Hush

Hush

by Michael Sullivan and D.M. Sordillo
Photos by Scott Alan Mount

Four shot, three dead, all allegedly gang-related. Ventura police are mum but that may be because, so is everyone else.

Since early October, a sort of eerie quiet hangs over Westside Ventura. While it would seem most westside families and business owners keep plugging along with their daily lives, police sirens and crime-scene tape make neighbors unusually uneasy as three recent murders in the area remain unsolved. Even with routine stops, some neighbors seem quick to speculate that police might be investigating yet another homicide, though the shootings receded almost as quickly as they ramped up. Even with the announcement on Wednesday about the arrest of 14 Mexican Mafia-affiliated street gang members due to drug and arms dealing throughout Ventura County, including Ventura, law enforcement officials who led the investigation Operation Supernova could not say those arrested were connected to the recent shootings. Without a clear understanding about the rapid increase in gang-related violence, fear and tension are high among many area residents. And the real culprit that may be preventing these crimes from being solved is the almost tangible fear of retaliation.


The shootings

On July 31, around 10:22 p.m. on the first day of the Ventura County Fair, Gabriel Gutierrez, 18, was gunned down near the railroad tracks and the Ventura River bike trail. Police reported that three teenage Hispanic males had a verbal confrontation inside the fair, which led to a physical confrontation outside the fairgrounds and ended in a fatality. Two were seen fleeing the scene of the crime. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 6, around 7:45 p.m., police received a call about a fight on the 100 block of West Harrison. When police arrived, they found Zachary Lee, 43, resident manager of the Khepera House, a recovery center for alcohol and drug addiction, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. Police reported that Lee had left the house to buy some food when he was confronted by three Hispanic males in their late teens, early 20s. He was shot and left bleeding on the sidewalk. He was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC) and listed in grave condition. Two days later, Lee was taken off life support after being declared brain-dead. Lee’s friends and family currently offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Lee’s killer. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 22, around 9:40 p.m., police received a call about a shooting around Ramona Street and Ventura Avenue. Police found Leonard Lopez, 24, suffering from several gunshot wounds. He was later pronounced dead at VCMC. Police say that a dark-colored SUV occupied by four males stopped near Lopez, and the suspect, a Hispanic male said to be in his early 20s, exited the vehicle and shot the victim. The vehicle fled the area. No arrests have been made.


A memorial for Leonard Lopez at the corner of Ramona Street
and Ventura Avenue stands as a reminder of the recent gang violence.

On Oct. 23, at 11:26 p.m., police received a call that a man had been shot in the 300 block of West Mission Avenue. Police received more calls after the victim left the scene on his bicycle. Police tracked down the 34-year-old man who was later treated at VCMC. His name has been withheld. On Oct. 24, Erik Estrada, 25, of Ventura was taken into custody on South California Street and booked at the county jail for attempted murder and street terrorism in connection to the nonfatal shooting. Police are still investigating a possible second suspect.

In memoriam

When a killer mistakes an innocent victim for his real target, the usual comment is: “They got the wrong guy.”

That’s the current buzz on the streets of Ventura but with a different twist as to the October murders of Lee and Lopez. Those who knew them say they were kind-hearted men who had turned their lives around and were contributing to the betterment of the community. (Friends and family of Gutierrez could not be reached.)

Becca Porter, Lee’s professor at Oxnard College, knew him more than two years. “Zack was on fire to learn and was so supportive of everyone in the program,” she said. “He felt that he had wasted his life until now, and he was ready to go for it.

“All I know is, they shot the wrong guy. Zack probably would have offered to help (his killer) if he thought he could somehow.”

As for Lopez, “Lenny was growing into an amazing young man,” said his godfather, Nick Vargas. “He had just realized that he had choices — that it’s not just about what he was handed in life and that he could choose to do something outside what some others his age accept as the norm.”

“By no means do I pretend to make him out as a saint, but that person of holiness who is within all of us was in him,” he added acknowledging that Lopez had struggled with sobriety. Lopez’s cousin noted in another news story that Lopez had struggled with an addiction to methamphetamine but had been sober for seven months. “Lenny died physically, but a portion of anyone who loved him died, too.”

Apparently, Lopez and Lee knew one another; a friend said they resided in the same house. Police, however, would not comment on where each man lived or whether the killings were related. Patrick Lindsay, one of two Ventura police detectives assigned to the investigation, confirmed the murders were acts of street terrorism but declined to identify the gang or gangs involved.

“Zack was supposedly killed for defending people who lived with him,” Vargas said. “Lenny was also the type of guy who would stick up for his friends. . . . I wonder if the same thing happened to him.”

Khepera House executive director Mick Baer would not say whether Lopez lived at the house but did confirm that Lee — who was to receive his counseling degree in May — was a resident manager.

“Zack was a great asset to our team, always a positive influence and a very gracious person,” said Baer. “I never saw anything negative about him or any indication that he had any kind of gang involvement.”

Melanie Swanson, a friend, said Lee “had just started living.” She said he had recently managed to buy a car and had been reunited with his daughter.

“No one wants the interest to die off before they catch the guy (who killed Lee),” said Swanson, adding that she hopes there will be an increased police presence and that additional safety measures will be taken.

The gang unit

Gang activity in the city has increased since the Ventura Police Department gang unit was disbanded in 2011. In 2012, there was one murder in the city. So far this year, of the five murders, three have been gang-related. When the unit disbanded, five of the seven officers were reassigned to patrol. The other two (Lindsay and his partner, detective Todd Hourigan) moved to the major crimes unit, where they investigate gang-related and other violent crimes.

After the gang unit formed in the 1990s, gang-related violence and crime rates decreased with proactive law enforcement, which included more officers patrolling the streets and officers conducting regular parole and probation searches. Certainly, the presence of the gang unit directly impacted gang activity. Now that the gang unit is no longer, Lindsay said the lack of regular surveillance has been noted by some gang members, which may give them reason to believe they can get away with more.

But gang-related crime waves, he said, also ebb and flow with upcoming generations, those newcomers who want to establish their reputations. Lindsay spoke about general increase in gang activity, especially violent crime. Factors in such violent crime include territorial issues, feeling disrespected, retaliation against rival gangs and members who feel the need to prove themselves and establish their reputations. During initiation, potential gang members are either born in, jumped in or crimed in. If one is crimed in, violent crime may be a part of the activities.

As the community try to make sense of such seemingly senseless violence, others feel there may be other factors at work.

“Gangs are a serious issue, but there is so much more going on than that,” said Porter. She said she considers the recent outbreak of violence in Ventura to be more a widespread societal problem than just a gang issue.

“Across the board, I hear this lack of hope, lack of options,” said Porter, who also counsels incarcerated youth. “The longer you’re in chaos, the more chaos starts to make sense. It becomes normal to you.” Lee, she said, had “broken out of that cycle and committed himself to a new way of life. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy it very long.”

Police have not disclosed whether they suspect that the murders were related. The shootings occurred within four blocks of each other, and the night after Lopez’s killing, a nonfatal shooting happened on the same stretch of road. Because gang members routinely intimidate neighbors/witnesses, business owners, etc., connecting the dots and finding viable witnesses in any case is difficult.

“We encourage people to come forward,” Lindsay said, but he understands that such threats of retaliation may prevent even the most forthcoming person. Lindsay said his best leads usually come from victims and/or their families who are not affiliated with any gang. Nevertheless, while the police can’t offer much protection unless witnesses go into a protection program, Lindsay said that in his years investigating gangs, actual violent retaliation is rare.

 


With the exception of the recent shootings, Ventura generally gives the appearance being rather mild in gang activity. But that just isn’t true. Perhaps these gangs aren’t as violent as gangs in L.A., but they are well-established and they can be dangerous.

Most of them are involved in drug and arms dealing, robberies and other violent crimes.
From east to west, Ventura gangs include:

Eastside Saticoy gang, ESS
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Campanula Avenue, Darling Road, Wells Road and Rosal Lane
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Cabrillo Village in Ventura, sometimes El Rio in Oxnard.

Cabrillo Village, Campo, CV
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: includes 1515 S. Saticoy Ave.; borders are railroad tracks, Saticoy Avenue, Santa Clara River bottom, culvert.
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Saticoy.

Eastside Montalvo, ESM
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Johnson Drive, Bristol Road, Grand Avenue and train tracks.
Ages  12 to 30s
Generally 15-20 active members
Main rivals: all Ventura Hispanic gangs.

Midtown, VMT
Mixed-race gang but operates more like Hispanic street gang, established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are from around the mall, Seaward Avenue, Sanjon Road area, north of railroad
Ages 13-20s
Generally 10-15 active members
Main rival: Pierpont.

Pierpont Gang
Predominantly white, with some Hispanic and black members
Established late 1980s
Territory: parameters are Harbor Boulevard, the beach, San Pedro Street and Marina Park.
Ages 12-20s.
Generally 15 active members
Main rival: Midtown Gang.

Ventura Avenue Gangsters, VAG
Hispanic street gang established in the 1950s
Territory: parameters are the Ventura River, the beach (including fairgrounds), California Street  (downtown area), Dakota Drive
Ages 12-30s
Generally 80-100 active members
Main rivals: Colonia Chicques, COCH, plus other Hispanic street gangs

Hells Angels
Global outlaw motorcycle gang
Primarily white with few Hispanic members
Established Ventura chapter in 1978-79.
Ages 20s-50s
Generally 10 active members though 4,000 worldwide
Criminal organization involved in money laundering, weapons trafficking, intimidation.
Main rival locally is the Mongols, an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Skinhead Dogs
White, ideologically based gang in Ventura and in other cities in the county
Established in early 1990s
Ages 20s-40s
Active members 15-20
Involved in drugs, robberies, weapons dealing, racially motivated crimes.
No main gang rivals.


Oxnard gang violence
Recent shootings remain unsolved

by Chris O’Neal
chris@vcreporter.com

 
Violence nationwide is on the upswing. In October, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey detailing that 26 out of 1,000 people experienced a violent crime, an increase of 15 percent since the year before.

But according to Oxnard Police department spokesman Miguel Lopez, the crime rate in the city is at about the same level as it has been in previous years.

“It’s kind of on average on where we were last year,” said Lopez. “It’s almost 67 percent down from where we had peaked in the not-too-distant past.”

Lopez suggested that due to recent events — such as the six shootings in Oxnard’s La Colonia area over the past month, two of which were homicides — the numbers may seem skewed to show a dramatic increase in crime.

Sgt. Christopher Williams of the Oxnard Police Department’s violent crimes unit said he believes there may be several reasons for the recent spate of violence.

“There are a multitude of reasons for it,” said Williams. “Could be the right people getting out of custody or some sort of beef that occurred while in custody.”

Since the beginning of the year, 11 homicides have occurred in Oxnard. In 2012, the city saw 12. Only three of the 2013 cases have been closed.

Detective Sgt. Alex Arnett has no reason to believe that the number of violent incidents has changed much since last year.

“I don’t think the numbers show that there has been a huge increase,” said Arnett. “There might be an increase of two or three, but I think it’s just par for the course.”

Arnett recounted the number of gangs in Oxnard and their history of violence, oftentimes the result of a disrespectful gesture.

“If one gang member gets disrespected, say one gang tagged up a particular location in another gang’s territory, there has to be some kind of retaliation,” said Arnett.

As for whether or not there is any correlation between the gang violence on Ventura Avenue in Ventura or not, Arnett is skeptical.

“Historically, the Avenue gang and the Colonia Chiques have never gotten along,” said Arnett. “But because the Avenue is so far off the grid, very rarely does [an incident] happen.”

Arnett, now busier than at any time in recent memory with gang-related violence across the city, doesn’t believe that these events are out of the ordinary.

“I hate to make it sound like things are normal, but violence between humans is never normal,” said Arnett. “When you get a large group of incidents in a short amount of time then, yes, it will make headlines. It sounds like a lot but that’s kind of what happens in the gang lifestyle.”

 

Hush

Hush

by Michael Sullivan and D.M. Sordillo
Photos by Scott Alan Mount

Four shot, three dead, all allegedly gang-related. Ventura police are mum but that may be because, so is everyone else.

Since early October, a sort of eerie quiet hangs over Westside Ventura. While it would seem most westside families and business owners keep plugging along with their daily lives, police sirens and crime-scene tape make neighbors unusually uneasy as three recent murders in the area remain unsolved. Even with routine stops, some neighbors seem quick to speculate that police might be investigating yet another homicide, though the shootings receded almost as quickly as they ramped up. Even with the announcement on Wednesday about the arrest of 14 Mexican Mafia-affiliated street gang members due to drug and arms dealing throughout Ventura County, including Ventura, law enforcement officials who led the investigation Operation Supernova could not say those arrested were connected to the recent shootings. Without a clear understanding about the rapid increase in gang-related violence, fear and tension are high among many area residents. And the real culprit that may be preventing these crimes from being solved is the almost tangible fear of retaliation.


The shootings

On July 31, around 10:22 p.m. on the first day of the Ventura County Fair, Gabriel Gutierrez, 18, was gunned down near the railroad tracks and the Ventura River bike trail. Police reported that three teenage Hispanic males had a verbal confrontation inside the fair, which led to a physical confrontation outside the fairgrounds and ended in a fatality. Two were seen fleeing the scene of the crime. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 6, around 7:45 p.m., police received a call about a fight on the 100 block of West Harrison. When police arrived, they found Zachary Lee, 43, resident manager of the Khepera House, a recovery center for alcohol and drug addiction, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. Police reported that Lee had left the house to buy some food when he was confronted by three Hispanic males in their late teens, early 20s. He was shot and left bleeding on the sidewalk. He was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC) and listed in grave condition. Two days later, Lee was taken off life support after being declared brain-dead. Lee’s friends and family currently offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Lee’s killer. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 22, around 9:40 p.m., police received a call about a shooting around Ramona Street and Ventura Avenue. Police found Leonard Lopez, 24, suffering from several gunshot wounds. He was later pronounced dead at VCMC. Police say that a dark-colored SUV occupied by four males stopped near Lopez, and the suspect, a Hispanic male said to be in his early 20s, exited the vehicle and shot the victim. The vehicle fled the area. No arrests have been made.


A memorial for Leonard Lopez at the corner of Ramona Street
and Ventura Avenue stands as a reminder of the recent gang violence.

On Oct. 23, at 11:26 p.m., police received a call that a man had been shot in the 300 block of West Mission Avenue. Police received more calls after the victim left the scene on his bicycle. Police tracked down the 34-year-old man who was later treated at VCMC. His name has been withheld. On Oct. 24, Erik Estrada, 25, of Ventura was taken into custody on South California Street and booked at the county jail for attempted murder and street terrorism in connection to the nonfatal shooting. Police are still investigating a possible second suspect.

In memoriam

When a killer mistakes an innocent victim for his real target, the usual comment is: “They got the wrong guy.”

That’s the current buzz on the streets of Ventura but with a different twist as to the October murders of Lee and Lopez. Those who knew them say they were kind-hearted men who had turned their lives around and were contributing to the betterment of the community. (Friends and family of Gutierrez could not be reached.)

Becca Porter, Lee’s professor at Oxnard College, knew him more than two years. “Zack was on fire to learn and was so supportive of everyone in the program,” she said. “He felt that he had wasted his life until now, and he was ready to go for it.

“All I know is, they shot the wrong guy. Zack probably would have offered to help (his killer) if he thought he could somehow.”

As for Lopez, “Lenny was growing into an amazing young man,” said his godfather, Nick Vargas. “He had just realized that he had choices — that it’s not just about what he was handed in life and that he could choose to do something outside what some others his age accept as the norm.”

“By no means do I pretend to make him out as a saint, but that person of holiness who is within all of us was in him,” he added acknowledging that Lopez had struggled with sobriety. Lopez’s cousin noted in another news story that Lopez had struggled with an addiction to methamphetamine but had been sober for seven months. “Lenny died physically, but a portion of anyone who loved him died, too.”

Apparently, Lopez and Lee knew one another; a friend said they resided in the same house. Police, however, would not comment on where each man lived or whether the killings were related. Patrick Lindsay, one of two Ventura police detectives assigned to the investigation, confirmed the murders were acts of street terrorism but declined to identify the gang or gangs involved.

“Zack was supposedly killed for defending people who lived with him,” Vargas said. “Lenny was also the type of guy who would stick up for his friends. . . . I wonder if the same thing happened to him.”

Khepera House executive director Mick Baer would not say whether Lopez lived at the house but did confirm that Lee — who was to receive his counseling degree in May — was a resident manager.

“Zack was a great asset to our team, always a positive influence and a very gracious person,” said Baer. “I never saw anything negative about him or any indication that he had any kind of gang involvement.”

Melanie Swanson, a friend, said Lee “had just started living.” She said he had recently managed to buy a car and had been reunited with his daughter.

“No one wants the interest to die off before they catch the guy (who killed Lee),” said Swanson, adding that she hopes there will be an increased police presence and that additional safety measures will be taken.

The gang unit

Gang activity in the city has increased since the Ventura Police Department gang unit was disbanded in 2011. In 2012, there was one murder in the city. So far this year, of the five murders, three have been gang-related. When the unit disbanded, five of the seven officers were reassigned to patrol. The other two (Lindsay and his partner, detective Todd Hourigan) moved to the major crimes unit, where they investigate gang-related and other violent crimes.

After the gang unit formed in the 1990s, gang-related violence and crime rates decreased with proactive law enforcement, which included more officers patrolling the streets and officers conducting regular parole and probation searches. Certainly, the presence of the gang unit directly impacted gang activity. Now that the gang unit is no longer, Lindsay said the lack of regular surveillance has been noted by some gang members, which may give them reason to believe they can get away with more.

But gang-related crime waves, he said, also ebb and flow with upcoming generations, those newcomers who want to establish their reputations. Lindsay spoke about general increase in gang activity, especially violent crime. Factors in such violent crime include territorial issues, feeling disrespected, retaliation against rival gangs and members who feel the need to prove themselves and establish their reputations. During initiation, potential gang members are either born in, jumped in or crimed in. If one is crimed in, violent crime may be a part of the activities.

As the community try to make sense of such seemingly senseless violence, others feel there may be other factors at work.

“Gangs are a serious issue, but there is so much more going on than that,” said Porter. She said she considers the recent outbreak of violence in Ventura to be more a widespread societal problem than just a gang issue.

“Across the board, I hear this lack of hope, lack of options,” said Porter, who also counsels incarcerated youth. “The longer you’re in chaos, the more chaos starts to make sense. It becomes normal to you.” Lee, she said, had “broken out of that cycle and committed himself to a new way of life. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy it very long.”

Police have not disclosed whether they suspect that the murders were related. The shootings occurred within four blocks of each other, and the night after Lopez’s killing, a nonfatal shooting happened on the same stretch of road. Because gang members routinely intimidate neighbors/witnesses, business owners, etc., connecting the dots and finding viable witnesses in any case is difficult.

“We encourage people to come forward,” Lindsay said, but he understands that such threats of retaliation may prevent even the most forthcoming person. Lindsay said his best leads usually come from victims and/or their families who are not affiliated with any gang. Nevertheless, while the police can’t offer much protection unless witnesses go into a protection program, Lindsay said that in his years investigating gangs, actual violent retaliation is rare.

 


With the exception of the recent shootings, Ventura generally gives the appearance being rather mild in gang activity. But that just isn’t true. Perhaps these gangs aren’t as violent as gangs in L.A., but they are well-established and they can be dangerous.

Most of them are involved in drug and arms dealing, robberies and other violent crimes.
From east to west, Ventura gangs include:

Eastside Saticoy gang, ESS
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Campanula Avenue, Darling Road, Wells Road and Rosal Lane
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Cabrillo Village in Ventura, sometimes El Rio in Oxnard.

Cabrillo Village, Campo, CV
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: includes 1515 S. Saticoy Ave.; borders are railroad tracks, Saticoy Avenue, Santa Clara River bottom, culvert.
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Saticoy.

Eastside Montalvo, ESM
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Johnson Drive, Bristol Road, Grand Avenue and train tracks.
Ages  12 to 30s
Generally 15-20 active members
Main rivals: all Ventura Hispanic gangs.

Midtown, VMT
Mixed-race gang but operates more like Hispanic street gang, established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are from around the mall, Seaward Avenue, Sanjon Road area, north of railroad
Ages 13-20s
Generally 10-15 active members
Main rival: Pierpont.

Pierpont Gang
Predominantly white, with some Hispanic and black members
Established late 1980s
Territory: parameters are Harbor Boulevard, the beach, San Pedro Street and Marina Park.
Ages 12-20s.
Generally 15 active members
Main rival: Midtown Gang.

Ventura Avenue Gangsters, VAG
Hispanic street gang established in the 1950s
Territory: parameters are the Ventura River, the beach (including fairgrounds), California Street  (downtown area), Dakota Drive
Ages 12-30s
Generally 80-100 active members
Main rivals: Colonia Chicques, COCH, plus other Hispanic street gangs

Hells Angels
Global outlaw motorcycle gang
Primarily white with few Hispanic members
Established Ventura chapter in 1978-79.
Ages 20s-50s
Generally 10 active members though 4,000 worldwide
Criminal organization involved in money laundering, weapons trafficking, intimidation.
Main rival locally is the Mongols, an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Skinhead Dogs
White, ideologically based gang in Ventura and in other cities in the county
Established in early 1990s
Ages 20s-40s
Active members 15-20
Involved in drugs, robberies, weapons dealing, racially motivated crimes.
No main gang rivals.


Oxnard gang violence
Recent shootings remain unsolved

by Chris O’Neal
chris@vcreporter.com

 
Violence nationwide is on the upswing. In October, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey detailing that 26 out of 1,000 people experienced a violent crime, an increase of 15 percent since the year before.

But according to Oxnard Police department spokesman Miguel Lopez, the crime rate in the city is at about the same level as it has been in previous years.

“It’s kind of on average on where we were last year,” said Lopez. “It’s almost 67 percent down from where we had peaked in the not-too-distant past.”

Lopez suggested that due to recent events — such as the six shootings in Oxnard’s La Colonia area over the past month, two of which were homicides — the numbers may seem skewed to show a dramatic increase in crime.

Sgt. Christopher Williams of the Oxnard Police Department’s violent crimes unit said he believes there may be several reasons for the recent spate of violence.

“There are a multitude of reasons for it,” said Williams. “Could be the right people getting out of custody or some sort of beef that occurred while in custody.”

Since the beginning of the year, 11 homicides have occurred in Oxnard. In 2012, the city saw 12. Only three of the 2013 cases have been closed.

Detective Sgt. Alex Arnett has no reason to believe that the number of violent incidents has changed much since last year.

“I don’t think the numbers show that there has been a huge increase,” said Arnett. “There might be an increase of two or three, but I think it’s just par for the course.”

Arnett recounted the number of gangs in Oxnard and their history of violence, oftentimes the result of a disrespectful gesture.

“If one gang member gets disrespected, say one gang tagged up a particular location in another gang’s territory, there has to be some kind of retaliation,” said Arnett.

As for whether or not there is any correlation between the gang violence on Ventura Avenue in Ventura or not, Arnett is skeptical.

“Historically, the Avenue gang and the Colonia Chiques have never gotten along,” said Arnett. “But because the Avenue is so far off the grid, very rarely does [an incident] happen.”

Arnett, now busier than at any time in recent memory with gang-related violence across the city, doesn’t believe that these events are out of the ordinary.

“I hate to make it sound like things are normal, but violence between humans is never normal,” said Arnett. “When you get a large group of incidents in a short amount of time then, yes, it will make headlines. It sounds like a lot but that’s kind of what happens in the gang lifestyle.”

 

Hush

Hush

by Michael Sullivan and D.M. Sordillo
Photos by Scott Alan Mount

Four shot, three dead, all allegedly gang-related. Ventura police are mum but that may be because, so is everyone else.

Since early October, a sort of eerie quiet hangs over Westside Ventura. While it would seem most westside families and business owners keep plugging along with their daily lives, police sirens and crime-scene tape make neighbors unusually uneasy as three recent murders in the area remain unsolved. Even with routine stops, some neighbors seem quick to speculate that police might be investigating yet another homicide, though the shootings receded almost as quickly as they ramped up. Even with the announcement on Wednesday about the arrest of 14 Mexican Mafia-affiliated street gang members due to drug and arms dealing throughout Ventura County, including Ventura, law enforcement officials who led the investigation Operation Supernova could not say those arrested were connected to the recent shootings. Without a clear understanding about the rapid increase in gang-related violence, fear and tension are high among many area residents. And the real culprit that may be preventing these crimes from being solved is the almost tangible fear of retaliation.


The shootings

On July 31, around 10:22 p.m. on the first day of the Ventura County Fair, Gabriel Gutierrez, 18, was gunned down near the railroad tracks and the Ventura River bike trail. Police reported that three teenage Hispanic males had a verbal confrontation inside the fair, which led to a physical confrontation outside the fairgrounds and ended in a fatality. Two were seen fleeing the scene of the crime. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 6, around 7:45 p.m., police received a call about a fight on the 100 block of West Harrison. When police arrived, they found Zachary Lee, 43, resident manager of the Khepera House, a recovery center for alcohol and drug addiction, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. Police reported that Lee had left the house to buy some food when he was confronted by three Hispanic males in their late teens, early 20s. He was shot and left bleeding on the sidewalk. He was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC) and listed in grave condition. Two days later, Lee was taken off life support after being declared brain-dead. Lee’s friends and family currently offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Lee’s killer. No arrests have been made.

On Oct. 22, around 9:40 p.m., police received a call about a shooting around Ramona Street and Ventura Avenue. Police found Leonard Lopez, 24, suffering from several gunshot wounds. He was later pronounced dead at VCMC. Police say that a dark-colored SUV occupied by four males stopped near Lopez, and the suspect, a Hispanic male said to be in his early 20s, exited the vehicle and shot the victim. The vehicle fled the area. No arrests have been made.


A memorial for Leonard Lopez at the corner of Ramona Street
and Ventura Avenue stands as a reminder of the recent gang violence.

On Oct. 23, at 11:26 p.m., police received a call that a man had been shot in the 300 block of West Mission Avenue. Police received more calls after the victim left the scene on his bicycle. Police tracked down the 34-year-old man who was later treated at VCMC. His name has been withheld. On Oct. 24, Erik Estrada, 25, of Ventura was taken into custody on South California Street and booked at the county jail for attempted murder and street terrorism in connection to the nonfatal shooting. Police are still investigating a possible second suspect.

In memoriam

When a killer mistakes an innocent victim for his real target, the usual comment is: “They got the wrong guy.”

That’s the current buzz on the streets of Ventura but with a different twist as to the October murders of Lee and Lopez. Those who knew them say they were kind-hearted men who had turned their lives around and were contributing to the betterment of the community. (Friends and family of Gutierrez could not be reached.)

Becca Porter, Lee’s professor at Oxnard College, knew him more than two years. “Zack was on fire to learn and was so supportive of everyone in the program,” she said. “He felt that he had wasted his life until now, and he was ready to go for it.

“All I know is, they shot the wrong guy. Zack probably would have offered to help (his killer) if he thought he could somehow.”

As for Lopez, “Lenny was growing into an amazing young man,” said his godfather, Nick Vargas. “He had just realized that he had choices — that it’s not just about what he was handed in life and that he could choose to do something outside what some others his age accept as the norm.”

“By no means do I pretend to make him out as a saint, but that person of holiness who is within all of us was in him,” he added acknowledging that Lopez had struggled with sobriety. Lopez’s cousin noted in another news story that Lopez had struggled with an addiction to methamphetamine but had been sober for seven months. “Lenny died physically, but a portion of anyone who loved him died, too.”

Apparently, Lopez and Lee knew one another; a friend said they resided in the same house. Police, however, would not comment on where each man lived or whether the killings were related. Patrick Lindsay, one of two Ventura police detectives assigned to the investigation, confirmed the murders were acts of street terrorism but declined to identify the gang or gangs involved.

“Zack was supposedly killed for defending people who lived with him,” Vargas said. “Lenny was also the type of guy who would stick up for his friends. . . . I wonder if the same thing happened to him.”

Khepera House executive director Mick Baer would not say whether Lopez lived at the house but did confirm that Lee — who was to receive his counseling degree in May — was a resident manager.

“Zack was a great asset to our team, always a positive influence and a very gracious person,” said Baer. “I never saw anything negative about him or any indication that he had any kind of gang involvement.”

Melanie Swanson, a friend, said Lee “had just started living.” She said he had recently managed to buy a car and had been reunited with his daughter.

“No one wants the interest to die off before they catch the guy (who killed Lee),” said Swanson, adding that she hopes there will be an increased police presence and that additional safety measures will be taken.

The gang unit

Gang activity in the city has increased since the Ventura Police Department gang unit was disbanded in 2011. In 2012, there was one murder in the city. So far this year, of the five murders, three have been gang-related. When the unit disbanded, five of the seven officers were reassigned to patrol. The other two (Lindsay and his partner, detective Todd Hourigan) moved to the major crimes unit, where they investigate gang-related and other violent crimes.

After the gang unit formed in the 1990s, gang-related violence and crime rates decreased with proactive law enforcement, which included more officers patrolling the streets and officers conducting regular parole and probation searches. Certainly, the presence of the gang unit directly impacted gang activity. Now that the gang unit is no longer, Lindsay said the lack of regular surveillance has been noted by some gang members, which may give them reason to believe they can get away with more.

But gang-related crime waves, he said, also ebb and flow with upcoming generations, those newcomers who want to establish their reputations. Lindsay spoke about general increase in gang activity, especially violent crime. Factors in such violent crime include territorial issues, feeling disrespected, retaliation against rival gangs and members who feel the need to prove themselves and establish their reputations. During initiation, potential gang members are either born in, jumped in or crimed in. If one is crimed in, violent crime may be a part of the activities.

As the community try to make sense of such seemingly senseless violence, others feel there may be other factors at work.

“Gangs are a serious issue, but there is so much more going on than that,” said Porter. She said she considers the recent outbreak of violence in Ventura to be more a widespread societal problem than just a gang issue.

“Across the board, I hear this lack of hope, lack of options,” said Porter, who also counsels incarcerated youth. “The longer you’re in chaos, the more chaos starts to make sense. It becomes normal to you.” Lee, she said, had “broken out of that cycle and committed himself to a new way of life. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy it very long.”

Police have not disclosed whether they suspect that the murders were related. The shootings occurred within four blocks of each other, and the night after Lopez’s killing, a nonfatal shooting happened on the same stretch of road. Because gang members routinely intimidate neighbors/witnesses, business owners, etc., connecting the dots and finding viable witnesses in any case is difficult.

“We encourage people to come forward,” Lindsay said, but he understands that such threats of retaliation may prevent even the most forthcoming person. Lindsay said his best leads usually come from victims and/or their families who are not affiliated with any gang. Nevertheless, while the police can’t offer much protection unless witnesses go into a protection program, Lindsay said that in his years investigating gangs, actual violent retaliation is rare.

 


With the exception of the recent shootings, Ventura generally gives the appearance being rather mild in gang activity. But that just isn’t true. Perhaps these gangs aren’t as violent as gangs in L.A., but they are well-established and they can be dangerous.

Most of them are involved in drug and arms dealing, robberies and other violent crimes.
From east to west, Ventura gangs include:

Eastside Saticoy gang, ESS
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Campanula Avenue, Darling Road, Wells Road and Rosal Lane
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Cabrillo Village in Ventura, sometimes El Rio in Oxnard.

Cabrillo Village, Campo, CV
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: includes 1515 S. Saticoy Ave.; borders are railroad tracks, Saticoy Avenue, Santa Clara River bottom, culvert.
Generally 20-30 active members
Ages 12 to 30s
Main rival is Saticoy.

Eastside Montalvo, ESM
Hispanic street gang established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are Johnson Drive, Bristol Road, Grand Avenue and train tracks.
Ages  12 to 30s
Generally 15-20 active members
Main rivals: all Ventura Hispanic gangs.

Midtown, VMT
Mixed-race gang but operates more like Hispanic street gang, established in the 1980s
Territory: parameters are from around the mall, Seaward Avenue, Sanjon Road area, north of railroad
Ages 13-20s
Generally 10-15 active members
Main rival: Pierpont.

Pierpont Gang
Predominantly white, with some Hispanic and black members
Established late 1980s
Territory: parameters are Harbor Boulevard, the beach, San Pedro Street and Marina Park.
Ages 12-20s.
Generally 15 active members
Main rival: Midtown Gang.

Ventura Avenue Gangsters, VAG
Hispanic street gang established in the 1950s
Territory: parameters are the Ventura River, the beach (including fairgrounds), California Street  (downtown area), Dakota Drive
Ages 12-30s
Generally 80-100 active members
Main rivals: Colonia Chicques, COCH, plus other Hispanic street gangs

Hells Angels
Global outlaw motorcycle gang
Primarily white with few Hispanic members
Established Ventura chapter in 1978-79.
Ages 20s-50s
Generally 10 active members though 4,000 worldwide
Criminal organization involved in money laundering, weapons trafficking, intimidation.
Main rival locally is the Mongols, an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Skinhead Dogs
White, ideologically based gang in Ventura and in other cities in the county
Established in early 1990s
Ages 20s-40s
Active members 15-20
Involved in drugs, robberies, weapons dealing, racially motivated crimes.
No main gang rivals.


Oxnard gang violence
Recent shootings remain unsolved

by Chris O’Neal
chris@vcreporter.com

 
Violence nationwide is on the upswing. In October, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey detailing that 26 out of 1,000 people experienced a violent crime, an increase of 15 percent since the year before.

But according to Oxnard Police department spokesman Miguel Lopez, the crime rate in the city is at about the same level as it has been in previous years.

“It’s kind of on average on where we were last year,” said Lopez. “It’s almost 67 percent down from where we had peaked in the not-too-distant past.”

Lopez suggested that due to recent events — such as the six shootings in Oxnard’s La Colonia area over the past month, two of which were homicides — the numbers may seem skewed to show a dramatic increase in crime.

Sgt. Christopher Williams of the Oxnard Police Department’s violent crimes unit said he believes there may be several reasons for the recent spate of violence.

“There are a multitude of reasons for it,” said Williams. “Could be the right people getting out of custody or some sort of beef that occurred while in custody.”

Since the beginning of the year, 11 homicides have occurred in Oxnard. In 2012, the city saw 12. Only three of the 2013 cases have been closed.

Detective Sgt. Alex Arnett has no reason to believe that the number of violent incidents has changed much since last year.

“I don’t think the numbers show that there has been a huge increase,” said Arnett. “There might be an increase of two or three, but I think it’s just par for the course.”

Arnett recounted the number of gangs in Oxnard and their history of violence, oftentimes the result of a disrespectful gesture.

“If one gang member gets disrespected, say one gang tagged up a particular location in another gang’s territory, there has to be some kind of retaliation,” said Arnett.

As for whether or not there is any correlation between the gang violence on Ventura Avenue in Ventura or not, Arnett is skeptical.

“Historically, the Avenue gang and the Colonia Chiques have never gotten along,” said Arnett. “But because the Avenue is so far off the grid, very rarely does [an incident] happen.”

Arnett, now busier than at any time in recent memory with gang-related violence across the city, doesn’t believe that these events are out of the ordinary.

“I hate to make it sound like things are normal, but violence between humans is never normal,” said Arnett. “When you get a large group of incidents in a short amount of time then, yes, it will make headlines. It sounds like a lot but that’s kind of what happens in the gang lifestyle.”

 

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