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Vice Lords gang chief killed in Memphis, sparking fears of violence statewide

Ronald Terry, known as "Big Pokey" or "Porky," was killed while sitting in the front seat of a white Cadillac in Memphis.

The former local kingpin of the nationwide Vice Lords street gang was executed while he sat in a white Cadillac in Memphis last week, sparking fears among law enforcement officials that violence could break out across Tennessee and inside the state’s prisons.

Ronald Terry, 49, once alleged to be the leader of the Memphis branch of the Chicago-based Vice Lords, was found shot to death along with a female companion, Candid Sanders, 36, on Thursday afternoon. A Memphis Police Department spokesperson said the investigation is active and she could not share other details.

On the day of the shooting, the Tennessee Department of Corrections locked down every prison in the state "due to information received from external law enforcement partners," according to a statement.

The restrictions were lifted at some prisons a day later, but others remained locked down as of Saturday. South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton remains locked down pending an investigation into fights that broke out Thursday evening, according to Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility.

Image: Ronald Terry
Ronald Terry was killed in Memphis on Jan. 10, 2018.Memphis Police Dept.

Around 8 p.m. Thursday, there were two separate "inmate-on-inmate assaults" at the prison, Gilchrist said in a statement. Six prisoners and four correctional officers were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries. Gilchrist did not respond to NBC News’ questions about potential gang links in the violence.

An alert also went out late last week to officials across the state warning law enforcement and correctional officers to be vigilant. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was "requested to provide a situational awareness message to law enforcement agencies for general officer safety," TBI spokesman Josh DeVine told NBC News by email. "There was no specific threat."

DeVine would not specify the agency that requested the alert, citing ongoing investigations.

Officials from three counties in different parts of the state, stretching from Memphis to Morgan County, Tennessee, 350 miles east, told NBC News they had heard but could not confirm that the caution was linked to the Terry murder. Other local officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The scene where police found Terry and Sanders shot dead inside a car in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 10, 2019.
The scene where police found Terry and Sanders shot dead inside a car in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 10, 2019.WMC5

On Facebook, law enforcement officers from across Tennessee began sharing a post that said calls had been intercepted between two state correctional facilities indicating that the "Vice Lord gang has put out a hit on all TN Law Enforcement and Corrections," according to a post from a 911 dispatcher in Cumberland County.

A Department of Correction spokesperson said the warning did not come from prison officials.

"The [post] is inaccurate," said TDOC spokesperson Neysa Taylor," in the same way that chain letters are inaccurate or ‘you’ve won the London lottery’ emails are inaccurate."

In Memphis, which has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, officers are "accustomed to dealing with issues like this," said Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, who said he had received the alert from fellow law enforcement officials.

Memphis police are investigating the deadly shooting of Phil Trenary, the President and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Memphis police are investigating the deadly shooting of Phil Trenary, the President and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, on Sept. 28, 2018.WMC

"We want officers to be vigilant, but not hyper vigilant," he added. "We still want you to treat the community the same."

Cities across the country now boast record-low murder rates, but Memphis is not one of them. In 2016, it saw 202 homicides, up from 137 the year prior, marking the highest number killed since 1993, according to the Commercial Appeal. Police had tallied 176 for 2018.

Terry is among 10 people killed in Memphis since Jan. 1, the Commercial Appeal found.

Born in Chicago, he came to Memphis in 2000 with the mission of reigning in an unruly sect of the Vice Lords, according to the account of a Shelby County prosecutor in an episode of the television show Gangland.

Terry, known as "Big Pokey" or "Porky" to most, came into the public eye during his 2006 trial, when he was charged with the attempted murder of another Vice Lord member. Partway through closing arguments, Terry changed his plea, admitting to the crime. He then took the stand and outlined the structure of the group that law enforcement claimed he led.

In prison, his gang affiliation landed him in segregation for several years, court records show. He apparently renounced his Vice Lords membership in 2014, cutting a deal with the head of the prison system in the hopes of getting out of a restrictive setting, court records show. Terry was later transferred to a prison in Florida, a TDOC spokeswoman confirmed, but did not elaborate why. His sentence expired in 2016.

It’s not clear when he returned to Memphis, or if he still had gang ties. Hours after his killing, photos and memorials circulated among friends and family on Facebook about his killing, along with questions about what this would mean for the already tense relationship between gangs on the streets and in Tennessee's penitentiaries.

NBC News contacted several relatives. Most did not respond or declined to comment.

"He was well loved by all," said one mourner, who declined to speak publicly. "Can we just let him rest in peace."