Targets Beyond The Turf

Will you be next in the line of gang fire?

Sometimes, innocent victims are cut down in violent acts incidentally related to criminal street gangs.

Three months ago, Christopher Camarena, 11, was killed on the way to dinner with his family in downtown Phoenix. Police say a wounded man fleeing a nearby shootout in a gang-ridden area crashed his car into the Camarena vehicle.

In April 1992, a four-car accident took the life of 19-year-old Kane Geisen in Phoenix. The crash resulted when a motorist fleeing a gunfight at a skating rink ran a red light. More than 100 bullets were fired and a 23-year-old man killed during the gang-related fight outside a rap concert.

Henry Salinas, uncle of one of the suspects in the Hamblin murder case, is also the founder of a Chandler anti-gang organization
Paolo Vescia
Henry Salinas, uncle of one of the suspects in the Hamblin murder case, is also the founder of a Chandler anti-gang organization
Phoenix Police Lieutenant Mike McCort wanted years ago that gangs were affecting people beyond gang territory.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix Police Lieutenant Mike McCort wanted years ago that gangs were affecting people beyond gang territory.

In December of that same year, Kenneth Henry, 14, of Mesa, was shot and killed during an argument with his 16-year-old brother while the two were watching a gang-related show on television. The older boy said he had recently bought the .22-caliber revolver to protect himself from a gang in his neighborhood.

Valley police officers have been targets of gang violence many times over the years; some have been injured. In 1994 and 1995, Phoenix police reported officers had been shot at more than 20 times in a six-month period.

And this April, Chandler Police Officer James Snedigar, 38, was slain in a gun battle with a member of a prison gang. The first from the department to be killed in the line of duty, Snedigar was cut down inside a Chandler apartment complex where police had followed three suspected jewel-store robbers. Two of the suspects, including the one who killed Snedigar (and was himself shot to death), were members of the New Mexican Mafia, a violent prison gang linked to last year's scheme to assassinate Terry Stewart, head of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Officials say you don't have to be chasing robbers to put yourself in the line of gang fire. Chandler Sergeant Upshaw, who now works in the department's prevention programs, says gang etiquette has changed over the years. Now, he says, no place is safe.

"There were certain rules. They didn't play in schools. They didn't go in churches. They didn't go in malls. They didn't mess with your grandma's house and they didn't mess with your mother's house. If you were in a gang, they messed with you. That mentality is not entrenched in current gang members. No place is off-limits. They'll shoot your butt in the middle of the mall if it suits them."

Henry Salinas, the uncle of Roy Salinas, says most of Chandler's drive-by shootings used to occur on his street, Commonwealth Place. Not far from the car wash where Russell Hamblin was killed, it's included in an area county juvenile probation officials say is one of the 10 worst in the Valley for youth crime, which is primarily gang-related. He says members of the four most active Chandler gangs at one time surrounded his home: Chandler Varrio Loco three doors away, Wet Back Power and East Side Chandler to the east and South Side Chandler to the west.

"So anybody that came through here would be a rival gang," he says.

Salinas, a father of four, was so disgusted with the prevalence of gang violence that in 1991 he started an organization called Improving Chandler Area Neighborhoods (ICAN) to try to keep kids away from gangs and help others get out. Since then, he says, things have improved and the shootings have decreased in his neighborhood.

While he has never been a victim of gang violence, his home has been burglarized twice (he presumes by gang members) and a new brick wall has been covered with graffiti.

In conversations with gangbangers and wanna-bes, Salinas lets them know of the consequences of their actions. He says most gang members don't think twice about burglarizing innocent people's homes.

"They've got to get money somehow, and that's how they get it. . . . They're not going to go to work, so they are going to steal. It's easier," he says. "But people do suffer, and it's usually the common folk that suffer."

He says in Chandler's poorer areas, residents don't have insurance. So when gangbangers break in and take a television set, "that's a lot of money for a lot of people."

The burglaries of two homes by Eddie Villa, a co-defendant in the Hamblin murder case, illustrate how a break-in conducted so casually by thieves can have an impact on innocent victims. According to court records, Villa, then 16, his sister and another friend were watching cartoons one day in 1991 when Villa's younger brother told them a neighbor was gone from her apartment. Villa and his friend entered an open window, stole some sandwiches, an apple, a VCR and other items. Villa's friend later sold the VCR for $80 and gave Villa $10. The victim told police she had no insurance and had lost nearly $560 worth of property.

In another instance the following year, Villa said, he and another friend were sniffing paint when they decided to "hit a house." They broke into a neighbor's home while she and her husband were at church, ransacking the place and taking jewelry and more food. Then they headed to Kmart to buy more paint to sniff. The victim did have insurance, but she said it covered $2,800 out of the $3,100 in damage and loss. She was most hurt, she said, by losing "our original wedding bands and our baby rings. There is so much emotion in this."

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