Who is the 856 gang that’s moved into Yellowknife?

Another group of alleged associates of the B.C.-based 856 gang was arrested in Yellowknife last week after police found drugs, cash and a gun at two properties where they were staying. But where has the 856 gang come from?

B.C.-based gang began as 'just a bunch of kids being stupid,' retired cop recalls

Police found a sophisticated drug operation and $400,000 worth of narcotics when they raided this 10,000 square foot home in Langley, B.C. last month. They say most of the drugs seized from the 856 gang were destined for smaller northern communities like Fort St. John, Yellowknife and towns in northern Alberta. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

A group of alleged associates of the B.C.-based 856 gang was arrested in Yellowknife last week after police found drugs, cash and a gun at two properties where they were staying.

The bust came just days after a man was stabbed 15 times outside of a Yellowknife bar. Police say Nathan Hodges, the man charged with aggravated assault in the incident, has ties to the gang.  

In December, Yellowknife RCMP arrested nine people allegedly associated with the same gang after a drug raid at a property in Kam Lake.

And in October police arrested four people linked to the group. 

“We’re slowly starting to put a dent in the organization,” says Sergeant Barry Ledoux of the Yellowknife RCMP.

Only two people from the December bust were sentenced to time in jail. Both Matthew Jager and Stanislaus Cochrane will serve about 10 months.

Yellowknife RCMP says they’re still investigating and hope to make more arrests connected to the gang. But who exactly are they?

A bunch of punk teenagers

CBC’s South of the Fraser Reporter Jesse Johnston has been researching the gang’s history.

The gang’s name comes from Aldergrove’s telephone prefix. They’re also known as EFS, from the initials for “eight five six.”

Police say they started as a bunch of punk teenagers in Aldergrove, B.C. in the mid-2000s and have since grown into a violent force.

Charlie Fox, a Langley Town Councillor and the former principal of Aldergrove Community Secondary School, is on a first name basis with most of the key players.

“These students have a bit of a history, working through elementary and second,” Fox says.

“I wouldn’t suggest they were troubled, but they didn’t have a lot of direction or parental guidance... When it came to making some of the decisions, maybe they didn’t have the background and support that other kids did.”

Gradually the crimes got more serious and the community became afraid. Then the gang seemed to fizzle out. At least, that’s what Fox and most people in the community thought.

It turns out, according to police, that they were starting to take over the drug trade in a handful of northern communities.

Gunfire in Aldergrove

Richard Konarski, a retired RCMP inspector, was the operations support officer in Langley, B.C. at the time.

He says, at first, “it was just a bunch of kids being stupid,” or at least that was what people thought.

“But it became clear — this was back in 2006, 2007 — that their activities became more persistent.”

People in Aldergrove really started to get upset in September, 2007. A man alleged to be a Hells Angels associate was dropping one of his sons off at DW Poppy Secondary School when his truck was sprayed with gunfire. No one was seriously hurt, but the incident scared a lot of people. It also got everyone in the community talking about the EFS.

Last month police raided a home in Langley and found a sophisticated drug operation inside, along with about $400,000 worth of drugs.

They arrested three men they claim are high-ranking members of the gang.

But even though the bust happened in the lower mainland, police say the gang isn’t dealing there — the Metro Vancouver drug trade is dominated by the Red Scorpions and the United Nations.

Police say most of the narcotics seized from the 856 gang were going to be sold in smaller northern communities like Fort St. John, Yellowknife and towns in northern Alberta.

Members marked with tattoos

Matthew Jager, one of the men arrested in Yellowknife, had a sentencing hearing last month for a list of drug charges. His lawyer pointed out that he had an "8" tattooed on the inside of his lip.

The lawyer said that meant his client was just a junior member of the gang, because senior members have all three digits "856" tattooed inside their mouths.

Why weren’t they shut down before?

Retired RCMP Inspector Richard Konarski says they identified about six key figures when the group started and that's who they targeted at first. They had some success and made a few arrests.

Konarski revisited his approach to tackling the gang when he was a PhD candidate at SFU about four years ago.

“We could have been a lot more effective in how we were doing things,” he now says.

Konarski says if the RCMP had done what's called a social network analysis on who the major players in the gang were, they likely would have picked different key figures and probably would have had more success dismantling the gang.

He says looking back at it now, he underestimated the scope of the problem. Konarski also points out the situation would have been a lot easier to handle if parents knew what their kids were up to.

Former principal surprised

Charlie Fox, the former principal, couldn't believe it when he heard about last month's bust in Langley.

“Absolutely it surprises me. I thought they were dead. I thought they’d morphed into a kind of quiet, non-existence realm, but obviously that isn’t the case,” Fox says.

“It surprised the heck out of me that they’ve expanded to other areas, but maybe that’s the influence that was coming from the adults that were there behind the scenes all along.”

He believes there were some older people encouraging these young teenagers to get into this lifestyle.

Fox thinks that's one of the big reasons they got started in the first place.

Targeting gangs a priority

RCMP Sergeant Ledoux in Yellowknife has a message for the gang:

“We want these people to know that they’re not gonna come to Yellowknife and sell their drugs and disrupt the lives of community citizens.”

Ledoux says this type of activity affects the whole community.

“Our commanding officer here within the territories has made it a priority that we rid the community of these people that profit off of selling drugs.”

Sergeant Lindsey Houghton is with B.C.'s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which focuses on taking down gun-carrying gang members. 

"They're extremely well organized,"  he says, "and that poses some challenged to us, although police have been successful at arresting numerous members of the 856."

Houghton says he doesn't know exactly how many associates the gang has, but he says the core group is made up of about a dozen people.