There's nothing new about rap artists inviting controversy by glamorizing a thug lifestyle, with the most successful among them claiming ties to street gangs even as they move into mansions and get airplay on mainstream radio or music television.
A small niche within the rap scene, known as "horrorcore," is a little different. The genre is mainly associated with Detroit shock artists Insane Clown Posse, but it has spawned a host of imitators who excite crowds with musical horror stories in which murder, rape and suicide are recurrent themes.
Insane Clown Posse can't get its music on the radio, but claims to have 1 million devoted fans who call themselves "Juggalos" or "Juggalettes," and sometimes paint their faces to look like wicked clowns. Some round out the look by carrying small axes, like the cartoon hatchet man associated with the band.
Authorities point to assaults in Colorado, Utah, Washington and elsewhere when they argue that small sets of Juggalos have formed street gangs and deserve to be prosecuted just as the better-known Bloods and Crips, or Norteños and Sureños.
Never miss a local story.
A March 7 assault in Graceada Park brought the debate to Modesto.
"I guess that makes me a high-ranking gang member, like a shot caller or something," joked Mario Delgado, who performs as Mars. He has played at festivals sponsored by Insane Clown Posse and recently moved from the East Bay to Modesto.
Mars was referring to an attack on a man who was at Graceada Park with his family. The assault was clownlike, yet brutal. It began with a teen running up to the man to demand a handshake and ended with a host of other Juggalos intervening to stop a fight.
The man had his leg broken in two places as his girlfriend and two daughters watched in horror.
Prosecutors say the Juggalos arrested at the park had all the ingredients of a criminal street gang: three or more members, a common sign or symbol (in this case the cartoon hatchet man), and banding together to commit a crime.
Brandon Ferrell, 18; Joshua Huggins, 17; Kurt Petersen, 22; and Larry Williams, 20, have pleaded not guilty and are in jail awaiting trial. News coverage of their case prompted a lot of feedback, including comments from people who say "true" Juggalos are opposed to violence.
What they are -- and aren't
A few Juggalos said they no longer would hang out in Graceada Park because fighting is wrong.
A former girlfriend of one defendant said fans are supposed to read between the lines to find meaning in songs that feature over-the-top violence.
A parent said he was irritated when his son got in trouble for wearing an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt to school because the boy never has been a troublemaker and was wrongly accused of being a gang member.
And a husband and father who likes the music said he sometimes paints his face for fun and spots people who are "down with the clown" all over town, identifying them by their tattoos or clothing or decals on their cars.
James Miller, 27, of Modesto thinks the park suspects misinterpreted the band's message, saying it is not a call to arms but an open invitation to misfits who need a place to blow off some steam and will not be turned away at Juggalo events.
He hopes Juggalo culture doesn't get a bad rap because of a few bad apples.
"I don't stand on corners 'claiming parks,' " Miller said. "I don't go around assaulting people."
During a hearing in the Graceada Park case, a crime analyst for the Modesto Police Department said local authorities have watched the Juggalos grow in numbers since their first contact with the group in 2005.
She said she has spent half of her time researching Juggalos in the past year, noting that her work includes surveying MySpace and other social networking Web sites to identify Insane Clown Posse fans who post photos of themselves throwing hand signs for WC, or "wicked clown."
A prosecutor said authorities have documented 38 Juggalos as gang members, including four who have been found guilty of assault, burglary and carjacking in Juvenile Court.
Profiled by T-shirts?
Harley Petero was surprised to learn that he is one of them.
Petero, a contractor and father of five, recalled a scene more than a year ago when his 17-year-old son and others were walking from their home in Modesto's airport neighborhood to a market to buy milk.
Members of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force swooped down upon the boy and his girlfriend, so Petero walked over to see what was going on.
The father, his son and the son's girlfriend were wearing Insane Clown Posse T-shirts.
The officers asked all sorts of questions and took pictures.
More than a year later, a defense investigator came calling, Petero said, because father, son and girlfriend are on the authorities' list of documented Juggalos.
Petero, who goes to horrorcore shows with his kids, said he never has been arrested and should not be criminalized for making a fashion statement. He said violent images in the music are so over the top that no sane person could take them seriously.
"They're like Deadheads -- Deadheads for the new millennium," said Petero, 43. "They just want to listen to this music."
Petero's wife, Tammy, worries because her husband and son could get slapped with a gang enhancement, and be subject to stiffer penalties if they are accused of a crime. She said one of her other sons, who was wearing a Lynard Skynard T-shirt, also walked over to check out the scene.
"They didn't say a word to him," said Tammy Petero, 36.
Define 'gang member'
Defense attorney Bill Miller represents Huggins, a minor who is charged as an adult in the Graceada Park case. He said gang laws give broad discretion to authorities. As Miller put it, "The Legislature didn't define what a gang member is, and the cops just make it up themselves."
Huggins and two of the other defendants face up to four years in prison if convicted of assault and three years more if a jury believes they are gang members.
Williams could rack up even more time because he was convicted of assault as a juvenile. The results of juvenile cases usually are confidential, but the prosecutor pointed to Williams' juvenile record in court to back up the notion that Juggalos engage in a pattern of criminal activity.
Mars, the horrorcore artist who recently moved from Pittsburg to Modesto along with his girlfriend and 2-year-old son, said Juggalos are targeted across the nation, often by people who take the song lyrics literally.
He said he has played at a Woodstock-like festival Insane Clown Posse holds in Illinois each summer, claims to have been questioned by officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was eager to talk about being blamed for a school shooting in northern Minnesota.
On March 21, 2005, 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise killed two people at his grandfather's home on an American Indian reservation, then went to Red Lake High School, where he fatally shot five students and one teacher, then took his own life.
Weise left online journal entries showing that he was a big fan of Mars and another horrorcore rapper, Jimmy Donn, according to published reports. Mars, who performs in a mask like the one Hannibal Lector wore in the movie "Silence of the Lambs," blames the troubled teen's parents for the tragedy.
Mars thinks authorities go too far when they prosecute Juggalos as gang members because every group has a few people who commit crimes. He said Juggalos are just kids who have a weird sense of humor and wish it were Halloween every day.
The 29-year-old rapper said controversy makes his sales spike. So he hopes the debate rages on.
Mars' latest album is called "School House Glock!"
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.