WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The day Eguel Geffrard was supposed to testify in the trial of the man accused of leading one of South Florida's most violent gangs, police found his bloodied body in a parking lot, a targeted hit authorities said was meant to send a message about Top 6's power.
Top 6 became the most violent gang in Palm Beach County history, linked to 14 homicides and more than 150 shootings in the past few years, including a fatal Christmas Eve shooting at a busy mall in 2006 — all part of a bloody gang war, authorities said. Alleged leader Futo Charles, 30, has been arrested more than a dozen times since 2003, but his trial this week on various charges could send the steely-gazed Charles to prison for much of his life if convicted.
Like many of Top 6's members, Geffrard was a suspect in a previous crime, but ultimately became a victim. Gang members have frequently turned on each other. No charges have been filed in Geffrard's death.
After Geffrard's slaying Monday, a judge ordered jurors to be partially sequestered with armed guards escorting them to and from the courthouse. A dozen armed deputies flanked the tiny courtroom during Charles' trial and K-9 dogs swept the courtroom hallways. He faces a slew of charges, including drug possession, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder for attacking a lifelong acquaintance in a turf war. Closing arguments were to begin Friday.
Charles never hid his affiliation with Top 6, telling an officer in a 2006 traffic stop when he was caught with a concealed weapon that he belonged to the group. But Charles says Top 6 is a rap group.
Authorities first noticed Charles in 1996 when someone broke into his home, stole drugs and tried to kill him. He's been in and out of jail for years for drug possession and car theft.
"He's an articulate, intelligent guy who's even charismatic to a point but he's not a nice guy. He's been involved and has orchestrated some bad things," said Lt. Michael Wallace, who ran the Palm Beach County gang task until recently. "Whenever we had a big incident, Futo was always around."
Charles' motto was, "whateva, you gotta die one day," prosecutors said.
Authorities say Top 6 did start as a rap group, formed by six bullied Haitian teens who bonded as outcasts and classmates learning to speak English at Lake Worth High School in the mid-1990s. Picked on by blacks and whites, they started "Americanizing themselves, embracing the thug, gangsta lifestyle," showing up to clubs and open mic nights that ended in fights, Wallace said.
Word of their violent reputation spread. It wasn't long before white and Hispanic teens were also claiming to be Top 6 and "Top 6" became the routine moniker shouted out before drive-by shootings.
Authorities estimate the group grew to 400 to 450 members and affiliates, offering protection in the neighborhoods where they sold drugs, mostly pot and crack cocaine, and orchestrated robberies to support the gang. AK-47 assault rifles were their weapon of choice.
Shootings peaked in 2007 when three Top 6 members were killed after a car careened by a daytime backyard party and sprayed bullets. Twenty-three year-old Edson Marcel — one of Top 6's original members — was among the victims.
Charles was also at the party and authorities believe he helped clear the scene of guns and drugs, Wallace said.
"It was like two to three times a week we were getting called out to shooting scenes with these guys," he said.
Church groups and community leaders rallied against the violence. Local police chiefs appealed to the sheriff's office for help and the Palm Beach County gang task force was quickly formed.
"People were very frightened in the cities where the shootings occurred. If they knew something, they weren't going to say anything," said Lois Frankel, who served as West Palm Beach's mayor from 2003 to 2011.
From 2006 to 2007, the violence raged on. Victims often died in a hail of bullets.
One member fed up with the violent lifestyle fled to Orlando in 2007. He was gunned down walking out of a barber shop, shot repeatedly. In one instance, a Top 6 member tried to run over the school football team and coach during practice.
Another member was gunned down at a busy shopping mall on Christmas Eve in 2006.
The connection between suspects and victims was endless. A shooting one day often triggered a retaliation shooting a few days later as members turned on each other and victims retaliated, later becoming suspects, authorities said.
"When you have some of these homicide victims who are shot multiple, multiple times there's a reason for it," said Wallace. "It sends a very clear, distinct message."
In 2008, the task force nabbed a dozen members, including Charles, in a sting using the federal racketeering law. Authorities confiscated thousands in counterfeit money, large amounts of marijuana and T-shirt imprinting machines used to memorialize members killed in the bloody street wars.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, or RICO, is often used against the Mafia and other criminal organizations. Local authorities turned to RICO after struggling to bring anything other than minor drug charges against Top 6 members, Wallace said.
Charles, whose face is scarred by a childhood cooking accident, was arrested at his home without incident.
His attorney Marianne Rantalahas accused prosecutors of stringing together random crimes by people who may have known each other, but they weren't "doing anything in collusion with each other." After Geffrard was killed Monday, she asked for a mistrial, but was overruled.
Authorities said Charles has cooperated in other investigations, but it never led to a plea deal because he was only willing to divulge so much and the judge rejected both deals.
Wallace believes Charles will be convicted and face a lengthy sentence that sends a warning to other gang members. Top 6 still haunts the streets, but the killings are less frequent and affiliation isn't flaunted.
"If you want to play the game you've got to be willing to play the price," Wallace said.