By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Inconsistent recordkeeping by law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies across the state and the country makes it difficult to measure exactly how much crime gang members commit and how much of that involves innocent victims. But most officials agree that because of the changing nature of gangs and gang violence, innocent people are more at risk today than ever before.
Officer Shannon Lewis has been a member of Arizona's Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GITEM) since its inception in 1994 and worked in intelligence for four years before that. He says today's gangbangers are quite different from the ones he saw years ago. Instead of keeping to their own neighborhoods, they are more apt to venture out of their own territory, he says. If someone is "hot" (targeted for revenge), he might head to a relative's house on the other side of town to hide out. Years ago, he might have been safe there, Lewis says, but today, gang members will just drive across town and shoot up that house.
Gangs also have grown more haphazard about their shooting tactics, Lewis says. Drive-by shootings used to be more focused, he says. One gang would go after a rival gang for a reason. Members would specifically target who they wanted to hit, then would seek out the victim for a drive-by or walk-by. At parties or other large gatherings, bangers would try to find the person they were after, walk up to him and shoot him, Lewis says.
Now, gangsters are more likely to merely fire into a crowd hoping to hit the intended target, he says.
Westwood High School student Ralph Seballos, 17, was leaving Ramiro's restaurant in Mesa in January 1996 with a group of friends when a car pulled up and one occupant opened fire. Authorities said the shooters were gang members looking for a fight, and Seballos -- in a crowd of about 30 -- was in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of seven people hit by bullets that night, Seballos was instantly paralyzed and lived for eight agonizing months before he died.
Sergeant Ed Upshaw, former head of the Special Enforcement Unit at the Chandler Police Department, says gang members commit crimes more often against non-gang members than they do against each other. It can start with their initiation rites. New gang members are jumped into the gang either by getting beat up or by committing a crime against some innocent person.
"That could easily be you or the next Joe Blow that walks down the street. They might jump him, steal his car, beat him up, take his money, whatever the case may be," he says.
In October 1995, Teresa Archuleta, a paralegal with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, became a pawn in a deadly initiation exercise involving the Oriental Boy Soldiers. Four teenagers were cruising the freeway when they spotted Archuleta, 38, talking on a cellular phone as she drove. Intending to steal the phone and her vehicle, they followed her to her Scottsdale home. But when Archuleta balked at handing over her phone and cursed at the boys, court testimony showed, the 14-year-old who was supposed to hold the gun as part of his initiation got mad and shot her in the head.
Lewis says gang wanna-bes often have to commit a drive-by shooting as part of their initiation rites. Because kids seeking membership in gangs tend to be young and their guns more powerful than they were in years past, he says, their aim is bad. That translates into a higher likelihood of unintended victims getting shot, he believes.
"It's more of hit-and-miss right now," he says. "The attitude of the kids is they just don't care. They don't care if they are hitting who they are shooting at."
Besides sloppy drive-by shootings, most gang homicides that take the lives of innocent victims fall into three categories: those that involve mistaken identities or the wrong house; those that begin with an intent to steal, then turn deadly; and those that may not be committed on behalf of a gang but involve a gang member who is acting alone. Three local examples:
Wanda Fox, 57, was cooking homemade applesauce in the kitchen of her north Phoenix mobile home in March when she heard some commotion outside. She took a step toward the window to see what was happening. A bullet struck her in the forehead. The grandmother-to-be died two weeks later. Gang members later told police they meant to shoot up a house a few doors down the street.
Dariel Overby, 31, was murdered by five gang members in the driveway of her Glendale home in May 1994. Police said the group had spotted Dariel and her husband, Steven, as they drove down the street. The gang followed them home, planning to steal their mid-'80s model Monte Carlo. When Mrs. Overby got out of the car, she was shot in the chest with a military rifle.
Jennifer Montgomery, 19, was riding with her husband in their pickup on Interstate 17 in Phoenix in May 1991 when a bullet hit her in the head, killing her and her unborn child. The killer, a gang member nicknamed "Maniac," had become enraged when the Montgomery vehicle cut off the stolen car in which he was riding.