The new face of Sacramento gangs
The next generation of gangbangers: out of control or overhyped?
Luis “Freddie” Serrato still wakes up some nights seized with a cold panic. In his disoriented mind, he’s back inside a 6-by-10 tomb, his life ebbing away moment by miserable moment for a murder he didn’t commit.
“Sometimes I wake up sweating, thinking I’m in jail,” the 21-year-old tells SN&R.
The night terrors are easy to understand when you consider Serrato spent the past three years of his life trapped in the 100th pod of Sacramento County’s Main Jail as his gang trial limped to an uncertain conclusion.
In March, a jury acquitted Serrato of any involvement in the May 2008 shooting that left one dead in the parking lot of a Marconi Avenue liquor store. But the soft-spoken Serrato has struggled to piece his life back together—living in a surreal limbo that’s both nightmare and memory, packed into his psyche like existential dynamite.
The legacy of growing up brown in a color-tripping neighborhood continues to haunt Serrato. Life in a jail cell with real gang members has left him in a state of constant shock, and a lifelong dream of joining the military has suffered multiple setbacks due to his rap sheet.
Serrato’s tale also exposes the troubles local law enforcement has dealing with a mutating gang culture they say is growing in size and violence. Consider them the YouTube generation of gangsterism: Brazen, self-aggrandizing and primed for mayhem.
The kids are not all right
Even those who think Sacramento’s gang problem is exaggerated acknowledge a troubling ruthlessness in the new breed.
“The total number [of gangs] is not as great as it used to be, but you’re developing a real hard-core gang element that is scarier than it used to be,” says James Hernandez, a Sacramento State University criminal-justice professor who has studied California street gangs for more than 25 years. They’re “more independent, not really tied into north or south, Crips or Bloods. … And some of them are extremely problematic.”
Despite an overall drop in violent crime, gang-related incidents rose 55 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the Sacramento Police Department. This year, thus far, the department has recorded 1,954 gang-related calls for service. There were 2,944 total in 2010.
Countywide, law-enforcement officials say there are as many as 10,000 “validated” gang members, affiliated with approximately 100 different gang sets.
Retaliation against real and perceived enemies drives the bulk of violent gang cases that come across Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Solomon’s desk. A recent case involved two Sureño gang members who followed a suspected Norteño gangbanger from a gas station to an apartment complex and opened fire, hitting the man’s father-in-law. Solomon, who supervises his office’s gangs and hate crimes unit, says the pair’s explanation was that a good friend had been jumped by a Norteño gang member the day before, and that their prey looked like that person.
“A significant portion (of our cases) are based on ongoing conflicts between groups,” Solomon explains, adding that law enforcement agencies—the first line of defense—“spend a lot of time just trying to squash that.”
Their results are mixed, with recent reports offering a grisly snapshot.
In April, sheriff’s authorities arrested fugitive Larry Dean Jones, 29, for participating in the December 2010 gang shootout at a Stockton Boulevard barbershop that killed bystander Monique Nelson. Nelson was killed after she draped her body over her infant son, who escaped uninjured.
Late last month, five Sacramento County men were arraigned in Amador Superior Court on gang-enhanced murder charges following a September 27 gunfight at a marijuana grow on Carbondale Road. One of the site’s operators, 45-year-old He Ting Fuman, died from a bullet to the throat.
And on October 11, a Sacramento Superior Court judge handed down life sentences to James Riggins, a validated member of the Varrio Diamond Norteños, and two accomplices in the shooting deaths of two men and the attempted murder of another. Riggins had purportedly targeted the victims for reporting previous assaults by his gang, including a drive-by shooting at their house.
“It is totally out of control,” laments Keith Staten, a veteran criminal-defense attorney. “We’re losing guys at a tremendous rate.”
They’re victims of an ethnic gang war being played out in the neighborhoods, communities and on the streets of Sacramento. It’s a very real campaign against a very old problem, and the authorities agree on one thing and one thing only: The kids are not all right.
Veteran Sacramento cop Ron Aurich first remembers hearing the word Crips during a routine patrol in 1976. The term was a curious descendant of “baby cribs,” signifying a hard-turning youth revolt of sorts from the radical community activism of the previous decade. The violent deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Bunchy Carter—who brought the Black Panthers to Los Angeles—left the ongoing struggle for social equality without its influential fathers. Hernandez says prison gangs provided a leadership the communities suddenly lacked, and the movement’s orphans filled the vacuum with self-directed aggression and tunnel-visioned priorities.
“Most of the gangs were born out of the demise of those parties,” says Cle “Bone” Sloan, a former member of the Athens Park Bloods, in his 2006 documentary Bastards of the Party. “So out of the ashes of the Black Panther Party came, you know, gangs, Crips, Bloods, etc.”
But it was Latinos, not African-Americans, who were at the center of the emerging gang culture in Sacramento, recalls Aurich, now with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
The issue was so ethnically specific that in 1982, something called the Mayor’s Hispanic Organization was tasked with addressing the gang-related shootings in and around Miller Park. Two years later, the police department launched its gang unit, of which Aurich was an early member.
“The main thing was to stop the violence,” Aurich says, and that meant pulling thugs off the street to calm tensions, even if the arrests wouldn’t be prosecuted.
Two warring Latino families were responsible for much of the violence back then, Aurich recollects. The feud was so long-standing that investigators would have to date the bullet holes at neighborhood crime scenes “to tell which ones were the new ones,” he says.
“[It was] real Hatfield-McCoy’s,” adds sheriff’s department spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos, a six-year veteran of his agency’s gang unit.
Those early squabbles were primarily over turf. Then, the rock-cocaine epidemic of the ’80s attracted out-of-town elements looking to control Sacramento’s untapped narcotics market. Among them were entrepreneurial Crips emboldened by their rise to power in L.A. During the 1990s, local law enforcement spent its growing resources targeting gangs and their leaders. But the pendulum ultimately swung the other direction.
“They were evolving faster than we were evolving,” Aurich admits. “All we were doing was putting out fires.”
And now, a new generation of gangbanger has emerged. Authorities on the subject use the term “hybrid” to describe the smaller, less organized and more indiscriminate factions. “There’s no real sense anymore of someone running a pyramid scheme or something with any organizational structure to it,” observes Michael Wise, the defense attorney who represented Serrato.
“They fear the police less now,” adds Aurich.
Those lessons have been hard-learned.
Ramos lost his partner during a routine gang patrol through south Sacramento in December 2007. Detective Vu Nguyen, 37, chased a fleeing teen over fences and through backyards before suffering a fatal gunshot wound to the neck, media reports state. Authorities later arrested a then-16-year-old member of an Asian gang for the murder.
Earlier this month, a Yolo County jury convicted Marco Antonio Topete, 39, of gunning down the sheriff’s deputy who attempted to pull him over for drinking and driving while his 4-month-old daughter was in the car. The jury also found that the two-strike felon committed the murder while an active gang member, adding time to his sentence.
“It is a form of domestic terrorism,” says Chris Starr, an officer who specialized in Asian gangs while with the police department’s now-dissolved gang unit.
Dolphins in the net
Staten was already an adult when the Blood-Crip feud reached full boil in the 1980s. He flirted with neighborhood cliques in his youth, and has become intimately acquainted with the descendants of the gang culture throughout his past 19 years as a criminal-defense attorney.
“I’ve seen the sons and the fathers,” remarks Staten. Law-enforcement officials confirm there’s a generational legacy that gets passed on from gangbanger to gangbanger. They estimate we’re seeing the third generation of Hispanic gangs in Sacramento, the second generation of black gangs and just now approaching the second generation of Asian gangs.
The splinter groups started peeling off around the late ’90s. It’s a practice more common among African-American gangs than Hispanic or Asian ones, believes Solomon. “There are little cliques that pop up daily, little splinter groups that aren’t claiming red or blue like they used to,” he says.
“There is no allegiance anymore. Everyone is a leader. Everyone is doing work,” adds Staten, currently representing accused members of a Del Paso Heights Bloods offshoot, Killa Mobb (short for “money over broke bitches”), in relation to a 2008 shootout with members of Fourth Avenue Bloods. “When they get small, they get dangerous because they’re trying to do more and more crime to get on the map.”
Depending on whom you ask, Sacramento’s gang problem is either underreported or vastly overblown.
“A lot of the gang culture, it’s a creation of the district attorney’s office,” asserts Hernandez, who has challenged DA’s offices in Sacramento, Sutter and Yolo counties, among others. He says law-enforcement agencies have grown overzealous in applying gang validation criteria that lead to sentence-doubling enhancement charges, “particularly if you’re Mexican.”
Staten agrees, calling the validation process “vague” and overused, with local authorities needing only two items from a list of 11 to validate someone as an official gang member.
The list isn’t public, but law-enforcement officials and defense attorneys say such things as tattoos, clothing, hand signals and evidence of consorting with other gang members are on it. The validation subject needn’t have committed a crime, either. If a law-enforcement officer comes into contact with a subject and identifies two validation items from the list, that’s enough to get the person entered into a validated gang member database for the next few years.
“You’re always going to have dolphins in the net,” argues Staten.
Ramos defends the two-item minimum as an “insurance policy” to back up the primary support for validation.
“It’s more than one thing,” he says. “It’s a pattern.”
Solomon disputes that gang enhancements are overused, saying there is a large number of cases—especially narcotics cases—where gang enhancements aren’t added by prosecutors. “There are a ton of crimes that gang members commit that we don’t feel are for the benefit of the gang,” he says.
According to Wise, a former prosecutor himself, the benefits of a gang enhancement are many for the DA’s office. Aside from the stiffer sentencing penalties, prosecutors are able to introduce a defendant’s prior conduct and the conduct of the gang he’s being associated with.
“It really allows the district attorney’s office to dirty up the defendant in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” Wise says.
Hernandez says another factor motivating law-enforcement agencies to exaggerate the gang problem is the grant money that’s available for gang units.
With all the alarming, media-hyped violence, the cold, hard forgotten fact is that violent-crime rates have actually been decreasing over the past several years, according to both FBI and local police statistics. Critics say law-enforcement agencies gloss over this or massage new statistics as cash-strapped municipalities look for places to cut.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was recently awarded an $11.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Justice. The money will restore 25 deputy positions specifically intended to combat youth and gang-violence issues, the department announced. It was the largest award in the nation to come from the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program Grant. The Sacramento Police Department received $8.1 million from the same DOJ grant, which it intends to use to hire back 25 laid-off officers. In August, the department also reveived $370,000 in gang-intervention funds from the state.
During a well-attended community forum in February, Sheriff Scott Jones declared youth and gang violence the county’s biggest problem, a message he said he took to council members Doris Matsui and Dan Lungren during a Washington, D.C., trip intended to cajole federal funding. In a department-issued news release announcing the COPS grant last month, Jones thanked both members of Congress for their support.
“Everything in life is timing,” says Wise, the Sacramento defense attorney who represented Serrato and now employs him as an office assistant.
It’s a demented irony, then, that it was a pair of happy cultural occasions that brought Serrato and Pedro Meza to the Marconi Avenue liquor store where their lives would unravel. It was the evening of May 5, 2008—Cinco de Mayo—and the two friends were coming from a quinceañera ball practice looking to keep the good vibes going.
“What do Mexicans do on Cinco de Mayo?” Serrato quips.
The two men bought a couple of 32-ounce beers and swishers, flirted with some female patrons and exited the store. But before they could find a place to pop their Coronas, Serrato and Meza were confronted in the parking lot by a group of individuals that had been tossed out of a local bingo parlor earlier that day for causing a drunken disturbance, Wise says. One of the individuals was Johnny Brinsfield—loaded on alcohol and methamphetamine—who tried to rope the men into a fight. Serrato and Meza jumped into the Nissan 300ZX Serrato had borrowed from his sister and attempted to bolt. A faulty transmission kept the car chugging as Brinsfield, Anthony Amaro and David Hernandez tossed objects and epithets from their Honda Civic, parked one space away. Brinsfield reached for something. Meza, seated in the passenger seat, pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his waistband.
Serrato says he never saw the shots, just heard the quick succession of cracks. Thinking he and Meza were under fire, Serrato ducked his head as he jerked the car into reverse and turned toward the exit. He never saw his buddy throw the shot that spat through the Civic’s front passenger seat into Brinsfield’s torso and bled him out.
A couple of days later, Serrato heard about his friend’s arrest and decided to turn himself in. In the interrogation room, Serrato was offered a soda. Then he was grilled.
“They threw so many lies at me trying to make me say I did it,” Serrato recalls.
That included saying Meza had fingered him as the shooter, in an apparent attempt to get Serrato to flip on his buddy. Serrato never asked for a lawyer and admitted his brief tenure with a neighborhood gang. He was charged with murder and three counts of attempted murder, which prosecutors argued was committed for the benefit of a Sureño street gang, which would have added another 25 years to any possible sentence.
“The DA’s argument was that he backed up the car to facilitate the shooting,” Wise says. Without the gang allegation, Serrato goes from being an accomplice in a gang-related shooting, to being a bystander who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. “There would have been no theory to include him in that case without the enhancement.”
Serrato spent three years in county jail as his trial unfolded. Two of those years he was housed with Sureño gang members who told him who to talk to, what to wear and how often to work out (twice a day). Seeing other inmates with parallel cases break down sobbing, he came to the conclusion that he would spend the rest of his life incarcerated.
Meza was convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder. The jury also found he committed the crimes to benefit the Sureños street gang. But during Serrato’s trial, Meza testified that his friend had nothing to do with the shooting. Wise says that and the prosecution’s flimsy argument that Serrato was still gang-affiliated swayed the jury to acquit him of all charges.
When the not-guilty verdicts were announced, Serrato couldn’t speak. The first thoughts that raced through his rattled head are not what you might expect.
“I didn’t want to go,” Serrato confesses.
Unable to get back into the construction field, Serrato took a job as a legal assistant for his former attorney. The first two weeks Serrato was home, he slept on the floor of his room and left it only for meals. Even now, Serrato avoids going into stores like the one where the shooting occurred. He brightens up only when discussing dreams of military service. Friends tease him from being a gung-ho patriot of Mexican descent. The Army is his last shot at joining America’s gang.
“I want to serve my country,” he says simply. “I know my family is going to be safe because I’m going to be doing my job as an armed-services officer.”
In the meantime, he keeps his head down.
From dropout to mentor
Flirting with gang culture isn’t unusual in many neighborhoods, nor is it unheard of to grow out of it. That’s especially true when there isn’t a legacy to follow or when that legacy stands as a warning, authorities say. A 2007 report on gangs by the Justice Policy Institute states that a “substantial minority of youth goes through a gang phase during adolescence, but most youth quit the gang within the first year.”
Starr experienced that firsthand in the Asian communities he got to know.
“Another dynamic with our gang members is they grow out of it,” he says. “They just move on in their life.”
Like many Southern California Latinos looking for a better life, Serrato’s family made an exodus up north when he was just 4.
The family settled in Del Paso Heights, a reputed haven for various clans. In part mimicking the older kids at Encina High School, who were carving out their own little factions, Serrato joined a neighborhood clique called the Brown Pride Sureños when he was a teenager. But he claims it was little more than a social group that hung out and played basketball after school. “We’re just little kids growing up together and going to classes.”
Then, one day, a drive-by through his neighborhood left bullet holes in his mother’s house. Serrato, then 17, told his buddies he was out. They showed up at his doorstep one night when Serrato was locking the gate, telling him they would need to walk down to the park and make his retirement official. Before Serrato got a few steps down the sidewalk, his buddies converged and throttled him as his mother watched in the doorway. The beating brought a sense of relief.
“I told my mom, ‘Don’t worry anymore. I’m out,’” Serrato recalls. After Brinsfield’s murder, prosecutors would argue the Serrato never really left the gang life.
One former Hispanic gang member who spoke on condition of anonymity says it was his father’s war stories about being a heroin-addicted gangbanger that helped steer him away from the life. In high school, the young man’s mother threw away all his red T-shirts.
“The music I listen to will still be gang-affiliated,” the man says, but he’s now enrolled at a university and helping others like him.
“We may be able to use them as a resource down the line,” Starr says of dropouts.
Staten takes that hope to juvenile hall and the county jail, where he preaches lessons absorbed after two decades in the game, even to those written off by the justice system. One of his more recent pupils is the purported leader of the Killa Mobb, a 20-year-old who’s looking at spending the rest of his life behind bars for a 2008 gas-station shooting. Staten says he finally got the young man to read a copy of Malcolm X’s biography.
“I know I can’t stop them,” he admits. “Even though the system is going to do what it’s going to do, these are still people who have to learn how to live. I believe in redemption.”
Others are less optimistic, saying the gangster lifestyle will always appeal to a certain subset of youth, like baseball or lacrosse.
Ramos pulls out his cellphone and shows a picture of a smiling Hispanic boy of about 3 or 4 with his shirt off. Someone used a magic marker to draw gang “tats” over his small, skinny torso and the kid was throwing up gang signs with expert dexterity. “What chance does this kid have?” Ramos sighs.
When the historians wonder what happened to all those ’bangers that came of age during the ultra-violent ’90s, the answer is surprisingly pedestrian: They had kids.
And in the manner that this particular generation has embraced a certain culture of chaos—their still-forming brains and jacked hormones looking for excuses to unstrap their nines and test their mettle—Ramos likens law enforcement’s role to fighting the tide from coming in.
“This is a totally new animal,” agrees Hernandez. “But if you just arrest them and put them in jail, you end up creating more gangs.”
Call it the circle of strife.