His teenage followers call him "Rabbit." Police say James Manning, 21, is the ringleader behind a homegrown gang called the Brotherhood Mafia. The Barre man allegedly recruited kids as young as 14 to do his bidding, slashing tires, selling drugs and tagging buildings around town.
"Those were done under the guise of being part of the gang, being part of the family," Barre City Police Chief Tim Bombardier said.
The boys told police Manning and his roommate Hank Jones gave them a list of arson jobs to carry out, including setting wood chips ablaze outside St. Monica School and using Molotov cocktails to burn down a garage on Third Street.
"Definitely it's manipulation," Bombardier said. "You bring somebody in and you start out with minor criminal acts. Now you have something over their head."
Kids were allegedly initiated into this gang in different ways. One boy told police Manning drove him to a soccer field and hit him in the head with a baseball bat, knocking him out for five minutes. Others told police Manning raped them while other the gang members watched.
"Some gang initiations are beat downs for lack of a better term," Bombardier said. "You don't see adults on juveniles, same-sex assaults. That was disturbing."
According to court papers, most of the rapes happened inside the Harrington Avenue apartment house where Manning lived. Neighbors say there was a constant stream of teenagers milling about.
"I'm nervous for even having my children play outside," neighbor Melissa Berry said.
One boy who was allegedly forced to watch a rape initiation told police "it lasted for about an hour" while the 14-year-old victim was "crying his eyes out." Police say Manning groomed kids, luring them into his gang for his own sexual gratification, allegedly assaulting at least three other children multiple times.
"That's not something we've ever seen before," Bombardier said.
In January, Manning was arrested and charged with two counts of sex assault on minors. He denied the allegations. But police say the case is far from closed.
"This coming out has opened people's eyes," Bombardier said. "It's making some people keep better track with what's going on with kids."
"Knowing that there's some older man out there, next door, doing something to younger kids is scary," Berry said.
Manning is being held on $75,000 bail. He'll be back in court next week. If convicted he faces up to 40 years in prison.
Police say as this investigation unfolds, there will likely more arrests and citations issued to both adults and juveniles involved.
Police couldn't tell me whether Manning is a native Vermonter. They say while questioning him he became emotional and threatened to kill himself. Manning also told police he started the Brotherhood Mafia as a group for troubled kids who needed someone to talk to. He denies it's a gang and calls it a "family" that he started in Burlington, moved to Rutland in 2011 and finally to Barre.
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