Thirty-one seconds of hell was what it took for 46-year-old Asheville native James Mitchell to leave behind his life of crime. That beating left him with six broken ribs, a broken arm, a busted nose and a fractured skull.
“That’s the price you pay when you get involved with a gang,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell joined the Nine Trey Bloods at age 17. It was the allure of brotherhood and power that drew him in as a teen growing up in Asheville. The group provided a sense of belonging and protection that was missing in his life. The Nine Trey Bloods members, like many gangs, commit crimes that include drug trafficking, armed robberies and assault. “I didn’t choose the street life; it chose me,” says Mitchell. “Growing up in poverty, with my father absent and my mother working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, I felt like I had no other option. Joining the Bloods was like joining a family that cared about me, or so I thought.”
The day-to-day existence of a Blood gang member meant being constantly on alert. “We were always on edge, always looking over our shoulders,” he says. “The slightest disrespect or territorial dispute could escalate into a deadly confrontation.”
And drugs were always at hand as a way to dull the violence and aggression.
“By the time I was 20, I was addicted to heroin and cocaine,” Mitchell says. “While [drug use] was discouraged by the higher-ups because it made you a liability, it was an easy way to distract yourself from life. We were all addicted to something; you had to be.”
Dressing for the day was a carefully calculated ritual. The Bloods, like many gangs, wore their identity with pride and peril. Mitchell donned the signature red attire and added a “31” tattoo, symbolizing the 31 rules that came with being a member of the larger United Blood Nation. Of course, the markers also made him instantly recognizable to rivals.
“Dressing up in red was like putting on a target, but it was also a badge of honor, a way to show I was part of something bigger than myself,” Mitchell says. “While I am not part of the gang anymore, I never got the tattoo removed because it never lets me forget where I came from and the things that I did.”
Another reminder of his gang life is his criminal history. Mitchell says that he has been arrested over 15 times and spent more of his 20s and 30s in jail than he did out of jail. “It was like a revolving door,” Mitchell says. “You’d get out of jail one day, but you knew you’d be back in soon enough.”
He says that his criminal record has made getting a job challenging. “No one wants to hire a felon. It’s too much of a liability,” Mitchell says.
Curbing gang violence
Addressing gang violence is not a straightforward task, according to Capt. Joe Silberman of the Asheville Police Department. Gangs are not clear-cut organizations but are more likely loosely organized neighborhood groups.
“[Gang activity] is a large and complex piece of law enforcement without clear boundaries,” Silberman says. A trend is for hybrid gangs that consist of people from different racial or ethnic groups, and people involved with more than one gang. Such gangs have unclear codes of conduct and symbols, which makes tracking them challenging for law enforcement.
“Gang membership is not as clear-cut as it used to be 20 years ago, and trying to address [gangs] as standalone organizations is nearly impossible,” Silberman says. He was doubtful that police could build a case to prosecute members under the federal racketeering laws designed to combat organized crime.
Instead, the APD focuses on common gang-related crimes, such as drug activity and gun charges.
“We have found that tracking illegal firearm activity has been very helpful in identifying gang members,” Silberman says. “We have built a web of information with our ties to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and the Department of Justice. Our connections with these other agencies, as well as the work done by our own crime analysts, have really paid off.”
But while APD continues to be understaffed, Silberman notes that it has had a positive impact on the department.
“The staffing crisis that we are facing has changed our policing culture and turned it into something stronger than we have had previously,” Silberman says. “Even if I was given a full staff today, we would not dial back to where we were a few years ago. The use of professional staff, some of the programs we bought to compare data and how we communicate with other agencies have all greatly improved our policing efforts.”
Silberman says he believes that reports to the police of gang activity have increased dramatically in the past five years, but he attributes that to an increase in community tips and awareness. He did not have specific data on the number of reports.
“Gang activity waxes and wanes based on a number of factors, including staffing as well as community involvement and input,” Silberman says. “With that being said, our anonymous tip line has been an integral part in our push to address gang violence.”
According to APD statistics, as of Oct. 10, violent crime in Asheville is 18% lower than in 2022 but 1% higher compared with the five-year average. Property crime in 2023 is 4% lower than the previous year and down 2.5% compared with the five-year average.
While gangs in Asheville may not look the same as they have in the past, gang recruitment and involvement persist in low-income communities, according to Mitchell.
Mitchell says that “joining is appealing to young kids, especially those who feel alone. We would always promise them the world, but in reality, we were selling them a nightmare.”
Martin, a man in his early 20s whose name has been changed for his protection, claims to be an active member of the Nine Trey Bloods. According to him, recruits are typically well known by some members of the gang, either as friends or family members. Martin says he once approached his younger brother, a juvenile, about joining.
“We don’t just ask anybody if they want to be a Blood. You gotta want it, and then you gotta earn it,” Martin says. “My little brother asked about it, but he wasn’t hard enough to do what needed to be done. That’s OK, though. This life is not for everyone.”
Martin’s younger brother, Jackson (not his real name), told Xpress that one of Martin’s fellow gang members asked him to steal as a way to prove his loyalty, but he did not go through with the act. “I was going to do it, but when we got there I got scared and chickened out. I didn’t want to get into trouble,” says Jackson.
It’s not just brothers who are recruited.
“My sister was in the gang, too. We called her a Bloodette,” Mitchell says. “It wasn’t just for guys; the women had their own roles. It was like a twisted family affair.”
Mitchell’s sister, Shenika Carter, was involved with the Nine Trey Bloods for about five years, primarily transporting marijuana and cocaine. Carter told Xpress she got involved with the gang in hopes of making money to support her family.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot, and I wanted to do everything I could to make more money,” Carter says. “I was 15 when I started moving drugs. I never really wanted to do it, but I thought that if I could just make enough money so that my mom didn’t have to work three jobs that I would be able to stop. It doesn’t work like that, though.”
After watching her best friend overdose on drugs that she provided, Carter cut ties with the Nine Trey Bloods. Concerned for her safety, she moved out of state with her then-boyfriend, now-husband. Since leaving, she has gone through rehab and now works as a nursing assistant.
“It is possible to get out of that lifestyle. It just takes dedication and hard work,” says Carter. “I was forced to leave everything I knew just to feel safe. I still ask myself if the extra money was worth it. I don’t think it was.”
While the financial gain is hard to calculate, the emotional toll of life in a gang is not.
“One day I might not come home no more, but that is a risk that I have to be willing to take every day,” says Martin.
“It’s a life that ages you quickly,” Mitchell reflects. “You grow old before your time, carrying the weight of all you’ve seen and done.”
A brutal exit
Eventually, the allure of the gang began to wane for Mitchell. He had seen friends die and saw the pain it caused his family. “Friends turned brothers, we buried them too soon. They were victims of the very violence we embraced,” he says.
“I could see the pain in my mom’s eyes, the sleepless nights she endured worrying about me. It’s a burden I didn’t fully understand until I took a step back,” Mitchell says. “She died from breast cancer, but she made me promise that before she died that I would get clean and straighten up. That was something I took seriously, and I tried to change for her sake. I wanted a life beyond the violence, a future without constant danger.”
However, Mitchell knew that leaving the gang came with a high price. The Bloods were notorious for their ruthless tactics when members attempted to defect. The gang considered leaving the ultimate act of disloyalty and made it clear that those who tried to leave would face severe consequences.
While it was traditional for gang members to serve until they “aged out,” members could choose to leave early, but only under the condition that they survived a 31-second beating intended to prevent them from sharing information with police.
In 2010, shortly after Mitchell began to distance himself from the gang, he was ambushed by several fellow Blood members as he parked at his apartment complex. “I knew the rules. ‘Blood in, Blood out,’” says Mitchell.
The brutal attack that followed lasted for what felt like an eternity but, in reality, was a mere 31 seconds. He was left battered and bloodied, with injuries that would take months to heal. Eventually, he was found by a neighbor and taken to the hospital, where he stayed for over two weeks.
“I thought I was going to die that night,” Mitchell recalls. “They beat me senseless, and the pain seemed never-ending. It was their way of punishing me for trying to leave.”
When asked if this tradition was still upheld in the gang, Martin laughed. According to him, the 31-beating is now occasionally used when initiating new members, but the only true way to leave is by aging out or dying.
“I am not playing when I say it’s a lifelong commitment,” Martin says. “A lot of the OGs [referring to older, respected members] have gotten too old to make runs, but they did their time. For people on the street, though, the only way out is with a bullet.”
The path to redemption
Once out of the gang Mitchell got his GED diploma and began volunteering to help the unhoused and at-risk youths. Now, Mitchell hosts a weekly Bible study at his apartment for eight teenage boys, including Jackson. He does not shy away from his past, using it as a powerful tool to connect with at-risk youths and provide them with guidance and support.
“I want them to see that I had been where they were, that I understand the allure of the gang,” Mitchell explains. “But I also wanted them to understand the brutal consequences of that life, both from my own experiences in the gang and from the beating I endured when I tried to leave.
“The youth are our future, and it is our job as members of the community to guide them and show them how to live in a way that is safe and beneficial for them and the people around them,” Mitchell says.