In The Line Of Fire: Gang members killing innocent people

September 19, 2007 

Eric Adorno was mistaken for a gang member because he wore a red football jersey.

Lacy Ferguson was shot to death after she and her boyfriend bought a pack of cigarettes.

Josue Huerta was winning his battle with cancer but lost his life to gang violence.

Ernestina "Tina" Tizoc was sitting at a picnic table when her maroon blouse caught the eye of neighborhood boys who favor blue.

And Manuel Rayas was shot, sniper-style, as he stood on the lawn at a birthday party while children jumped in an inflatable bounce house nearby.

All were killed in the never- ending turf wars waged by Norteños and Sureños in the Modesto area, but none belonged to a gang or provoked their attackers.

Innocent victims such as Adorno, Ferguson, Huerta, Tizoc and Rayas are in the minority, because most gang violence involves turf battles and personal vendettas in which one gang attacks another, prompting a cycle of retaliation.

But their deaths are proof that one need not engage in a risky lifestyle to be a victim of a gang crime. And when cases such as theirs end with guilty verdicts in Stanislaus County Superior Court, it is clear that the young men who pulled the trigger cut their own lives short, too.

Many times, the defendants are minors who are charged as adults. They sport tattoos to show that they claim red or blue but rarely have fancy cars or fistfuls of cash, even if they stole cars or sold drugs regularly.

Most of them lived with mom and dad when the police hauled them off to jail.

Those convicted are sent to prison to do hard time or even life behind bars while their peers earn diplomas, get jobs and build families.

Meanwhile, victims' families cope with a hole in their lives that cannot be filled.

Natosha Adorno learned about this sad world when her husband was shot and killed by Sureño gang members who mistakenly believed Eric Adorno was a Norteño.

She watched every day of a 10-week trial that ended in June and felt that she finally could start to move on when a jury said two Modesto men were guilty of first-degree murder.

She can't understand why the gang members would kill a family man who would share a beer with just about anybody. But she watched a grandmother weep in anguish, and noticed that the other defendant didn't have a single sup- porter during the trial.

So she remained introspective when the two men received life sentences in July, telling them she knows they would do things differently if they could get another chance.

The mother of three hopes her husband's death serves as an example to other young people who are drawn to the gang lifestyle.

"A gang is not a family," Natosha Adorno said. "You're going to prison on your own."

Gangs are ruled by macho madness and vary in their degree or organization.

Detectives like Rich Delgado of the Modesto police say about 4,000 documented gang members in Stanislaus County control the local drug trade and are influenced by their elders in prison, who give marching orders to parolees so they can tax the profits of criminal activity.

To the authorities, the purpose of a gang is to further criminal activity, with its soldiers doing drive-by shootings to gain status or control turf or settle a score with a rival.

They say all of this is fueled by movies and music that glamorize the party lifestyle while ignoring the crippling effects of violence. Youngsters pick a color because they know they will have to choose a side when they end up behind bars.

"I talk to gang members as young as 12, 13, 14, 15 years old who flat out say to me, 'I know I'm going to prison,' " Delgado said.

Defense attorneys and their experts agree that gangs can become a breeding ground for sociopaths who don't care whom they hurt.

But they think a large portion of teens who claim red or blue remain on the fringes of gang life and don't commit a steady stream of crimes. Instead, they say, the boys spend most of their time talking tough, eating, sleeping, hanging around, using drugs and chasing girls.

"For some people, the gang is about the only club they can get into," said Martin Baker, a defense attorney from Modesto.

When the bullets fly, police arrest everyone they can tie to a crime and prosecutors charge them equally, even if one young man is the shooter and several others claim that they didn't know their buddy had a gun.

The legal process often turns into a fight over the levels of culpability for gang members and associates and wanna-bes, taking several years to negotiate plea deals or go to trial.

Prosecutors may seek more prison time for offenders who commit gang-related crimes, so classifying suspects as gang members is an important part of the process.

Local law enforcement agencies document gang members if they meet two of nine criteria, such as admitting an affiliation with a gang or being identified as a gang member by an informant or sporting gang clothing and tattoos.

To win a gang conviction, prosecutors must convince a jury a crime was committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.

That benefit can be a tangible thing, such as money or drugs that are shared with a gang, or something less obvious, as in boosting a gang's reputation, making it easier for members to control the territory they claim through fear and intimidation.

Prosecutors also must show that the gang has three or more members and has committed two or more crimes in the past three years.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan, who has prosecuted gang crimes for eight years, said he will go after a 16-year-old who has no criminal record but uses a firearm during the commission of a crime in the same manner as a 24-year-old parolee who has tattoos on his face.

The prosecutor doesn't care if the offender is a hardcore gang member or an associate flirting with the gang lifestyle. If someone commits a crime in the name of a gang, and someone is killed or seriously injured, the district attorney's office will throw the book at them.

"If they pull the trigger, forget about it, no rehabilitation," Brennan said.

The authorities often tell juries about the statewide influence of Norteños and Sureños, and their roots in the prison system, rather than local subsets whose activities can be hard to pinpoint, such as the Deep South Side Modesto Norteños or the Airport Norteños.

Defense attorneys argue that any organized group whose members have been convicted of crimes -- such as members of the Los Angeles Police Department's notorious Rampart Division, an anti-gang unit that was the subject of a massive corruption scandal -- can be classified as a gang.

Defense attorney Frank Carson said his clients may claim a color, get tips from older homeboys and commit spontaneous acts of violence, but they are not soldiers in an organized criminal enterprise.

He noted that few of the youngsters can explain the roots of the north-south rivalry that began in prison in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Most of the time, they are drunk," Carson said. "You put a big dose of stupidity in there and unfortunately things happen."

Defense attorney Ramon Magaña said the young men may use drugs, steal to get more drugs and sell some of their stash. But they are not reliable enough to hold positions with the powerful Mexican drug cartels that control the methamphetamine supply.

"They're not going to hire some punk that is going to blow their operation and lead to their demise," Magaña said.

Baker wrote a paper about gangs that was published by the University of California at Berkeley's law school. He said many people have personal motives for crimes but are convicted of gang crimes because they hang out with gang members and have tattoos.

To Baker, that amounts to little more than guilt by association. "You can't punish membership in a gang on its own. It's not a crime to be a member of an organization, no matter how subversive or offensive it is."

Jerry Powers, chief probation officer, keeps an eye on the offenders in Juvenile Hall awaiting trial. Many have been to prison to visit fathers and uncles and older brothers, he said, and learned to steal and handle a gun by watching their elders. They have been to funerals for their friends, he said, yet still pick retaliation over reconciliation.

They cry when they're arrested, but by then, it's too late.

"These kids don't look like murderers when you take the gang paraphernalia off them," Powers said. "They look like kids. And they are kids. They're kids who committed murder. They pulled the trigger."

Three suspected Sureño gang members were arrested only 13 minutes after a San Francisco man, Rayas, was shot and killed at a family birthday party.

A year later, not much has happened in court, but Rayas' girlfriend, Yasmin Barazza, and sister-in-law Veronica Silva make regular trips from the East Bay to watch every minute of the legal proceedings.

"What else can we do?" asked Silva, who has nightmares about the party. "We feel helpless. We have to go and see if they're going to be punished for what they did."

She said people were talking and eating when the shooting started. Everyone scrambled, grabbing the children and pushing them inside a home in the 1300 block of Almaden Way.

Rayas, who worked in a warehouse and planned to go to art school, was hiding behind a car when a bullet hit him on his right side, puncturing his lung. He died hours later.

The authorities arrested three teenagers, who now are charged as adults, near the Seventh Street Bridge on June 10, 2006.

According to the police, the boys were in a green Honda that matched a description given by witnesses at two shooting scenes, the first on Almaden Way, where Rayas was killed, the second on Spokane Street, where another man was injured minutes later.

Rayas, 28, may have been mistaken for a Norteño because he was wearing a red San Francisco 49ers jersey. He leaves a son who asks about him daily. The boy, 7, wasn't at the party and won't learn what happened to his father until he is older.

"I'm trying to teach him that you don't go and retaliate, because that's not right," said Barazza, who planned to marry Rayas, her boyfriend of 11 years.

Tizoc, a junior at Johansen High School, was sitting at a picnic table in Oregon Park the evening of May 26, 2004, when she was shot and killed.

In the following days, six young men were arrested and charged with murder. One testified against his friends at a preliminary hearing in December, saying the Sureños sprayed the park with bullets because they saw red in the distance.

Mario Garcia, 20, told the court that the boys were angry because Norteños had broken their car windows the night before.

After the shooting, the boys sped out of town, dumped their car and got a ride to a dairy, where they made a little fire and cooked some "weenies," Garcia said. They didn't know 17-year-old Tizoc was dead until they returned to town hours later.

"I feel bad because of what happened," Garcia said when he testified under a grant of immunity. He will be released after trials are held for the others.

Tizoc's godmother, Celestina Rocha, teaches middle school in a town south of Salinas. She said the young lady who had a B-average promised her mother she would come home for dinner soon but stopped to watch some boys play basketball in a park less than a block from home.

"That blouse she was shot in, she had another one just like it," Rocha said. "It was her favorite color. It had nothing to do with gangs or anything like that."

Huerta, a college student who dreamed of becoming an architect, was not wearing red on Jan. 4, 2004.

Authorities think he was targeted by Sureños because he didn't show them the respect they crave after he bought a beer and a bag of potato chips at a Food Mart on Paradise Road.

Jerry Hernandez pulled his van into the parking lot and tried to stop three young men from pummeling Huerta. The young man who shot Huerta turned around and shot at Hernandez, too.

Two men pleaded no contest to assault with a firearm and gang charges as part of plea deals that carry nine-year prison terms. A third awaits trial on a murder charge.

Hernandez said he grew up around gangs and has been busted three times for auto theft. He works as a handyman and wants to warn youngsters about the dangers of gangs.

He said the young men who steal guns, deal drugs and compete to see who can get the most girlfriends have gone too far because now they are trying to make a name for themselves by shooting innocent victims.

He gets choked up when he talks about Huerta, who died in his arms. "They're not even targeting so-called enemies," Hernandez said. "It's just a thrill."

Boni Driskill holds an annual vigil for her daughter, Lacy Ferguson, who was shot to death after she and her boyfriend bought a pack of cigarettes at a Quik Stop Market on Aug. 24, 2003.

Authorities believe Norteño gang members were aiming at a man from Southern California, and missed. Ferguson was shot in the head and died on her daughter's third birthday.

Her mother has appeared on television's "America's Most Wanted," posted billboards about a $25,000 reward offered by the governor's office and even testified before Congress.

Ferguson's mother believes several people saw the shooting, yet won't speak up.

"That's the one thing I wrack my brain about," Driskill said. "What does it take to get people to come forward? We've done everything short of skywriting."

Eric Adorno wore a red jersey -- something that matched the red sneakers his wife gave him for his birthday a few days ear-lier -- when Sureño gang members killed him Aug. 24, 2003.

He was standing in a west Modesto alley, eating a McDonald's hamburger. He had dropped his kids off with their grandmother and was going to the hospital to see his wife, who was recovering from surgery.

His killers spent the day partying with friends at a home around the corner, which was shot at twice that day, according to gang members who testified against their buddies in return for plea agreements.

When the Sureños saw Adorno and his red shirt, they decided to take care of the "buster" in the alley, a derogatory term Sureños use for Norteños. One man drove slowly down the alley. Another ran up to Adorno, said "it's all about Sur Trece," referring to the Sureños, then shot him in the head, execution style.

Freddy Romero, who testified as part of a plea deal, warned his neighbors not to let anyone in the area wear red, because gang tensions were high.

Eric Adorno didn't get that message. Natosha Adorno said her husband didn't think about colors because he was a construction worker, not a gang member. Now his children have no dad, and no good explanation for this senseless violence.

Martel, 18, has fond memories of a stepfather who taught him to pop wheelies in his wheelchair and insisted that spina bifida need not drag him down.

Eric Jr., 14, doesn't talk about his dad, but he cried when Eric Adorno's killers received life sentences.

Natia, 8, doesn't understand all the details, but she knows her daddy is her angel.

"I was 5 years old when that happened," she said, "because he wasn't here on my sixth birthday."

Thursday: The changing gang landscape and the need for parents, teachers and community activists to intervene.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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