Targets Beyond The Turf

Will you be next in the line of gang fire?

Sergeant Burt Robinson, who now heads the Chandler police gang unit, says even bystanders on the periphery of certain crimes should also be considered victims. He cites an example of people who were outside a local 7-Eleven store when gunfire broke out between two rival gangs. Two customers raced inside the store to get away from the bullets.

"They were victimized, too," he says. "They were terrified."

The Classic Auto Detail Car Wash is five miles and a world away from the neighborhood where Russell Hamblin lived. In his Gilbert subdivision near McQueen and Ray roads, neat and clean housing developments are linked by greenbelts, meandering sidewalks and neighborhood parks where children play. Hamblin, a lifelong resident of the southeast Valley and a descendant of a prominent family, shared a one-story house with his wife and daughters. It is near the end of a cul-de-sac, a valued amenity to young families who want their kids to ride their trikes and skates in a safe area. Driving south on McQueen, older rural lots featuring horse pastures and citrus trees sit opposite scraped land targeted for residential development. Heading west on Williams Field Road, which becomes Chandler Boulevard, the scenery changes. Dusty empty lots, blue-collar-type businesses and a trailer park lead up to the car wash.
Manuel Nu"ez, 16, was one of the first suspects arrested for the killing at the Chandler car wash.
Manuel Nu"ez, 16, was one of the first suspects arrested for the killing at the Chandler car wash.
Manuel Nunez, 16, was one of the first suspects arrested for the killing at the Chandler car wash.
Paolo Vescia
Manuel Nunez, 16, was one of the first suspects arrested for the killing at the Chandler car wash.

Hamblin, an AlliedSignal employee, was also a student in the graduate business program at Arizona State University. The night he took a break from studying and drove into town to wash his car, Roy Salinas, Manuel Nuñez and Eddie Villa were "out there like wild dogs running around," says Burt Robinson of the Chandler police gang detail. "This is their world. They own it."

Court records, which paint clearer pictures of Salinas and Villa than they do Nuñez, reveal glimpses into short lives highlighted by dysfunctional families, drug abuse and repeated crimes. In the case of Salinas and Villa, they also reveal a number of plea bargains, chance after chance to reform themselves, broken promises and failed attempts to turn their lives around.

Each fell into the gang life early. Salinas started using drugs and alcohol at age 10, Villa at 12. Their string of crimes grew more serious with each offense, from curfew violations to assaults involving weapons.

Despite numerous second chances and stints in custody -- Villa even went to prison three times -- the two continued to defy authority. Both got into more trouble while in prison. In 1993, Villa constantly broke the rules during a Department of Corrections "shock incarceration" program aimed at shaping up young offenders before they have to do hard time. He refused to participate "almost from day one," according to a DOC report. After three write-ups for misbehavior, a correctional officer made the notation "NO MORE CHANCES" in Villa's file. Then, Villa punched another inmate in the mouth and was booted from the program.

Salinas, who had 11 detentions and five convictions on his juvenile record, was prosecuted as an adult for a November 1998 incident in which he pushed, hit and bit a correctional officer at the Adobe Mountain School for juvenile offenders.

Villa's court records also show attempts to get away from gangs and crimes. In a letter he wrote to a judge in 1998, he explained how he came to join the gang.

"All of my male relatives. My 'role' models were in the gangs and it was expected of me to also be a part of the gangs. Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, I played the role my family had laid out before me. And I was in trouble most of the time because of it, doing things that deep inside I didn't want to do but things that were expected from someone in the gangs," Villa wrote.

He claimed then that after numerous convictions and incarcerations, he really wanted to get away from the gang, his enemies, his criminal lifestyle. He wanted to move out of town, get his high school equivalency degree and become a commercial artist. He said he had tried this the last time he got out of prison, but couldn't escape his surroundings.

"Please understand my situation, not having enough money to get out of my old neighborhood although I was trying. There were people trying to get back at me for leaving the gang . . . people were either going to do harm to me or my family," Villa said.

Villa's explanation came after he was caught with a gun in violation of parole, his fifth felony conviction. He had bought the gun in self-defense, he said. Villa's attorney implored the judge to give him another chance because "Eddie has changed."

In March 1998, he was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison. A police detective predicted then that Villa wasn't likely to reform himself as long as he stayed in the same neighborhood -- "an area full of gangs, drugs, stolen cards, etc. He is not going to change as long as he lives there. The defendant will end up shooting someone."

Villa, who has his tattooed teardrop under his left eye, is not alleged to have fired the .22-caliber gun that killed Hamblin. But police say he drove Salinas and Nuñez to the car wash with the intent of committing a robbery and that he helped get rid of the weapon.

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