Santa Ana rattled by four shootings, including three in 24 hours

The gunfire stirs memories of a time when gang violence colored life in the city’s hard-pressed core.
By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 31, 2008
The violence was shocking enough that Marcos Padilla told his Santa Ana tenants to stay inside and walk to the grocery store only if they absolutely had to.

“Everybody is scared, especially for the kids,” the manager of Country Club Mobile Home Park said. “We’ve heard tires screeching, cars coming and shots fired. Any bullet could hit them.”

Four shootings in three days, including three in 24 hours, have rattled neighborhoods in central Santa Ana. Two of the shootings took place at the mobile home park.

Police called the shootings a temporary spike amid an overall downward trend in violent crime in the city. Still, city leaders called for law enforcement to focus its efforts on areas in the center of Santa Ana that appeared to be hot spots.

The violence started early Sunday when SWAT officers shot into a sport-utility vehicle at the Sullivan Street mobile home park after one of the passengers brandished a handgun. Seven suspected gang members — four juveniles and three adults — were arrested. No one was injured.

On Tuesday there were three shootings. Daniel Jimenez-Lopez, 46, of Los Angeles was fatally shot at 12:15 a.m. outside the same mobile home park. Three and a half hours later and just about a mile away, a man was shot in the face in his garage on Highland Street. At 9 p.m., a 23-year-old man was shot and wounded in the arms and legs outside an AM/PM convenience store by one of two men trying to steal his bicycle.

Two of the shootings were gang-related, said Cpl. Jose Gonzalez of the Santa Ana Police Department.

The violence hit close to home for Councilman David Benavides, who lives blocks from where the shootings occurred, south of the Civic Center area, but said he and his family didn’t feel threatened by them.

“The reality is that the center of the city is where a fair amount of the challenges with gangs and drugs are found,” he said. “So we need to target these areas and look at comprehensive ways to turn these neighborhoods around.”

For the city of 350,000, where crime has dropped in the last decade even as its population grew explosively and its number of police officers per capita fell, the week has seemed like a step back.

The dense communities where the shootings occurred — a mix of mobile home parks, apartments and single-family homes — are not known as a gang area, said Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo, who directs the Santa Ana Police Department’s gang suppression unit. Only Highland Street, where the man was shot in his garage, is claimed by an established street gang.

Carrillo said the string of shootings were thought to be unrelated, even though they all happened in the same area in the center of town. Police still don’t know whether “somebody who lives nearby is just stirring things up or it’s a coincidence,” he said.

On Wednesday, children played on scooters and ice cream vendors roamed the mobile home park complex, catty-corner from an elementary school, where gunfire rang out twice this week. Residents said the incidents were disturbing.

Padilla, the manager, said he and his wife had noticed more vandalism and thefts in the last few months — things like shattered glass from cars being broken into and graffiti — but never expected to be the site of such overt violence.

“Now it’s shootings, killings and pursuits,” he said.

Home to Orange County’s oldest street gangs, Santa Ana saw a surge in gang-related killings in the mid-1990s, when there were dozens every year. And while police count 90 active gangs today, they said the problem had been declining with the city’s help.

Although aggravated assaults, which include shootings and stabbings, have gone down since last year and overall crime is down, police said, homicides are up.

At this point last year, the city had 11 homicides. This year there already have been 15, including one Tuesday.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez said those statistics didn’t mean much to people who were living with the violence.

“It’s about the perception, and the perception out there in our communities is that crime is not down,” she said. “We have a problem we cannot keep under the surface. We can’t blame the police and we can’t blame the community.”

It’s not the first time this year gang-related crime has become an issue. In April, there were four homicides, including one gang-related attack in which a bystander was killed. And last month, a stray bullet from a confrontation between rival gangs struck a 14-year-old girl as she took care of her 5-month-old sister, who also was injured, in her bedroom.

In 2007, the city convened a commission to address its gang problem. The year before it directed the Police Department to hire a anti-gang strike force to go after the worst offenders.

Some said the latest troubles show that Santa Ana, long the bearer of many of Orange County’s troubles and home to its poorest ZIP Codes, the courts and the county jail, is still having trouble escaping its perhaps undeserved notoriety as an unsafe place.

“Santa Ana is the punching bag at times for a lot of different social things that are happening everywhere,” said Laura Morfin, chairwoman of the city’s Early Prevention & Intervention Commission. “Can the city be doing more? Yes.”

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