Second Saturday’s second chance

Art walk warms up with a few changes. But Zavala’s murder is still unsolved.

Tara Golden, with Midtown’s Lavender Angels, says Second Saturdays have settled down. But warm weather is coming.

Tara Golden, with Midtown’s Lavender Angels, says Second Saturdays have settled down. But warm weather is coming.

Photo By Ryan donahue

It began as too many violent gang confrontations do in Sacramento: Rival set names are shouted out, words of menacing bravado are exchanged and guns are drawn. After the bullets stopped flying that September night, four bodies had hit the pavement amid throngs of people standing outside Streets of London on J Street. Caught in the deadly crossfire was a 24-year-old Sacramento City College student named Victor Hugo Perez Zavala.

His senseless death—just two hours after another successful Second Saturday art walk sucked hundreds of art enthusiasts, diners and partiers to the ringing cash registers of Midtown—cast a pall on arguably the city’s most identifiable event.

Nine months later, the first warm-weather Second Saturday event of the year is approaching—with earlier hours and modified vendor qualifications. But with few additional security measures.

The murder of Zavala, meanwhile, remains unsolved, despite hundreds of potential eyewitnesses, and despite the fact that one of the three surviving victims is an identified gang member who was the intended target that night.

“It’s really surprising to us,” said Ricardo Perez Zavala of his older brother’s unsolved murder. “The main goal for us is catching the person responsible for Hugo’s death.”

In a county where gang violence is a weekly occurrence, that has proven trickier than you’d think. “Partly it’s a gang shooting, which is more difficult [to solve] because people don’t want to talk,” explained Sgt. Norm Leong, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department. “Homicides are difficult in general.”

Without fresh leads or new witnesses coming forward, detectives have turned their attentions to recent cases, but would pursue a credible tip if one were to be offered, Leong added. “We’re waiting for something to break.”

While detectives hit investigative dead ends, city officials and community leaders were struggling with questions over last fall’s deadly gun battle—just as Second Saturday slipped into its regularly scheduled winter hibernation.

Local business representatives and law-enforcement officials said it was unfair to pin a brazen gang shooting on an art walk that ended two hours prior, while others contended Zavala’s death was just the latest, most alarming example that Second Saturday had grown too large and uncontrollable.

One of those people is Travis Silcox, a Sacramento City College English professor. Zavala was in his composition class.

Silcox is sharply critical of the city’s efforts to contain Second Saturday both before and since the shooting, suggesting only superficial changes have been made and that local businesses are more interested in making money than protecting those who flock to downtown during and after the art walks.

“They need to take responsibility that Hugo died just hanging out on J Street,” she said. “The downtown business community wants Second Saturday to go at all costs, and the cost was Hugo’s life.”

The most significant change—beginning and ending the art walk two hours earlier, from 4 to 8 p.m.—was introduced in April during the kickoff to the art walk’s 2011 season. Organizers have also fine-tuned the requirements for being able to operate booths, essentially restricting them to vendors who traffic in handmade goods.

Aja Uranga-Foster, assistant director of the Midtown Business Association, says the changes made this year to Second Saturday are “not at all related to the shooting,” but have been in the works since before last spring and were slow to take hold because of a slow-moving city government and ongoing dickering between business and residential interests. “The whole gang thing is a freaky, separate issue,” she claimed.

Leong said plainclothes gang unit officers occasionally take in Second Saturdays to check crowds for identifiable gang members. But for the most part, the challenge of maintaining order at the art walks belongs to around a dozen cops from entertainment, mounted and problem-oriented policing divisions, a third of whom the Midtown Business Association pays for, Uranga-Foster pointed out.

As Second Saturdays have grown in popularity and attendance, the number of officers assigned to the event has remained the same.

“We’ve maintained what we’ve always had,” Leong confirmed.

But is it enough? And what if targeted budget cuts eliminate the department’s specialty divisions, including the entire gang unit? Who will patrol the art walk then?

With two Second Saturdays in the books this season, Tara Golden has noticed the improvements. Golden is a member of the Lavender Angels, a local neighborhood-watch organization that patrols the city’s famed Lavender District from I Street to Capitol Avenue between 17th and 24th streets.

Golden says the earlier start and end times for the monthly art walks have resulted in a large family atmosphere early and less friction with the night-life crowd.

“There isn’t that clash between the family and the club crowd. There’s a little break between the two,” she said. “I think the whole feeling out here has improved over the past couple of months.”

Both Uranga-Foster and Silcox point out that the crowds were lacking the past two months due to the stubbornly cool weather.

Even with the subdued crowds, the past two Second Saturdays haven’t been completely free of after-hours trouble. A review of the department’s online activity logs reveals officers responding to a number of complaints in the hours following the past two art walks.

In April, police responded to three separate disturbances in the space of an hour, including a raucous house party in the 1100 block of 23rd Street where a fight spilled out into the street. There were also complaints at two Midtown businesses: one regarding a subject who attacked two patrons at a K Street bar, and a reported altercation at a 15th Street business involving a man who was hit over the right eye with a bottle for grabbing female patrons.

“We will see [in June] when the weather’s nice if the gang problem is under control,” Silcox said.

The looming budget cuts present their own stark possibilities. Both Leong and Golden say violent crime could surge if proposed budget cuts to the department are enacted. With a tentative proposal to slash $12 million from police coffers, the department could see a reduction of 80 sworn officers. Leong says that would mean the elimination the very cops who now patrol Second Saturdays.

“If the budget cuts happen as they’re planned, we won’t have a [problem-oriented policing] team, we won’t have a gang unit … we won’t have any special resources anymore to pull from,” Leong asserted.

Golden is already planning for that day, saying the Lavender Angels would prioritize community training, “target hardening” and citizen reporting.

“Maybe we can fill in some of the gap some way,” she offered. “I don’t know.”

The well-being of Second Saturday isn’t important to Zavala’s grieving family.

By all accounts, the oldest of six siblings was a loyal, responsible individual who balanced school, work and community outreach as a founding member of Sac City’s Brown Issues club.

It’s a stinging irony that one of Zavala’s foremost goals within the group was reaching out to young people who might be tempted or afflicted by the gangster lifestyle.

“He witnessed it and he wanted to do something about it,” said Manuel Favela, a UC Riverside student who became friends with Zavala as a fellow club member. “Young men really [responded] to Hugo.”

Silcox believes Second Saturday should be discontinued or limited if the police department budget is slashed, while those who run businesses in Midtown are waiting to gauge the long-term effects of the event’s earlier hours.

“Everyone’s in agreement that if it sucks and doesn’t work this summer, we’ll change it next year,” Uranga-Foster said. “A lot of businesses count on Second Saturdays as a [financial] center point of their month.”