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Pasadena gang violence raises fears

After a time of relative peace, a jump in killings unsettles the northwest part of the city.

December 25, 2007|Daniela Perdomo | Times Staff Writer

Dion Holloway, 17, told friends he was glad he was not affiliated with gangs because he did not have to look over his shoulder when he walked down the street in northwest Pasadena.

But on Sept. 25, Dion was shot and killed on a sidewalk in what police say was one of Pasadena's 10 gang-related killings this year. His family believes Dion was mistaken for a gang member.

The killings have contributed to a growing sense of unease in northwest Pasadena and fears that gangs are becoming a larger force in the area.

Although 10 gang-related killings is a relatively small number compared to the figures in some cities -- there has been only one other homicide, unrelated to gangs, in Pasadena this year -- the toll is startling because of the city's recent peaceful history. In the three previous years, there was a total of 13 gang-related killings.

From 2000 to 2003, there were one or two gang homicides every year, but none of the victims were juveniles. This year, in addition to Dion, a 16-year-old girl died in a shooting linked to gangs.

According to estimates that police say are conservative, there are 11 gangs with about 500 identified members in Pasadena and Altadena, the unincorporated community to the north. Gang activity in the city is almost entirely restricted to the northwest region, where most residents are black or Latino, city officials say.

Fear of gangs prompted Margie Geary to keep a watchful eye on Dion. Geary was his legal guardian, and he considered her his grandmother. "Dion never went anywhere by himself," she said. "I drove him everywhere."

On Sept. 25. Geary, 62, was in the hospital for knee surgery, so that night, Dion walked to a friend's house to pick up some CDs. He never made it.

A little after 10 p.m., police found him dead of multiple gunshot wounds on the sidewalk in the 1700 block of Belmont Avenue. Three men have been arrested in the death of the youth, who had recently become a father and dreamed of playing football for USC and the NFL.

His mother, Vanessa Shepherd, 46, had spoken to Dion a few days earlier. "I had told him to be careful on the streets," she said.

Shepherd, who lives in northwest Pasadena, said she intends to move away, as have others she knows in the area.

Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who came to Pasadena in 1996, compared the situation today to the 1993 "Halloween massacre," when three trick-or-treating teenagers were killed by gang members.

That incident rocked Pasadena and led Melekian to create the No More Dead Children program that resulted in many gang arrests and a relative lull in the city until 2005, he said.

Melekian said many gang members imprisoned in the 1990s have since been released, which might explain the upswing in gang activity.

Comparing 1993 to today, he said: "That was the turning point then; this is the turning point now. I will shoulder a share of the blame for enjoying the accolades for zero [juvenile gang] homicides . . . but I really think on some level we turned the corner. Now it feels different in that we have a broad range of the community saying, 'What do we do?' 'How can we be involved?' This has the potential to be a great thing."

One issue that may prove a roadblock, many residents say, is the role race plays in northwest Pasadena.

Chris Holden, a longtime councilman whose district includes the area, described it as a historically black community that is learning to adjust to the arrival of Latino residents, who now outnumber blacks.

At a recent meeting of a new community group called Neighborhood Outreach Workers, some residents painted a portrait of a city where blacks and Latinos are pitted against one another.

A few said that this year's gang-related homicides were evidence of this, stating that Latinos were killing blacks and vice versa.

Police say that perception is wrong.

In 2006, Melekian said some homicides that year were the result of "an ongoing turf battle between black and Hispanic gangs." But the killings connected to gangs this year, such as Dion's, are not race-related, he said.

Police figures show that all gang-related homicides this year involved black or Latino victims. But of the eight killings with identified suspects, only two involved suspects and victims of different races, even though race was not a motive, police say. Two killings involved both Latino and black suspects.

There have been some racially motivated crimes this year, police said, but they have been beatings, assaults known on the street as "sock on Mexicans."

The victims of these attacks, which involve robbery and, on occasion, the use of racial epithets, are Latino and usually male, police say. Victims and police describe the assailants as African American youths, some tied to gangs. A rumor that the assaults were gang initiation rites has not been substantiated by police.

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