As the 14-year-old victim of last week's gang-related shooting slowly recovers from his near-fatal wounds at the Ventura County Medical Center, authorities agree that an ominous threshold in gang violence has been crossed.
"The trend of these kids using guns is the scary issue," says Ventura Police Sgt. Bob Anderson, who works gang detail and says teen-age violence is escalating throughout Ventura County. "They've graduated from fists to knives to guns."
The shooting victim, Anthony Ortega, a Ventura High School freshman, was gunned down March 29 at 2 p.m.--allegedly by members of a Santa Paula youth gang--as he and a friend walked down Main Street in Ventura.
Ventura police do not know whether Anthony was a gang member, but say that he dressed like one and that his friend was an associate of a Ventura gang called "Da Boys." Anthony's mother and teachers, however, say he was a good boy who got caught in a bad place at the wrong time.
"My son was an innocent bystander," says Ramona Ortega. "You try so hard to send your kids to school, to give them a good life, and somebody comes and takes that away. I want to see them punished for what they did to my son."
Thomas Temprano, the assistant principal at Ventura High School, says the Santa Paula gang may have mistaken Ortega for a Ventura gang member because he and many others often dressed in baseball caps and athletic jackets, the garb adopted by Ventura gang members.
However, Anthony "was just a regular kid. His name has never been written on the wall," Temprano says, referring to the gang practice of emblazoning members' names in graffiti.
Law enforcement and school authorities say they hope last week's shooting was an isolated incident. But they blame disintegrating family structure, a desire to copy Los Angeles street gangs and the availability of guns for the rise in gang membership. It affects all stripes, they say, including black gangs, Latino gangs, white "skinhead" gangs and middle-class youth gangs from well-to-do East Ventura and Thousand Oaks neighborhoods.
"We've got kids in half-million-dollar homes getting involved in it. But the parents stick their head in the sand and say, 'My kid couldn't possibly be involved,' " says Santa Paula Police Cmdr. Bob Gonzales, who works with gangs. "I don't care if you live in a $500,000 home, you can still have an esteem problem and want to join a gang."
Gary Creagle, a former Fillmore mayor who owns the gun shop Up in Arms, says California law permits 18-year-olds to purchase shotguns. One must be 21 to purchase a handgun, but, Creagle says, Ventura County's black market makes guns available to anyone.
"You could go to Oxnard and buy a stolen gun today," Creagle says.
The potential for violence was brought home again two days after the Main Street shooting when authorities at Santa Paula Union High School confiscated a stolen .357 Magnum from a 17-year-old junior during an auto shop class.
The youth, who fled when confronted but moments later was tackled by school Principal James Quast, had hidden the unloaded weapon in his waistband and was carrying bullets in his pants pocket, authorities say.
He was suspended pending an expulsion hearing and has been charged with carrying a concealed weapon, Quast says.
Authorities do not believe the incident is related to last Wednesday's shooting.
Meanwhile, two 17-year-olds from Ventura and a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old from Santa Paula were arraigned earlier this week on charges of attempted murder in connection with the shooting of Ortega. All are members of a Santa Paula gang called the 12th Street Crazy Boys, says Police Sgt. Anderson.
One suspect, a Santa Paula High School freshman, was already on suspension at the time of the shooting pending an expulsion hearing, Quast says.
Anthony was shot from a car six times with a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle as he walked down Main Street near Live Oak Drive with another boy and a girl. He suffered internal injuries from wounds in his side, abdomen and buttocks.
Police say a recent confrontation between the Santa Paula and Ventura gangs, in which members lobbed rocks and bottles at each other, may have triggered the incident.
After the shooting, a group of Ventura youths drove to Santa Paula, apparently looking for revenge. Gonzales says they were met by the local police department, warned that reprisals would not be tolerated, and escorted out of town.
"In Ventura, we're looking at a paradise slowly deteriorating," Temprano says in reference to youth gang activities. He adds that Ortega's shooting, however, "caught us a little quicker than we had hoped."
Authorities are quick to say most of the youth gangs in Ventura County do not engage in violent assaults.
'Not a Drug Gang'
"The kids don't want to get involved in a gang war. They don't beat up people, and they're definitely not a drug gang. Their major infraction here has been marking up walls," Temprano says of the Ventura contingent.