Gangs plague small East Washington town of Outlook

By MELISSA SANCHEZ (Yakima Herald-Republic)
12/6/09
Exit63_Outlook
OUTLOOK, Wash. (AP) — There is a degree of lawlessness in this small community that goes beyond the shooting of a Yakima County sheriff’s deputy last summer.

In a neighborhood where roaming dogs and chickens outnumber homes, locked metal gates betray any sense of small town neighborly trust.

One out of every five residents, authorities say, belongs to a gang.

“You see kids on the street, kids who look like they’re up to no good. But we don’t say anything to them,” said Guadalupe Liceo, a 72-year-old retired farm worker who has lived in Outlook for about 13 years. “You get nervous talking to them because they might come back and do something to you.”

The Outlook ZIP code covers about 34 square miles of quiet dairies, vineyards, orchards and vast fields of corn and asparagus. The problem, authorities say, is a cluster of homes in a roughly six-block area that is the historic heart of the larger unincorporated community.

It’s here where about 470 residents live in 129 mostly weathered, single-story homes and trailers on weed-filled plots. Graffiti covers a number of the buildings.

Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin and others estimate it’s home to 100 to 150 gang members.

Investigators said a 16-year-old charged with shooting a deputy in the leg last July in Outlook did so to impress gang members. A week later, two of his relatives were arrested on drug charges.

Last month, a 22-year-old Outlook man was arrested and charged in the death of a 14-year-old runaway who authorities said was killed after saying she planned to report being raped at an Outlook party.

At least three teenagers have been shot in Outlook in the past 16 months. And in 2007, a 20-year-old man was shot and killed as he and two friends were loading his children into a car for a trip to a store.

No community block watch groups exist here. There are few organized activities for young people. Law enforcement falls to the Yakima County sheriff’s office, but only four deputies are on patrol at any given moment for the entire Lower Yakima Valley.

“Realistically, it’s usually less,” said Lt. Max James. “We go and give it attention as we can.”

Dorothy Cullen, an 81-year-old widow who lives alone a few miles north of town, said something needs to happen, and fast. She remembers a time when everybody knew everybody else and nobody locked their doors at night.

That can’t happen anymore, she said. In October, a woman who lives close to Cullen’s house was tied up and robbed at gunpoint inside her own house.

No arrests have been made, but authorities say the suspected robbers are gang members.

“I’m certainly not an expert on it, but it is scary. Gangs are getting braver is the heck of it,” Cullen said. “It would be nice for something to be done but I haven’t decided what it could be. If they could just give those kids something to do.”

In a way, the July 20 shooting of Deputy Bobby Miranda may bring some relief.

Miranda has since recovered and returned to duty. He continues to patrol the Lower Valley, Outlook included.

His shooting mobilized law enforcement and school officials to choose Outlook as a test site for a new approach to combat gangs.

Details are still in the works for the “Weed and Seed” approach, said Randy Town, a part-time deputy and schools safety coordinator for Educational School District 105, an umbrella organization that provides a variety of services to local school districts.

“We’re beginning to design a series of activities for young people,” Town said. “We need to get a feel for what the community of Outlook wants to accomplish for their neighborhood.”

What is certain is that the program – funded largely with a $40,000 grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs – will pay for a social worker who will go into homes after gang-related arrests.

The case manager, who will be hired by early January, will work with low-income families with children at risk of joining or who have already joined gangs. Half of the job will be to assess families’ needs and provide referrals for counseling support groups, medical assistance or other social services.

“We found that poverty is a big contributor to why people get involved in gangs,” said Heather Elmore, education services manager for the Northwest Community Action Center, which is involved in the project. “So we want to make sure that the real basic needs are met – that there’s food, the heating bills are paid, that there are beds to sleep on,” she said.

The second half of the job will be community organizing, to help residents develop improvement projects they would like to see, such as a soccer field or skate park.

If successful, it will be replicated in other gang-heavy cities such as Sunnyside, Irwin said.

“Law enforcement has a part in it, but we have been able to bring these people to the table to help the families,” he said. “(We’re still) going to scrape the crud off every chance we get to make the streets safer day and night for the people who live there.

“We’re going to rebuild neighborhoods and that entire community, with the community itself leading the way.”

Liceo and others say it’s about time something is done to alleviate the problem.

On a recent afternoon, he pointed to bullets lodged in the side of his house and to his van, where the stereo had been stolen.

“The authorities are worried about gang violence here?” Liceo said. “I’m worried about gang violence.”

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakima-herald.com

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