Targets Beyond The Turf
Russell Hamblin's black 1998 Honda Civic was still dripping with suds and water when the other car rolled up to the near-deserted Chandler car wash late on the evening of September 7.
The clean and shiny late-model sedan may have seemed the perfect score for members of a roaming street gang who police say killed the 33-year-old Gilbert accountant and stole his car. Hamblin, intent on his innocent task of washing the car and vacuuming up crayon bits and cracker crumbs left by his twin toddlers, may not have given the other car much of a glance.
And he certainly wouldn't have suspected a trip to a suburban car wash would cost him his life.
Hamblin's murder got a lot of media attention because it was such a sad, senseless crime -- the cutting down of an innocent victim by vicious thugs.
But it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise.
In the past decade, gangs in the Phoenix metropolitan area have regularly slaughtered unsuspecting victims who have no relation to gangs. Most people -- including politicians, city leaders and even some police officials -- believe gang violence is confined to gang territory, that gangs fight and kill each other, that unless your kid or someone you know is involved in a gang, you'll never be touched by it.
But a New Times review of Valley violence over the past few years as well as interviews with criminal justice experts and local law enforcement officials shows gang violence affects innocent bystanders much more than most people realize. Since 1990, at least 62 people not involved with gangs have been killed or injured by gang violence.
Moreover, according to experts, the nature of gang violence is changing, so the number of innocent victims could go up. Gangs have become bolder, regularly roaming out of what were once their own close-knit neighborhoods. They don't care if they hurt people they're not involved with. They fire into crowds rather than shoot at an individual target. And the increasing use of high-powered weapons means more people are likely to get hit.
In June 1998, two Apollo High School honor students were murdered by a gang member who demonstrated this deadly callous attitude. The victims had been at a ball game and were on their way to a pizza parlor. As they stood outside a northwest Phoenix home with a group of friends, Bobby Purcell, 16, drove by, flashing gang signs at the group of teenagers. But the kids, who were not involved in gangs, misunderstood the signal and merely waved back. Purcell took this as a sign of disrespect and angrily fired at them. Renelyn Simmons, 15, and Andre Bradley, 16, were killed by the buckshot from his sawed-off shotgun. And a pregnant woman walking her dog was hit in the leg by projectiles that flew down the street.
At the Chandler car wash in September, police immediately suspected gangbangers had killed Russ Hamblin. Sergeant Ken Phillips of the Chandler Police Department, who arrived at the scene before the homicide detectives did, says Hamblin appeared to be a middle-class guy in unfamiliar territory. He died in a part of town notorious for gang crimes. His late-model Honda, an appealing target for gangsters who police say do most of the car thefts in town, was missing.
It took about 24 hours before police started hearing that particular gang members were boasting about having shot the guy at the car wash.
Within days, two 16-year-old members of the East Side Chandler gang, Roy Jerry Salinas and Manuel Alex Nuñez, were in custody and charged with the murder. Another suspect who had tried to break his ties to the same gang, 24-year-old Eddie Joe Chavez Villa, was arrested nearly a month later. All of the suspects have lengthy criminal records. Police say two of them have admitted involvement in the murder.
The third, Salinas, whom officials allege was the shooter that night, held a jailhouse press conference on the day Hamblin was buried to proclaim his innocence. During the session, he smirked and smiled a lot, chatted confidently with reporters and proudly mentioned the name of his gang -- one of the most dangerous in Chandler.
The nephew of Henry Salinas, a respected local anti-gang activist, Roy Salinas told reporters police would find no evidence connecting him to the slaying. But officers say his fingerprints were inside Hamblin's car, which was found abandoned at an apartment complex a mile north of the car wash.
Salinas mugged for the cameras that day, and the close-up photo in the September 14 edition of the Arizona Republic shows the unmarked face of a slender young man who can look like a hardass when he wants to.
But two months later, when Roy Salinas appeared in court on first-degree-murder charges, the cameras caught a different face. Below his right eye was a new tattoo of a teardrop. That "badge of honor," gang experts say, is a sign that the wearer has committed an aggravated assault or a homicide on behalf of his gang.
Research has shown gang members commit more crimes -- and more serious crimes -- than other delinquent non-gang offenders, according to John Moore, director of the National Youth Gang Center in Florida, a division of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty only against Salinas, who court records show has made similar promises to end his gangbanging. Jumped into the gang at age 13, Salinas committed a series of crimes in a short time, including theft, threatening behavior, domestic violence and assault with a weapon. After the attack on the Adobe Mountain officer, Salinas said he was a "former member" of the East Side gang and planned to change his ways. He said he didn't want to end up like his older brother, who is serving a 15-year prison term for killing a man when he was 16. And he wanted to be a good role model for his younger brothers, he said.
In that recent case, one of those who vouched for Roy was his Uncle Henry.
"Roy has woken up," Henry Salinas wrote in his June 2 letter to the judge. He said that Roy appeared to be sincere when he pledged to change. He asked that Roy be given a chance to get an education. And he said his nephew could be helped by ICAN, the anti-gang group Henry Salinas founded.
"I was wrong," Salinas says now. He is disappointed in Roy's failure to change as promised and his failure to seek ICAN's help.
Roy Salinas was given yet another chance when he was sentenced in that assault case. He could have been ordered to spend more than two years in prison. But after a plea agreement, he was placed on probation and ordered to serve a 60-day jail sentence. He promised to stay away from gangs as part of his probationary terms. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Linda Akers also ordered a four-month deferred term, an incentive to behave after he was released from jail.
But just a month after he was freed from that first jail stint, Roy Salinas was arrested on charges he had killed Russell Hamblin. Now he's back before Judge Akers again in the murder case.
His uncle says the case illustrates one more way gangs affect the community -- the emotional damage to families whose members are involved. Henry Salinas, 47, who is just starting to walk after being partially paralyzed by an illness two years ago, is haunted by the possibility that his nephew may be responsible for the murder of Hamblin.
"I hope and I pray to God that he wasn't involved. But if he was, he knows the consequences because he's no stranger to them," Salinas says. He says offenders like his nephew don't always realize the pain their actions can inflict on innocent family members as well as the victims of their crimes.
"The whole family is suffering . . . and I hurt because he is my nephew. And I love my nephew no matter what. It's not only because he's my nephew. If he was one of the ICAN kids, I'd have to stick by him because I stick by the ones who do very well. And I stand up with pride. And the ones that fall, I have to fall with them and stand there, too."
Susan Hamblin sat in the front row of the courtroom last month when Salinas and Nuñez were brought in for a pretrial conference in Superior Court. Surrounding her were relatives, friends and victim advocates. She was dressed in a black pantsuit. On her chest, affixed to red ribbons, she wore three snapshots, to bring some human faces to case number CR99-013651.
One photo showed Susan Hamblin and her husband on their wedding day, another their girls Nicole and Kelly, now 3. And the third depicted pallbearers carrying Russell Hamblin's casket. At various times before and during the proceeding, Susan Hamblin put her head down and cried.
Once, when Judge Akers identified Susan Hamblin and spoke directly to her, Salinas stared at the widow, emotionless.
Ismael Cantu, a veteran victim-witness advocate at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, says innocent victims of random gang violence tend to suffer a deeper, different agony than others touched by equally violent crimes.
"There is a lasting fear that what I thought was safe before is not," he says.
Cantu says victims of random gang violence are shaken by the realization that you can still be hurt even though you try to live a good life, make wise choices and stay out of high crime areas. Victims or survivors of other kinds of violence -- fatal drunken driving accidents or domestic violence, for instance -- can more easily come to grips with what happened to them.
"But this random stuff on innocent bystanders, how do you make sense of that?" Cantu asks. "There are so many whys and no answers to those questions."
Read more of our Hard Core stories.
Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: email@example.com
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.