Four well-armed teen-agers conducted a brutal, four-hour crime rampage across Fresno late Sunday and early Monday, shooting at and robbing pedestrians and shopkeepers. The 16 victims appeared to be chosen at random.
One man was killed and eight others were shot and wounded in the rampage, which police said was carried out by street gang members frustrated by increased police activities in their neighborhood. Two of the injured were in critical condition late Monday.
The suspects ranged in age from 14 to 17 years old. In addition to the shootings, they were believed responsible for seven robberies in which victims were not shot. Police caught them only after their car broke down.
While Fresno, with a population of 350,000, is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities and no stranger to urban crime, police officers and residents alike were shaken by the cold-blooded nature and magnitude of the spree. Things like this, they said, were new to the San Joaquin Valley town, which long has been known mainly for its agriculture.
"There doesn't seem to be any identifiable pattern," said Police Sgt. Mike Guthrie. "I think it was more driving until they saw an opportunity and taking it."
Said Daniel K. Whitehurst, a former mayor: "The idea of inner-city violence is not a brand-new thing in Fresno. We had some urban unrest in the late '60s, and we had a number of Mexican gang killings in the '70s. But what we have not had is this sort of random shooting spree that cuts across Fresno.
"Everyone would hope this is a one-time thing."
The dead man was identified as Victor Diaz, 47. He had been outside his modest southwest Fresno home when hit in the chest at point-blank range by a shotgun blast. Diaz had spent Sunday at a picnic with his children and grandchildren. They were inside the house when he was shot.
"It was 9:30 at night and I was on the phone with my girlfriend," said Larry Diaz, 22, the victim's son. "My mother ran in the house and told me to go outside and see if that was Dad lying out in the street. The ambulance was already there. I asked the officer if that was my dad, and he said all he knew was the man's name was Victor and they were trying to rob him. He died on the way to the hospital.
"Sunday started out as such a great day," the son said tearfully. "We went to the park, had a barbecue. My father was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. It was a day in a lifetime."
The names of those arrested were not released because of their ages--14, 15, 16 and 17. A fifth youth was being sought late Monday. Officers said the juveniles belonged to either one of two gangs--The Villa Posse or The U Boys--which operate in a neighborhood of west Fresno known as "the U," notorious for its drug dealing.
After a number of incidents between the two gangs throughout the summer, residents went to the City Council last week and urged officials to clean up the U, which is surrounded by single-family residences.
As part of the cleanup, the city established a curfew and increased police patrols.
The Sunday night shooting spree apparently began when the youths were frustrated by the patrols, which interfered with an attempted drive-by shooting, said Guthrie.
"Plan A was the drive-by shooting," he said. "They couldn't execute Plan A. It was stymied because of the presence of uniform police. So they decided to go do some robberies."
Officers spent much of Monday sorting out the trail of bloodshed the marauding youths had cut across Fresno. Beginning in west Fresno and traveling to several neighborhoods, rich and poor alike, the gang members, police said, would stop pedestrians and demand money. Some victims were left unharmed; others were shot. One victim was shot during the attempted holdup of his doughnut shop.
The rampage ended when the youths' 1974 Chevrolet Impala stalled in south Fresno and they were spotted by a California Highway Patrol officer, who had heard an all-points bulletin broadcast for their arrest.
Officers confiscated a semiautomatic 9-millimeter handgun, a .22-caliber rifle, two 12-gauge shotguns and one 20-gauge shotgun. The rifle and shotguns had sawed-off barrels.
Fresno Police Officer Eddie Barrios said the youths each would be charged with one count of murder, five counts of attempted murder and seven counts of armed robbery.
Two of the victims remained in critical condition at Valley Medical Center, said a hospital spokesman. Another victim was in good condition at Fresno Community Hospital after surgery for a bullet wound in his leg. Some of the injured were released from the hospitals after treatment.
Fresno's relatively rapid evolution from a farm center to a city not unlike a small Los Angeles--with all the attendant problems--has been a source of concern among longtime residents who take pride in their hometown's rural roots and peaceful pace. The growth, however, seems uncheckable, and the Fresno Bee reported recently that a survey showed the city was now the fastest growing metropolis in the nation.
Police Sgt. Dwight Williamson said gang-related incidents have been increasing throughout the summer. There have been at least a dozen shootings involving members of the two gangs in which a gang member was injured or killed.
"These folks have been going back and forth the entire summer," said Williamson. "It got pretty heated about four or five weeks ago. The U is one of the more brazen areas of town."
Times correspondent Mark Arax contributed to this report.