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2 friends witness a killing and a movement is born

A string of Santa Ana deaths, the victims young and officials newly roused, results in a regular series of vigils that unite neighbors.

May 05, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't the sort of Sunday morning James Spady had bargained for when he moved to Santa Ana 10 months ago.

It was nearing mid-morning when Spady, his 4-year-old daughter and a friend headed out to the International Bakery for pastries. It was a quick walk from his house in Wilshire Square, a modest neighborhood dotted with historic homes just south of the city's teeming downtown.

Suddenly, they heard shots fired and saw a man struggling to control a car as he drove down the street. His passenger appeared to be gravely wounded and, later, when paramedics arrived, they ripped off the young man's shirt as they tried to save his life.

The passenger later died, making him Santa Ana's ninth homicide this year, hardly a large number for a city that once pulsed with gang violence and counted its murders by the dozen. But for Spady -- an East Coast native who had just moved West to teach American history at Soka University in Aliso Viejo -- it was enough to catch his attention.

So Spady and his friend, Cuauhtlatoatzin Madrigal, organized a candlelight vigil in their neighborhood last month, attracting more than 50 people.

"It's sad when we have the vigils. It's a time to reflect on lives lost and bring people together," Spady said. "Whether it gains momentum will be up to the community."

The vigil awoke something in the neighborhood and now, every Sunday, the two men are joined by dozens of neighbors and even a City Council member worried about crime in Santa Ana.

The initial vigils were held at the site of the shooting the two men had witnessed, but this Sunday the vigil will be at Bristol Street and West Central Avenue, close to a more recent shooting, April 8, that killed a 16-year-old.

Spady hopes residents will show up and talk about the shootings and what can be done to stop the cycle of violence.

Though the crime rate in Santa Ana has not increased dramatically in recent years, Spady has tapped a sentiment that several new council members share: that the city should be more intolerant of violent crime.

Last year there were 24 homicides, and so far this year there have been 10. There were 140 assaults with firearms in 2006, and 58 as of Monday this year.

Santa Ana's current crime rate pales compared with what it was in the 1990s, when it could be triple that. At that time, in response, community policing, combined with the formation of neighborhood associations and increased code enforcement, helped cut most crime nearly in half.

Now, officials and residents are taking special note of the recent shootings, in part because the victims are often so young.

Resident Frank Castillo questioned why the city is comparing its crime statistics with past years instead of comparing the statistics against other Orange County cities.

"You have a few people shot in Laguna Beach and everyone turns their heads," Castillo said. "How come they don't make a big stink when we have a shooting here?"

Councilwoman Michele Martinez has been attending the vigils. She spoke to those who attended the two Sunday vigils, defending the Police Department and asking residents to get involved with the city's youth.

Martinez recently helped form the Early Prevention and Intervention Commission, which includes a 17-member panel of school board members, county probation and city police officials, and Chamber of Commerce members. The commission is expected to work on coordination among city agencies to reduce gang involvement.

Martinez, referring to herself and three other newcomers to the board, said, "As new council members, we are not hiding this anymore. Previous council members wanted to keep everything hush-hush."

Spady hopes his vigils will help unite neighbors who traditionally have not come together to work on crime prevention. Many of the shootings occur in daylight and claim the lives of young people, which Spady finds particularly depressing.

The passenger whose shooting he witnessed was Miguel Fernandez, 19, who died eight days later and was not a gang member, police say. He was shot from an approaching car while riding north on South Main Street, Police Cmdr. Ruben Ibarra said.

The crime resembles others in the last month. On April 26, a 13-year-old boy was wounded after two young men approached him on East Pine Street in front of a small supermarket and shot him "for no apparent reason," said Police Cmdr. Steve Colon.

Jaime Gallegos, whose son Daniel was shot to death March 24, joined the group with family members.

"This has to stop. We hear the ambulances and the police every day," he said. "We are tired of the violence. Today it is my son. Tomorrow it will be someone else's if something is not done."

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jennifer.delson@latimes.com

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