At least seventeen young men have died at the hands of Orange County gang members this year. The oldest was 31, the youngest 15.
Some were gang members slain by rivals. Others were bystanders when gangs ran amok. Police say gang members tend to travel armed, don't always aim well and are profligate with their bullets.
Among the innocent slain this spring was a convenience store customer who accused two gang members of shoplifting. They shot him point blank in the face. A dishwasher was slain when the restaurant where he worked was held up by suspected gang members.
Some of the homicides sparked community outrage and Page 1 stories; these tended to be about young victims who had family and friends to mourn and bury them. But it took only three paragraphs to note the passing of Jesus Perez, a 21-year-old illegal immigrant gunned down in Santa Ana on a Friday night in what has by now become just an ordinary drive-by shooting.
Together, the murders point to a rising level of gang violence in Orange County. Though no exact statistics exist, the district attorney's office believes there were roughly 16 gang-related homicides during all of 1989, and an average of roughly a dozen each year for the preceding three years.
"More and more, you say, 'Who are you with?' and they identify themselves as gang members," said Anaheim Police Sgt. Chet Barry.
Homicide statistics are an imperfect measure of gang activity. Dozens of people have also been shot or stabbed by suspected gang members this year. One of them was 8-year-old Carlos Alvarez, pierced by a stray bullet while watching television in his own living room. The bullet went through Carlos and the wall and injured an aunt who was sleeping in the next room. But because both victims survived, that case will never be classified as a gang-related crime.
Similarly, gang members crashed a party in Anaheim last month and three people were severly stabbed in the resulting melee. One is still in critical condition, Barry said. But those three people, whose names have not been released by police, will be classified simply as assault victims.
As the violence mounts, police and the public quickly lose sight of the humanity of the 17 young men slain in gang-related conflicts this year.
"It's really easy to get hardened and say these (victims) are just gang members . . . or criminals," Garden Grove Police Capt. David Abrecht said. "We lose sight of the fact that this is a bigger problem for our society than we'd like to admit."
These are the deaths so far in 1990, according to police, prosecutors, public records and witnesses:
JAN. 2 10:29 P.M.: \o7 A Witness Is Shot\f7
Pedro Perez, 30, is shot in the head by an unknown assailant on Myrtle Street in Santa Ana. Information about the case is sketchy, to say the least. Police say a suspect, dressed like a gang member, tried to rob a man. The man ran, and the suspect fired three shots after him but missed. Then, for reasons unexplained, the suspect turned and fired two shots at a group of people standing nearby. One of the bullets hit Perez in the head. He died the next afternoon.
Authorities know almost nothing about Perez, except that his fingerprints were on file, and he was possibly an illegal immigrant. He was not carrying a wallet. No one seems to know where he came from, where he lived or worked, who killed him or why. The coroner has not be able to find any relatives. Perez's body lies unclaimed in the morgue.
JAN. 5 11:59 P.M.: \o7 2 Stabbed in a Fight\f7
Hector De La Torre, 24, of Santa Ana, said to be a member of the F-Troop gang, and Oscar "Tiny" Jiminez, 18, of Garden Grove, allegedly part of the Anaheim Westside gang, are stabbed to death outside a home on 8th Street in Garden Grove. Friends said their attackers were members of a third gang, the Hoodlum Crips of Garden Grove.
De La Torre died an hour later in an emergency room of chest and groin wounds. He lived with his mother, hadn't finished high school and listed his occupation as a shipping clerk at Western Digital.
Jiminez, who was stabbed in the neck, bled to death at 2:45 a.m. Like De La Torre, he was born in Mexico, and come to Orange County at age 6. He had six years of education. His body was turned over to his mother.
Taula Poe, 20, of Westminster, and Arnold Mendoza, 19, of Garden Grove, will be tried on murder charges fon June 21.
JAN. 20 9:56 P.M.: \o7 'It's Such a Waste'\f7
Javier P. Avila, 22, of Santa Ana, is shot in the head during a melee involving at least 15 gang members armed with belts, bottles and knives. He dies in the emergency room at 4:28 the next morning. Police say Avila and three friends got into a fight with 10 members of the Middleside gang.
Born in Mexico, Avila came to the U.S. at age 12. For the last six months of his life he had been working in the warehouse and driving a delivery truck for Leah's Fabric in Anaheim. A co-worker said she does not believe he was a gang member. She learned of his death when relatives came in to ask about insurance.