Santa Paula police said they no longer believe the Halloween-night killing of an 18-year-old youth was gang retaliation for a previous drive-by slaying.
Nevertheless, since the Oct. 31 slaying of gang member Joey Lara, the feud among Santa Paula gangs has escalated, increasing fears of violence among city residents, authorities said.
Police on Saturday arrested John Julian Lopez, 19, in connection with Lara's killing but were not able to provide enough evidence for the Ventura County district attorney's office to bring charges.
Instead, Lopez, who was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded .38-caliber revolver when he was arrested, was charged with carrying a concealed weapon.
He pleaded guilty to this misdemeanor charge Tuesday before Municipal Judge Art Gutierrez and remains in custody on $500 bail with sentencing scheduled for today.
The weapons charge carries a maximum one-year jail sentence.
Lara was the second gang member to be killed in Santa Paula in two months. Richard Brian Gutierrez, 20, died Sept. 23 in a drive-by shooting. No one has been arrested in his death.
Gutierrez was a member of the Bad Boys gang, which has been feuding for about six months with Lara's gang, the Crazy Boyz.
Although Detective Sgt. Gary Marshall says Lara's slaying probably was not related to the killing of Gutierrez, the feud between the Bad Boys and the Crazy Boyz has escalated since the incident, with more gang members arming themselves and rumors of possible gang mergers.
Some residents and officials said the escalation has increased tension in the city.
Joe Jauregi, principal of Renaissance Continuation High School, said, "We've had two kids murdered in the last couple of months. Obviously, it's getting more violent."
Santa Paula Union High School Principal Robert Fisher said the Gutierrez slaying "seemed to stir up a little unrest between friends of the Crazy Boyz and the Bad Boys." After Lara was killed, "the kids were a lot more subdued and quiet. A lot of kids were hurting. They were concerned about their safety out in the community."
A Latino advocate said parents are also concerned about the increasing violence.
"A lot of parents I've talked to are really scared about what's going on," said Lonnie Miramontes, a Santa Paula resident and community services director of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a Latino advocacy and services agency.
And according to one mother who did not want to be identified, "You can feel the increased tension. You can feel the increased police surveillance" even when just driving to the grocery store.
The mother, other residents and many officials agreed that Santa Paula's gang problem may be growing because youths in the city don't have enough to keep them busy.
"Santa Paula used to have a skating rink, drive-in theater and regular theater," Miramontes said. "Those things don't exist anymore.
"I think the kids are just frustrated to the point where there's too much anger in them."
As one sign of the increased gang combativeness, at least three youths were armed at the Halloween party where Lara was killed, police said.
Lara was shot twice in the back during a fistfight in the McKevett Elementary School yard about 9 p.m. Oct. 31, shortly after a group of about 15 youths left the party at a house across the street.
Marshall said Lopez remains a suspect in Lara's slaying, but witnesses who have implicated him have either called the police anonymously or have refused to testify in court, weakening any possible case against the youth.
Witnesses have also implicated a former Santa Paula resident who moved to Riverside County and who may have fled to Mexico after the killing, Marshall said.
Lopez, who police say is probably not a gang member, may have been armed at the time he was arrested because he was afraid of retaliation by people who think he killed Lara, police and residents said.
"Detectives have heard rumors that people are out to get Lopez" and the other suspect, Marshall said.
The Riverside County suspect is a former member of the Crazy Boyz and may have had a grudge against Lara because of his membership in that group, Marshall said.
Since Lara's slaying, even more youths are carrying loaded weapons, Marshall said.
"The word on the street now is all the gang members are carrying guns," Marshall said.
In addition, police have heard that the Santa Paula gangs may be banding together to increase their strength. A gang called the Crimies may be teaming up with the Crazy Boyz, and a gang called the Party Boys may be banding together with the Bad Boys, he said.