Because it’s not OK.”
But Gang Unit Lt. Charles Harn said he doesn’t see that kind of attitude in his unit or the department.
“Every life is precious,” he said.
Gray, the councilwoman, said she doesn’t believe the uptick in violence has anything to do with the neighborhood and that the people creating issues don’t actually live in the areas where shootings are occurring.
She brought up a recent “Stop the Violence” rally that happened over Memorial Day weekend and an April picnic that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Fort Worth gang truce, a plan designed in 1994 by Tarrant County Jail inmates who wanted to convince their friends that they should stop killing each other.
But the truce isn’t well known outside the older circles. Even Harn, the police lieutenant, said he hadn’t heard of it until the recent picnic.
The truce was made at a time when gang structure was important and younger members often listened to elders. But things have changed in the last 20 years — the structure is more relaxed and instead of graffiti, bragging rights are reserved for social media.
“There’s not a lot of hierarchy here,” Harn said when asked about Blood and Crips structure. “It’s a very fluid organization and kind of changes day-by-day.”
On Facebook and Instagram, several gang members have posted videos or photos of them holding firearms and drugs.
“A lot of guys aren’t ashamed,” Harn said, adding that they’re not hiding their crimes anymore.
Fixing the systematic problem
The Rev. Kyev Tatum of New Mount Rose Missionary Baptist Church is certain that the gang problem in Fort Worth can be eradicated. But it doesn’t start with just the gangs themselves, he said.
Leaders who want to take an approach to solving the problem have to start from the ground up with programs, education and rehabilitation, he said.
“There’s not much over there,” Tatum said. “For some reason people have decided to focus on early childhood development but not much of anything else.”
He sees his church as a light on the hill and has invited gang members inside to work on a truce.
“We want to be a safe place in the community that provides not only a nice safe space but some grace,” he said.
During his June 2 service, some of those members showed up.
“They came and prayed,” he said, adding that he and his other members aren’t afraid of the newcomers. “Our faith teaches us not to be afraid, but humanity teaches us that those are our sons, our daughters. We cannot be afraid of our children.”
His church — at the corner of Glen Garden and Mississippi — also hosts leadership training and conflict resolution seminars, something he hopes more people will take advantage of.
Harn said the police department’s gang unit is heavily involved in schools — like the DARE officer of the past, but with gang intervention.
And Gray said there are conversations between police, ministers and neighborhood groups that continue to happen at meetings.
“School is out now and it’s starting to warm up so you’ll see more officers in neighborhoods patrolling,” she said. “There’s a larger conversation that continues to happen and will continue to happen. It’s very sad that we find ourselves back in a place where we were 20-25 years ago. We made great strides with community policing and gang truces, and now we’re having to have those conversations again and be diligent to make sure we maintain safeness.”
Asked what specifically is being done outside of meetings, assuming that those committing the violence aren’t attending, Gray said, “I don’t know how you reach out to a person who is going to commit a crime.”
“The idea,” she said, “is to be in places where there are children, like the Boys and Girls Club, community centers and boots on the ground. That’s what it’s going to take.”
She added that getting residents acquainted with their community police officers is an important step in building trust, which will lead to an increased number of reports and tips to investigators.
“Too many young people are dying because we haven’t figured out how to successfully end a dispute that doesn’t end in gunfire,” she said. “That’s not who were are as a community and that’s not what I want for my city, and I don’t want to see another mother or grandmother or wife or child crying because their loved one has been murdered because of something that everyone could have just walked away from.”