Drive-by killing not a sign of gang trends, Santa Rosa officials say


Published: Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 6:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 6:53 p.m.

The fatal drive-by shooting in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood Monday night has the hallmarks of a gang-related crime, though police aren’t ready to say so conclusively.

If the shooting death of Luis Suarez, 18, is determined to be a gang homicide, it will belie the general downward trend in gang violence in Santa Rosa over the past several years.

“There does appear to be some gang ties with some of the parties involved, however I cannot yet tell you if it was a gang crime. We don’t have that confirmed,” Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Lisa Banayat said Thursday.

Suarez, a Ridgway High School student, was shot to death Monday night as he walked on Grand Avenue, blocks from his family’s home. On Wednesday police arrested a 17-year-old male from Kelseyville in connection with the shooting and also arrested Fernando Mendoza, 20, of Santa Rosa, on a parole violation after questioning him in connection with the death.

Suarez was not a known gang member but knew people who were in gangs, said Banayat. “Obviously the gang crimes investigations team is assisting with this case and researching the history of the parties involved trying to figure out if it’s gang-related,” Banayat said.

Over the past several years, violent crime in general has decreased in Santa Rosa along with violent gang incidents. Since 2006, when gang-related violent crime spiked in Santa Rosa to 127 incidents, the number has decreased more than 30 percent, to 83 incidents in 2008, according to police statistics.

Despite that trend, authorities are cautious about becoming overconfident.

“It hasn’t gotten any worse, but it hasn’t gotten any better either,” is how Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Carlos Basurto views the gang problem. He is supervisor in the county’s multi-agency gang task force.

Though there has been no apparent uptick in gang crimes, “anytime there is a young person’s life taken it’s a tragedy, just a tragedy, period,” said Santa Rosa Councilwoman Jane Bender, who is active in gang prevention programs.

Bender credits such programs and interventions with making inroads in the gang problem. One of those programs, active since July in Santa Rosa, involves outreach workers whose goal is to make sure there is no retaliation after a violent crime such as the one that occurred Monday. They go into the neighborhood immediately to work with victim’s friends and family and other residents.

“There’s always high tensions — ‘disrespect, you killed one of ours, now we have to retaliate.’ There’s so much emotion going on,” said Steve Velasquez, program manager for California Youth Outreach in Santa Rosa.

Velasquez said his workers, who coordinate with local law enforcement and the probation department, try to quell urges for vengeance. After the killing Monday, they have tried to point out that the two young men arrested will be sent to prison for a long time if they are convicted and “there’s no reason for anyone else to die, or go to prison,” Velasquez said.

California Youth Outreach workers also go into schools for crisis interventions to work with students and educators.

Despite an upsurge in gang graffiti in Santa Rosa over the past five months or so, Velasquez said gang activity has not surged. Nevertheless, his outreach workers have logged 300 crisis interventions since July, “from school, to family, to kids.”

Typically outreach workers respond to incidents involving gang slurs, fights and the aftermath of fights. Since July, he said, the outreach organization in Santa Rosa has seen 15 incidents involving weapons, mostly knives and blunt objects, but no shootings other than Monday’s South Park death.

“I think what is changing is our response to gang violence in Santa Rosa,” said City Councilman Ernest Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant who remains active in gang prevention programs. “Overall, I think we’re making some headway as far as diverting youth and getting them connected with some positive role models.”

Through Measure O, approved by Santa Rosa voters in 2004, the city spends about $1.4 million annually on more than a dozen programs that offer a variety of services. They include recreation, after-school sessions, vocational education, parent and family counseling and finding jobs for gang members who have served jail or prison time.

Ellen Bailey, manager of the Santa Rosa Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, said the programs are succeeding based on positive feedback from parents, clients and schools.

“We’re having an impact,” she said. “The community has really taken on that the police department cannot arrest the way out of it. It’s a community problem that needs a community response.”

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