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.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin