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Santa Barbara stunned by brawl

The city is reeling after gang violence erupts on the streets, leaving one teen killed and another charged with murder.

March 16, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Residents and tourists here were stunned Thursday in the wake of a daylight gang brawl that left a 15-year-old boy stabbed to death, a 14-year-old charged with his murder and downtown's main commercial strip shut down for more than eight hours.

"Everyone's saying, 'This isn't supposed to happen in Santa Barbara,' " said Police Chief Cam Sanchez. "Well, it isn't supposed to happen anywhere."

Police wouldn't reveal how the early Wednesday afternoon fight had started, saying it was still under investigation. But they were emphatic that the deadly skirmish, which involved throngs of participants and was witnessed by many bystanders, was a confrontation between two rival gangs.

Killed was 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, a student at El Puente Community School who was known to his friends as Nacho. Bleeding after being stabbed, he staggered into the parking lot behind Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street before being rushed to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

His alleged killer, whose name was not released because of his age, attended Santa Barbara Junior High School. He is being held at Santa Barbara County's juvenile hall, officials said.

Four others -- allegedly members of the same gang -- were also arrested on a variety of charges. They range in age from 13 to 16.

Santa Barbara students had been let out of school early Wednesday for a "minimum day" to give teachers and administrators time to attend training sessions, said J. Brian Sarvis, superintendent of the city's schools.

"We try to do the releases all at once so schools can coordinate with families that have child-care needs," he said. "Of course, we're rethinking that policy."

With the fight surging across State Street, dozens of police officers and sheriff's deputies converged on the scene from their departments' headquarters just blocks away. As it turned out, the Police Department was in the middle of a training session, so more officers were immediately available than would have been otherwise, officials said.

Behind Saks on Thursday afternoon, friends and classmates of the dead teen came by to pay their respects. Officers had removed the many candles and bouquets that had been left there, saying the boy's family did not want the site to become a flash point for further violence, police said.

With friends, 16-year-old Stephanie Montaldo was collecting donations for the Linares family in a hand-decorated cardboard box.

"I've known him since he was little," she said. "He was always very funny."

Blocks away, on the steps of the Police Department, Chief Sanchez said this was only the second gang-related death he could recall in his six years as head of the agency.

Although gangs have long been part of Santa Barbara's streetscape, Sanchez said he had been disturbed by their increasingly younger membership.

"The gang kids are getting younger and more blatant -- more in-your-face with their teachers and even with officers," he said.

Meanwhile, parents, many of whom work multiple jobs to make ends meet, have been clamoring for solutions, he said.

"We have a gang unit, we have the Police Athletic League, we have a lot of things going on," Sanchez said, "but we can't force them into positive activities."

The fact that Wednesday's melee erupted so violently and in broad daylight was upsetting to many residents.

"I think some of these kids are numb to the fact of death," said Vincent Romero, a manager at the Unity Shoppe, a secondhand store on State Street that also provides clothing and groceries to the poor.

"It's video games, it's war, it's movies -- it's just the whole package," he said.

Strolling into Saks on Thursday afternoon, Barbara Anderson, a recently retired program manager at UC Santa Barbara, said that, even a day later, the killing seemed incongruous.

"This is a safe town," she said. "When I read about this, my heart just broke."

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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