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In addition to deadly crimes, officials say a multitude of other crimes -- most often assaults, drug offenses, auto thefts and property crimes -- are related to Valley gangs. Those frequently affect innocent people.
Chandler police say almost every auto theft can be tied to one of the four most active gangs in town. In Mesa, a gang official says, most burglaries or thefts involving a gun can be linked to one of the 25 gangs there. In Phoenix, Lieutenant Mike McCort says as much as 80 percent of the city's street crime is tied to drug trafficking. Because local gangs are heavily involved with the drug trade, he reasons, gangs are directly and indirectly responsible for much of that.
Criminal damage, graffiti, property crimes, auto thefts, simple and even serious assaults are rarely gang-on-gang, Chandler police Sergeant Upshaw says. And drive-by shootings, which by their nature are supposed to be exclusively gang-against-gang, hurt innocent people or their property most of the time, authorities say.
Upshaw says while he was with the gang unit, he investigated about 20 drive-bys.
"Never do they only hit the target house or the target vehicle. They always hit other people or property," he says. "If you've got a gang member living next door to you, you'd might as well be living in the house with them because there will be collateral damage to your house. The way our houses are built out here, they generally pass through about nine walls before they stop."
Officer Lewis, the GITEM officer, agrees. He estimates that 85 percent of victims of drive-by shootings are innocent victims. That doesn't mean upstanding citizens are getting slaughtered in droves, but it does mean they might catch a bullet in their window, wall or car door. Or they might actually get hit by one of those bullets.
Many drive-bys (or walk-bys) don't get reported in newspapers. But the ones that seriously injure someone usually do catch the attention of Valley scribes. A search of local articles over the past decade reveals numerous shootings in which errant bullets hit innocent children and adults while they were sleeping, eating, cooking or otherwise minding their own business. While some have been pinned on gangs, others have never been solved or definitely linked to gang violence. But police say chances are good most were the result of gang violence.
Four young girls have been among the victims of drive-by shootings in the Valley. Kenda Pennington was 7 years old in March 1990 when she was shot in the face early in the morning as she slept in her bunk bed in south Phoenix. Megan Rayes was 6 years old in 1992 when a bullet struck her in the head as she slept in her bunk bed in north Phoenix. Both girls survived.
But 6-year-old Ebony Johnson died in 1993 when a bullet hit her as she slept inside her central Phoenix home. And in 1994, 4-year-old Ashley Boss was shot and killed as she stood in the living room of her south Phoenix house.
McCort, the former head of the Phoenix police gang squad who is now an assistant to Chief Harold Hurtt, says more innocent victims may be at risk nowadays as a result of gangs' increasingly cavalier attitudes as well as more advanced weaponry capable of spraying quick bursts of gunfire. That means unintended targets in the vicinity of gang skirmishes can easily be hit.
"Bullets don't have gang-seeking devices on them," McCort says.
A 1993 report he authored while with the Phoenix Police Gang Enforcement Unit noted that gang homicides were increasing at an alarming rate: from 3 in 1990 to 20 in 1992. (Phoenix police reported 17 gang-related homicides last year, but those numbers only reflect killings committed while a gang member was doing gang business, not all murders committed by known gang members.)
"You don't have to be a member of a street gang to become a victim of gang violence," McCort wrote in 1993. "Today's street gangs are highly mobile and don't confine themselves to their own neighborhoods. These urban predators take themselves to all the normal gathering places that other members of the community frequent: movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, city parks, any place where people gather to conduct business, recreate and socialize. . . . Too often unsuspecting non-involved individuals get caught in spontaneous conflicts between feuding gang members and become unintentional victims of unpredictable senseless acts of violence."
McCort studied individual gang homicides to see how many involved innocent victims. In two years, 1992 and 1993, he documented seven out of 41 gang homicides -- nearly one in five -- in which people with no gang involvement were cut down. Since then, no official analysis of such crimes has been done by Phoenix police or any other local agency.
But last year, an Arizona Criminal Justice Commission report on street gangs echoed the police perception that gangs are getting more violent than in the past. "Today's gang members are younger, better armed, and more violent than their predecessors. Criminal activities vary from homicide, assault, drive-by shootings, armed robberies, vehicle thefts, drug manufacture, sale and use, harassment and intimidation and graffiti," according to the report, which compiles information from all law enforcement agencies in the Valley as well as DPS.