OCALA, Fla. – When a gang war broke out across the city of Ocala and Marion County, innocent people were caught in the crossfire, according to Ocala police.
Detective Capt.Greg Martin, of the Ocala Police Department Major Crimes Unit, said the violence exploded in October when a rival gang tried to kill a witness to a crime.
"We had a group of individuals that showed up in the middle of the night, with guns and long guns, and shot up his house," Martin said. "This is a normal-looking neighborhood. In the middle of the night, we have terror."
Martin said it was the third shooting that night, and one of the victims was an 18-year-old sitting in his car at an Ocala gas station. Police said someone sneaked up on him and fired through his sunroof. He was not the intended target.
"It was obvious to me this wasn't going to stop," Martin said. "I couldn't sit back as the commander and allow these people to continue shooting. That pretty much set us into a different mindset."
Martin said the violence only escalated from there.
"Drive-by shootings into cars, into homes ... this is something that can turn really bad really quick, the main focus is the innocent people involved," Martin said.
The biggest challenge was trying to get information from witnesses. No one was talking.
Martin called in the FBI, the Federal Division of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to assist.
They started gathering intelligence on the gang members from other sources, including social media and in other confidential ways.
Soon investigators were tracking the gang members day and night.
"We ran it all day and all night, ran it two different shifts," Martin said. "We ran it wide-open, honestly. It was a very aggressive, high-intensity, zero tolerance operation to where we were in the areas being affected, identifying people involved in these crimes. We were making sure we were in the right areas, (No.) 1 to prevent another shooting and (No.) 2, if they made a mistake to clean it up."
Martin said investigators didn't need witnesses because they became their own witnesses, pulling over the gang members and finding guns and drugs in their cars and arresting them for those crimes.
"So the very first night of our operation we were able to apprehend a prominent member of one of the two gangs on a traffic stop, believe it or not," Martin said. "There was a traffic violation. (We) didn't know who was in the car but we were in the right area doing high intensity, zero tolerance police work. Inside the car was a firearm and several grams of marijuana. And that was the firearm that we just linked to one of the shootings in the county."
Martin said that, in less than a week, investigators had arrested all nine gang members.
"Every single night we worked, there was progress -- arrests being made, traffic stops being made," Martin said.
Some of the gang members were federally charged with crimes that carry stiff sentences if they are convicted -- in some cases upward of 20 years in federal prison.