Got'em

GITEM, the state's $12 million antigang task force, storms Casa Grande and shoots a smalltime scofflaw in the back

Armed with this mandate, the men and women of GITEM began training for the coming battle in August 1994. They would offer their services to whomever requested them, working with local law enforcement officials across the state.

GITEM's high-profile sweeps in Phoenix got prominent media coverage. The task force struck a chord. GITEM was soon credited with driving gangs from some of Phoenix's toughest neighborhoods.

But GITEM was also supposed to quell gang crime in rural areas. One of the first to ask for help was Pinal County Sheriff Frank Reyes, who had seen violent crime in and around Casa Grande mount.

Like most of the towns clustered along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, Casa Grande is all but invisible to passing motorists. The city's main drag and primary link to the interstate is Florence Boulevard, a succession of strip malls, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. On Friday and Saturday nights, the street and surrounding parking lots teem with bored, posturing teenagers. Local police maintain an uneasy vigil.

With a population of 20,000, Casa Grande is a small city with big-city crime. According to the FBI, the city leads the state in per capita crime in all categories, from assaults to thefts to rape. It also has the state's highest high school dropout and teen-pregnancy rates. With such a litany of problems, it is not surprising that gangs have sprung up there.

Drive-by shootings occur with regularity; unless someone is hit, they are no longer front-page news in the Casa Grande Dispatch.

When the FBI statistics portrayed Casa Grande as the most crime-ridden community in a crime-ridden state, Bob Mitchell, the city's mayor, said the portrait was distorted. "I know I feel safer walking down the street here than I would in Phoenix," said Mitchell, who inhabits a subdivision a world away from the city's older core, where most of the crime occurs.

Dawn Yubeta is familiar with the names and faces behind the crime statistics. She lives in a working-class neighborhood where homes are the most likely to be burglarized. Her neighbors are most likely to crop up in the Dispatch's police blotter.

There have been nights when she and her family sprawled for cover as gunshots rang out near their modest yet tidy home.

But on Friday, October 7, 1994, it was a different sound that caught Yubeta's attention.

"It was a helicopter," she says. "It just kept flying over the neighborhood all night, shining its light around."

Dawn and her husband, Danny, climbed into their '81 Monte Carlo and went to see what was going on. She says they pulled onto the city's main drag, but did not get far.

"We saw cars getting pulled over, people getting busted everywhere," she says. "And then this cop car pulled in behind us. We were like, 'What'd we do?'"

GITEM was making its debut in Casa Grande. An officer informed the Yubetas that the lamp over their license plate had burned out and needed to be fixed, she says. Then he let them go.

"It was so absurd," she says.
Michael Vasquez, 18, was cruising Florence Boulevard in his 1964 Plymouth Fury. His brother Christian, 20, was in the passenger's seat.

The son of a Casa Grande cop whose parents divorced several years ago, Michael is tall, rail-thin and soft-spoken. Christian has since joined the Marines.

Michael Vasquez's voice rises when he describes his run-ins with GITEM that night: "We just kept getting pulled over. I mean, at first it was kind of like a game, but after a couple of times, I was like, 'What's up?'"

Vasquez, who knows people in gangs but denies any involvement himself, says the reasons for the stops ranged from petty to ridiculous. Twice, he says, he was pulled over for allegedly swerving. Two other times, he says, officers stopped him for faulty brake lights.

"As they were letting us go, I pushed the brake light, and it worked," he says. "So they said, 'Oh, it must have been a short in the car.'"

During one of the stops, GITEM officers filled out forms listing the brothers' skin, eye and hair color, and whether they bore any tattoos that would betray gang leanings. The questionnaires are part of a strategy of compiling a database of gang members throughout the state, explains Captain David Gonzales, GITEM's commander. Gonzales says the Vasquez brothers were not logged into the system as active gang members. Instead, the GITEM officers who questioned the brothers merely used the card as a guideline.

"It's a very helpful aid during field interviews," he says, adding that information is kept only on people who exhibit at least two signs of gang activity, which can range from the flashing of signs to the wearing of gang colors.

So far, Gonzales says, GITEM has recorded data on roughly 8,500 active gang members in Arizona. Names will be purged from the system after five years, provided the subjects have no run-ins with police, he says.

All told, a press release from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office said, more than 400 people throughout Casa Grande and the surrounding area were questioned during GITEM's first operation in Casa Grande.

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