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Six arrested in gang-graffiti mess

| May 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Two 18-year-old men are facing numerous felony and misdemeanor charges — including attempted murder — stemming from altercations believed to be related to recent gang-themed graffiti around the Libby area.

Derrick James Mitchell is charged with attempted deliberate homicide, intimidation, assault on a minor and two counts of assault with a weapon along with misdemeanor counts of assault and being a minor in possession of alcohol. Co-defendant Benjamin Prior is charged with attempted deliberate homicide, assault with a weapon, misdemeanor assault and MIP. Both are being held in the county jail with bail set at $100,000 during an initial appearance before Justice of the Peace Gary Hicks on Tuesday.

According to an affidavit filed in justice court by a Libby police officer who investigated the case, the two men who were charged and their juvenile victims were members of rival "gangs" who had engaged in recent graffiti vandalism. The affidavit contends that the two victims and another boy spoke with the police officer around 11 p.m. Friday and told him that Mitchell had accused one of the boys, 15, of being a "snitch."

While at Prior's residence along East Eighth Street, Mitchell threatened the boy and his family, pushed him into a wall and fence, spit in his face and slapped him before assaulting him with a knife, they told the officer. The boy suffered eight superficial puncture wounds to the chest and abdomen.

The injured boy and one of his friends, who was with him at the time, left to get the third boy, 17, and then returned to Prior's residence. A second altercation took place between Prior and the 17-year-old boy and led to the boy suffering a cut on his arm. Another boy, 14, who was at the scene told officers that the 17-year-old had pulled a knife on Prior and that Prior had followed suit. According to the affidavit, however, Prior admitted to having cut the 17-year-old but did not mention anything about the boy having a knife.

The 14-year-old witness also told officers he had seen Mitchell "poke" the first victim several times with a knife. Court documents contend that Mitchell initially denied using a knife but later admitted it during a subsequent interview.

Information obtained during police officers' interviews with those involved in the incident indicated that the altercations were a result of recent gang-style activity.

During a follow-up interview with Libby police Chief Clay Coker, Mitchell admitted to spraying graffiti in at least two locations and identified several others who had also participated in the vandalism, according to court documents.

Mitchell and Josh Espinoza, 18, have both been charged in city court with misdemeanor criminal mischief charges stemming from the graffiti incidents, and Youth Court Services is handling the cases of three juveniles accused of taking part in the vandalism.

Law enforcement officers had been receiving tips on the graffiti from a variety of sources over the course of the week since the incidents were publicized, Coker said.

"It put the fear into them and people started rolling on them and they started to crumble," he said.