How a Homegrown Teen Gang Punctured the Image of an Upscale Community

The Awards & Recognitions section of the Web site of Gilbert, Arizona, lists some of the area’s accolades: #1 Best City for Early Retirement, #2 Safest City for Trick-or-Treating, #6 Best City to Raise a Family in the West. Gilbert recently surpassed Scottsdale as the Arizona city with the highest median income, and, according to

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The Awards & Recognitions section of the Web site of Gilbert, Arizona, lists some of the area’s accolades: #1 Best City for Early Retirement, #2 Safest City for Trick-or-Treating, #6 Best City to Raise a Family in the West. Gilbert recently surpassed Scottsdale as the Arizona city with the highest median income, and, according to F.B.I. statistics, only one American community of its size had a lower crime rate in 2src22. Although Gilbert has more residents than Boise or Salt Lake City, its official documents avoid the word “city”; the municipal government has opted to preserve Gilbert’s status as a town, one of the largest in the United States. Driving down Gilbert’s wide, smooth roads, past vast developments enclosed by white fences, you get the impression of a place that, like an adolescent, hasn’t yet adjusted to its proportions.

On a Saturday evening late last October, teen-agers in Gilbert circulated aimlessly, looking for a good time. One party was disappointing, full of “Mormon kids that were, like, pretty sober,” a teen-ager later said. (Arizona’s East Valley, which includes Gilbert, has one of the largest populations of Latter-day Saints outside Utah.) But a flyer had been posted on Snapchat for a party at a house in an upscale neighborhood in Queen Creek, adjacent to Gilbert. The flyer read “HALLOWERN COSTUME RAGER Open Invite ss ALC provided first come first serve.” People started showing up around nine—kids in lifted trucks, in their parents’ BMW, in a black Camaro, in a friend’s Camry. The girls were dressed like cowgirls and white-swan ballerinas and giant cans of Twisted Tea; the boys were dressed as soldiers and mobsters and prisoners in orange jumpsuits. They drank Blue Raspberry Lemonade Smirnoff vodka, played beer pong, and smoked joints in the yard.

Preston Lord, a slight, gangly sophomore known for his school spirit, was there with friends from the basketball team. The party was wilder than they were used to. They “spent most of the time being ‘wall huggers,’ ” hanging out in the garage, one of them later said. Some older girls confronted them teasingly—were the boys sure they were old enough to be at a party like this? (This account of the party is drawn from an eleven-hundred-page report made by the Queen Creek police; many interviewees were minors, and their names were redacted.)

Sometime before ten, Lord and his friends watched as a teen-ager they knew, a Latino boy in a baseball cap, filmed two partygoers arguing. Treston Billey, a stocky eighteen-year-old wearing a white pin-striped suit, told him to delete the video. The air had a pre-fight crackle to it; people stood around waiting to see how the tension would break. Lord and his friends, together with the Latino boy, left the party and walked down the street. A group of older guys followed them. Because they were “tall and strong-looking,” one of Lord’s friends said, he thought they might be football players. Many of them were dressed as gangsters, in fedoras and suits with pocket squares. They taunted the younger kids as they left, singing “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” One witness described them as “skipping.”

The Latino boy in the baseball cap was dressed as a “cholo,” wearing a saint pendant on a long fake-gold chain. When the pursuers caught up to the younger group, one of them snatched the chain and tossed it to his friends. At some point, Lord and his friends began to run. One jumped over a fence and into a neighbor’s yard; another hid in a bush. But the older kids caught up with Lord and knocked him down. When he was on the ground, a group of guys began “kicking on him,” “standing right above and beating down,” “getting on him and going at it,” witnesses told police. The beating was over in seconds. “He’s out,” someone said. A neighbor’s surveillance-camera footage showed ten boys running away, some of them laughing.

A handful of partygoers, including several lifeguards, pulled Lord off the street and attempted CPR. Lord wheezed, then fell silent. There was blood on his face and coming out of his nose. He never regained consciousness. Two days later, he died; the coroner ruled the death a homicide.

A boy named Taylor Sherman took a video of Lord’s body and sent it to a group chat. “Slumped the fuck out haha,” he wrote. Later that night, Sherman’s friend Talan Renner told him, “I might have hospitalized that kid. I hit him pretty hard.” Other people who had been at the party, and who had witnessed, heard about, or participated in the attack on Lord, talked about it in D.M.s and group chats:

actually think that kid is actually dead, their was a blanket over him I heard

Clay told me it’s an investigation now

Hes on life support rn, I feel bad for the kid ngl, kinda sad

Talen hit him once, and he was like dead

that kid was just a freshman and talyn is 17 like that kid had his whole life ahead of him

I’m js thankful I wasn’t involved, even tho I am

Any pictures or post of me delete them please.

idk everything is just bs rn.

Queen Creek, which sprawls east of Gilbert, is a new enough town that its police department was formed in 2src22; Lord’s death was its first homicide case. Gilbert itself had only about five thousand inhabitants in 198src. But, in the nineties, as Phoenix boomed, proliferating suburban developments made Gilbert, the former “Hay Capital of the World,” the fastest-growing municipality in the country. “You used to drive down the road and see sheep crossing,” a school official said at the time. “Things are changing.” These days, the city, some twenty-five miles east of Phoenix, is closing in on a population of three hundred thousand. But the area’s tendency toward sprawl must contend with the reality of scarce resources. “Gilbert’s not far from being full,” Grady Gammage, Jr., a land-use attorney who writes about development in Phoenix, told me. Owing in part to Arizona’s dwindling groundwater, the state has temporarily halted some new construction in Queen Creek, where Preston Lord’s family lives and the Halloween party took place. When I visited, in January, housing developments sat among bare fields that were awaiting the resumption of building.

Rumors about who was responsible for Lord’s death spread quickly among teen-agers, and then among adults. On Facebook, a pseudonymous account under the name Lily Waterfield served as a gathering place for outraged parents. Weeks passed; in the absence of arrests, rumors metastasized online. In late November, the women behind the Lily Waterfield account tagged Wendi Meisner, whose son, Jake, was alleged to have participated in the beating. “Your son was involved in the murder of Preston Lord. Do what’s best for the community. Turn in your son,” they wrote. “Your son won’t get away with this murder. The community is demanding justice!!!!!!” (Meisner said that her son had “no involvement” and threatened legal action.)

Cartoon by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

In December, the Arizona Republic reported that Lord’s death was not an aberration but the culmination of an alarming trend: a group of largely upper-middle-class teen-agers had been wreaking havoc in Gilbert and the surrounding East Valley communities for more than a year, with few consequences. The paper reported that the group called itself the Gilbert Goons, a name that apparently originated in a Snapchat group. High-school students knew about them—one victim later described them to law enforcement as “a group of kids just harassing Arizona”—but the Gilbert police seemingly did not. “We do not have documented incidents associated with that group name,” officials told the Republic. The newspaper detailed seven violent attacks by members of the group, many of them captured on video. Others soon surfaced. The Goons seemed to be a loose association of some two dozen kids, mostly but not entirely white and wealthy, who attended high schools in the Gilbert area. (The Republic would eventually identify ninety-five Goon-related assaults, stemming from eighteen incidents. Michael Soelberg, chief of the Gilbert police, called that number “exaggerated.” He added, “Any teen-violence case, they’re lumping them all together as a Goon-related assault, and that’s not accurate.”) The videos were shaky, chaotic, difficult to follow; the person filming would sometimes gasp, “Oh, my God,” sounding shocked or thrilled or some giddy mixture of the two. Some of the clips seemed to show drunk teens posturing and throwing wild punches at one another. “You’re talking all crazy on Instagram,” a girl yells in one, before shoving another girl against a car and hitting her repeatedly. Others depicted unprovoked blitz attacks: a group of kids swarming someone, knocking him to the ground, and kicking him over and over.

In January, Jaimie Weinberger, a mother of three with a thick fringe of eyelashes, gave me a tour of Gilbert in her white Yukon S.U.V. We passed large houses hidden behind long, pale walls, medians tastefully landscaped with desert plants, and a disorienting number of shopping centers. Three-quarters of Gilbert residents are white, and, even as Arizona has become a swing state, the city remains solidly conservative—Donald Trump won the area by fifteen points in 2src2src, and most of the East Valley is represented by Andy Biggs, a former chair of the House Freedom Caucus.

“One thing to know about Gilbert is that there’s a shopping center on literally every corner. All of this, in the past couple of years, has been built up,” Weinberger said as we passed a Five Guys, a Shake Shack, and a Torchy’s Tacos. “I mean, there is literally every restaurant you can imagine here. Which I feel like is part of the draw to Gilbert. Because there is everything.”

“We can get to three different Targets within five minutes of our house,” her husband, Cody, who was driving, added.

Like many other Gilbert parents, Weinberger had become preoccupied with Lord’s death and was a regular on the Facebook groups and Reddit forums in which the case was discussed in obsessive detail, and in occasionally conspiratorial tones. “My husband’s, like, ‘You are just so engulfed in all of this,’ ” she told me later. “But my kids are growing up here.”

About a week after Lord’s death, Queen Creek police executed search warrants at four houses in a wealthy subdivision called Whitewing. The community is gated, but Weinberger had the security code. We drove through the snaking streets, past sprawling homes that Weinberger regarded with an appraising eye. In Gilbert, minute gradations of wealth are particularly visible in real estate: Is the neighborhood gated or not? Is the house custom-built or tract? “So all these are custom builds, and these lots are probably half acres, so that’s premium. Land is a hard thing to come by in Arizona, especially in Gilbert,” Weinberger said. “I would say every house in here is at least a million and a half, current market. I mean, there’s a really outdated, crappy house for one point eight five.”

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