Gang silence

A local teenager shot on the streets won’t discuss it for fear of being labeled a snitch. It’s a tendency that’s all too common.

Photo Illustration by Larry Dalton and David Jayne

The California Access to Recovery Effort offers Sacramento youths ages 12 to 20 free drug/alcohol counseling and gang-prevention strategies through organizations like The Effort. Call (866) 350-8773.

Some of the most tragic stories of violence in South Sacramento involve youths who refuse to participate in police investigations that could lead to convictions for their attackers. They’re afraid that talking to anyone, including police officers and journalists, could identify them as snitches and lead to retaliation against them and their families. Even the fear of being shunned by lifelong friends can be enough to keep a kid quiet—even a kid who’s been shot.

Sgt. Terrell Marshall, spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, said, “When you talk about individuals with irresponsible lifestyles, that’s common.”

One such victim is a 17-year-old man who was shot twice while walking along 15th Avenue a few blocks east of Stockton Boulevard about two months ago. According to Marshall, the young man had approached a car and had turned to run when one of the two men in the car shot at him, striking him once in the leg and once in the back, damaging his spine. The victim, whom we’ll call Anthony, has been hospitalized ever since, going through painful therapy to learn how to face the future from a wheelchair, without the use of his legs, which are still in constant pain from nerve damage. Anthony chose not to answer SN&R’s questions regarding the shooting. He is not being identified by name because he is a minor.

“It looks like it was gang-related,” said Marshall. Anthony did have gang ties, family members confirmed, and was on juvenile probation at the time of the shooting.

“He wasn’t very cooperative with the police,” Marshall said. “He didn’t want the police’s help.” Though Anthony wouldn’t speak to the police, other witnesses did, and two suspects are now in custody.

The victim’s mother, Nadine, a single mom with four children, recently had moved her kids out of Oak Park and away from lifelong family friends—some of whom were dangerous. Her oldest son recently had been in trouble for running away, but Anthony was doing well in their quiet new neighborhood, she said, right up until he got shot.

“He don’t wear the colors. He don’t throw up gang signs,” she said. “He was doing good at school, was respectful when he was at home.”

Nadine (whose real name has been changed to protect her identity) missed weeks of work while her son slowly recovered after the shooting, and now she faces more time off while caring for him. In-Home Support Services will pay her a flat $9.50 an hour to look after him herself, but only for four hours a day.

Nadine was barely getting by before the shooting. She was working full time but had no health insurance and hadn’t yet cleared the 90-day probation at her new job. She’s now desperate to receive help from organizations like California’s Victim Compensation Program. She needs to make Anthony’s bathroom wheelchair accessible, she said. Her car just broke down, and she needs to build a ramp to get the wheelchair up the steps and into the house. She already hurt her own back trying to lift it during Anthony’s first home visit.

From July 2005 through April 2006, more than $52 million was paid to California victims and witnesses, but 13 percent of claims were denied, and Nadine fears that hers will be one of those. Because her son was affiliated with a gang, she fears he’ll be considered responsible for events leading up to the crime. She also fears that his reluctance to speak to law enforcement will be interpreted as “not cooperating reasonably with a law-enforcement agency in the apprehension and conviction of a criminal.” Both of these issues could make him ineligible for state funds. Other options for support, including restitution, may not cover his medical needs.

Police departments don’t necessarily suffer when gang members won’t talk, said Marshall, but it often takes longer to find their attackers. The longer the perpetrators are free, the more likely the cycle of retaliation will continue.

Richard “Trino” Savala, formerly a professional boxer turned prison gangster, went straight in 2000. Now he tries to teach kids to stay away from gangs.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Some witnesses came forward, and we were able to identify and arrest the [two suspects],” said Marshall, but he also claimed that gang-intervention teams are always monitoring “street intelligence,” visiting neighborhoods where gang members live and reading local graffiti for signs of coming trouble.

Putting suspects in jail quickly is one of the ways law enforcement stops the cycle of shootings, which often involve innocent people. “All they care about is hitting the intended target,” said Marshall. “They may be victims one day, but the next day, they can end up being suspects.”

Richard “Trino” Savala, a gang/alcohol and substance-abuse prevention and intervention specialist with The Effort, was very close to this case and was helpful in identifying the suspects. “The thing is,” he said, “I’m never for adults shooting kids.” The suspects are both men in their mid-20s.

Working with young people through schools and at the local Boys & Girls Clubs, Savala has heard kids say that they join gangs for the money, the prestige and the power, but also for a sense of family, of belonging.

“The thing is you got a generation of children coming up, parents on drugs, on probation. Kids continue that cycle,” said Savala.

Savala, who went from professional boxer to drug addict to prison gangster in his own youth, went straight in 2000 and now tries to teach adolescents to envision the future that civil-rights leaders envisioned for them. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez were trying to bring their people up, Savala tells his kids. “Their causes weren’t for their people to extinguish each other.”

The problem, said Savala, is that there are only a small number of gang-prevention counselors in town who are familiar with thug life. And there isn’t enough money for kids’ programs. The Boys & Girls Clubs that have opened on Lemon Hill and downtown are always packed, said Savala. They should be built in every neighborhood in the city.

“We’ve got these little gangbangers,” said Savala. “We turn their lives around.”

If the community’s going to stop future shootings, future spikes in violent crimes against kids, Savala says, past criminals—guys who’ve turned their backs on their own gangs—have to come out and explain why.

“There are only a handful of us out here. About four of us. It’s hard. … There’s more bad education out there than good education,” he said. “Every time we save one kid, they’re pulling six or seven in.”

Savala remembers when other people’s fathers used to come pluck the potential troublemakers off the street and take them to the Police Athletic League to box, or to play football and baseball.

“We don’t have these kinds of men anymore,” said Savala. “Remember sleepovers? People don’t do that anymore.”

For kids to envision a life outside of prison and without the constant threat of violence, they need to interact with reformed men who are quietly raising their own families, said Savala. They won’t necessarily trust someone who’s always been law-abiding. “We lack gang counselors with gang experience.”

Savala said that if we’re going to stop the recent cycle of retaliation, we need to stretch a big banner over Sacramento: “Calling old gangsters. … Why don’t you guys wake up, get off your ass, come down here and make a difference?”