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SLO County fights gang activity in response to fatal Oceano shooting

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The shooting happened without warning.

In an instant, as darkness fell on an Oceano street corner, a gun was fired, a 17-year-old boy was felled by a bullet, and a community was left reeling.

In the hours that followed, dozens of sheriff’s deputies swarmed the streets, canvassed neighborhoods and interviewed potential witnesses.

Among the officials were members of the San Luis Obispo County gang task force, a small team with a specific goal: to determine whether the crime was gang-related.

Deputies have said that Gabriel Salgado was not associated or involved with a gang, but they believe the shooting was gang-related. They’ve haven’t released any other details, citing the ongoing investigation.

But the outcome of the Oceano case could indicate whether gang-related violence is increasing in South County, and may determine where Sheriff Ian Parkinson puts future resources.

Gang activity in the county has been a perennial problem that the public sometimes overlooks — until violence breaks out. Such is the case with the Oceano shooting and a jump in crimes in Paso Robles, both of which have drawn renewed concern to the level of gang activity in the county and law enforcement’s response to it.

Over the past year, crimes in North County have taken most of the three-member gang task force’s attention. Paso Robles, in particular, has been the focus of a recent partnership between the Sheriff’s Office and police to crack down on what is being called a “surge of violence” there.

“Obviously the recent activity is very concerning,” Parkinson said. “We’re concerned about whether the problem is increasing, is it getting more violent.”

Sheriff’s officials believe some of the gang activity is coming into San Luis Obispo County from nearby counties with more violent reputations: Kern, Monterey and northern Santa Barbara, for example.

But at the same time, a number of “homegrown” gang members are popping up on law enforcement’s radar, said Deputy Hussein Abbas, a gang task force member.

In the past few years, the number of gang-related cases passing through the District Attorney’s Office has steadily risen. The increase is likely because of better policing and an uptick in violence, according to sheriff’s officials.

In 2010, 60 defendants were involved in gang-related cases (including 20 people housed at the California Men’s Colony), up from 18 people in 2006, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran.

The increase in juveniles involved in gang-related crimes is even more notable: from three in 2006 to 21 in 2010.

A growing concern

Some of the gangs now in San Luis Obispo County started as social groups or car clubs in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Abbas said. The gang task force can trace the beginning of one outlaw motorcycle group to the late 1960s. By 1988, according to a Telegram-Tribune article, the Sheriff’s Office had identified three Hispanic street gangs — La Mesa 13, Nipas 13 in Nipomo and Oceano 13 — in the South County.

At that time, they were described as “up and coming,” but not as organized as gangs in Santa Maria or Guadalupe. No gangs had yet been identified in the North County.

But two years later, the task force identified eight gangs in Paso Robles, and estimated there were about 800 gang members in the county, mostly teenagers and young adults. There were also reports of at least half a dozen gang-related incidents, including assaults and fights, during Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo.

The number of gang members or associates in the county is estimated at about 1,200. Of those, 75 percent belong to three predominately Hispanic criminal street gangs in Paso Robles, Oceano and Nipomo.

Sheriff’s officials would not confirm specific gang names, saying that doing so gives the gangs so-called bragging rights.

But other sources that work with law enforcement confirmed that the largest gangs in the county are Paso Robles 13, Oceano 13 and Nipomo 13 — the number “13” indicating an alignment with the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

The Mexican Mafia formed in the late 1950s and controls about 50,000 to 75,000 California Sureño gang members and associates, according to a National Gang Center Bulletin from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

To gather information on gang members, the sheriff’s task force hosts monthly meetings for all county law enforcement agencies to share information.

Several months ago, the task force gave police agencies countywide a standardized card that they can fill out and forward to the gang task force.

The field interview card contains a section where authorities can supply information about someone that indicates a gang affiliation, including their clothing, tattoos and whether they’re hanging out with documented gang members.

The fluid nature of gangs prevents local officials from knowing exactly how many gang members there are at one time.

“Many have moved (or) are in jail/prison,” Paso Robles Police Lt. Ty Lewis wrote in an email. “Many claim they no longer participate with their former gangs.”

Policing for ‘safe streets’

In the past six months, much of the county’s gang activity has occurred in Paso Robles. Gang-related crimes included an attempted murder, a drive-by shooting that injured one person, and a shooting at a Spring Street apartment complex.

The crimes prompted the Sheriff’s Office, county probation, CHP, parole and other agencies to partner with Paso Robles police to focus on reducing violent crime within city limits.

Dubbed “Safe Streets,” the cooperative agreement targeted specific neighborhoods and areas within Paso Robles where gang activity had occurred in the past.

“There was lots of angst and anxiety in the community (after the Paso Robles shooting), and this was really to open up dialogue and be visible in the county,” Lewis said.

During four weekends in September, law enforcement officers arrested 65 people and issued 48 citations, most for minor issues. Of those arrested or cited, 20 were known gang members or identified gang associates, according to sheriff’s spokesman Rob Bryn. Officers also compiled information on nine potential gang members.“Initially, it was pretty quiet after Safe Streets,” Abbas said. “But it’s difficult to sustain that kind of large-scale operation, and gang activity increased again once they realized people weren’t around.”

Police said the crackdowns will continue indefinitely — but not more than a few times a year. Police are wading through the information they’ve gathered, compiling statistics and determining which cases may be gang-related.

“The efforts have shifted from boots on the street to more support roles, the behind-the-scenes work,” Lewis said.

That includes tracking trends in the city’s gang-related incidents, compiling details such as gang member tattoos to identify suspects in future investigations and researching leads from the department’s new online public crime tip program.

They also work with probation so police involvement doesn’t “just end with an arrest,” Lewis said. Gang members can then be penalized for actions that aren’t criminal but still gang-related, such as wearing the color blue. They can also undergo random searches that can lead police to new evidence.

Paso Robles police flag the number of gang-related incidents — which can be anything from an argument to a stabbing — in their regular crime database each year.

There were 32 incidents in 2007 and again in 2008, but only 19 in 2009 and 11 in 2010. From January through November, officers have tracked 21 incidents.

Sheriff’s response

Former Sheriff Ed Williams created the gang task force in 1990 to identify and contact suspected gang members and reduce gang-related crimes and drug activity.

The team started with two members — one from the Sheriff’s Office, one from county probation — and has not expanded much since, though the number of gang members in the county has increased.

Until recently, the task force had been paired with a special “problems unit” of four people, but budget cuts prompted those deputies to be reassigned. The task force now has three members, two from the Sheriff’s Office and one from the Probation Department.

Most of their time is spent investigating crimes and coordinating with the district attorney on prosecuting gang-related cases. That leaves less time to contact potential gang members.

“We’re almost 100 percent reactive,” Abbas said. “If we had a homicide in South County one day and another in North County within a day or two, it would be really challenging for us as a unit to investigate those with the time and resources it takes to investigate a major incident.”

That situation is not uncommon — budget cuts have prevented other agencies, such as Santa Maria police, from expanding their task forces.

The situation has forced the three members of the Santa Maria police gang suppression team to work even more closely with other police officers, probation, parole and jail officials to gather information on gang members, said Sgt. Paul Van Meel, a member of the department’s narcotics suppression team.

Lately, Santa Maria has had a spike in violent crimes, he said, and gang members have become more sophisticated and organized. As of February, the gang suppression team had documented 900 gang members but believes the true number is about twice that total.

Officials in Monterey County are dealing with a larger problem: 5,500 gang members, many of them in Salinas. A federal, $7.5 million grant in 2005 allowed the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office to create a 15-member task force with Salinas police, the CHP and the district attorney.

Most of the task force members’ time is spent talking to gang members and making arrests on outstanding warrants or probation and parole violations, said Monterey sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Rodriguez.

Homicides dropped in Monterey County to 48 in 2010 from 56 in 2009. So far this year, there have been 37, said Tanya Crawford, a criminal intelligence specialist with the Sheriff’s Office.

She attributed the drop to a combination of factors, including the FBI’s involvement in gang problems in the county and a large sweep by the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

“You have to go out there, you have to be on the street,” Rodriguez said. “We keep them on their toes.”

Parkinson is hoping to grow the San Luis Obispo County gang task force with members of a countywide narcotics task force that’s being disbanded at the end of the month. Most of the police agencies in the county participate in it.

Parkinson plans to restructure the narcotics task force and gang task force into one unit with members who specialize in both areas — though doing so depends on whether the police agencies throughout the county will agree to participate.

So far, police chiefs from Atascadero, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, the county Probation Department and the District Attorney’s Office have indicated they’d like to provide a staff member on the task force.

Other agencies, including Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Paso Robles police, may consider contributing funding. Morro Bay police, which is not part of the countywide narcotics task force, was not present for a recent discussion between the sheriff and the chiefs.

Looking for a killer

In the meantime, investigators are still trying to find those responsible for Gabriel Salgado’s murder. On Nov. 17, the teen had finished a game of football with some friends at Oceano Elementary School and walked two blocks to a relative’s house.

He was standing outside when a vehicle drove past and someone fired shots at the group. Salgado was struck. He died early the next morning. A 14-year-old boy was shot in the leg but survived.

The shooting shocked many local residents, who describe Oceano as a safe, close-knit community. One of Gabriel’s aunts, who asked not to be identified, said she grew up in Oceano and believes gang activity is not prevalent there.

Now, she feels tense and on edge.

“At darkness, everyone is a suspect,” she said, adding that she is scared to drive around town at night. “It just haunts me.”

Where gang cases have happened

The county District Attorney’s Office has handled more than 130 gang-related cases in the past three years. Here are the areas from which those cases stemmed.

2009

Atascadero police: 4

California Men’s Colony: 18

Grover Beach police: 3

Paso Robles police: 5

San Luis Obispo police: 2

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office: 24*

Total: 56

2010

Arroyo Grande police: 3

Atascadero police: 12

California Men’s Colony: 20

Morro Bay police: 1

Probation Department: 1

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office: 23

Total: 60

2011 (January – September)

Grover Beach police: 2

Paso Robles police: 9

San Luis Obispo County

Sheriff’s Office: 21

Total: 32

*This number reflects crimes that happen in any of the county’s unincorporated areas. A breakdown of where the crimes occurred was not immediately available.

Source: San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office

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