MODESTO Twelve stone-faced teens and young adults glumly took seats in the front row. None wore colors, but subtle signs could be seen tattoos, a sports team lanyard favored by a certain gang, a T-shirt bearing a picture of a handgun and the bold words "Trigger Happy."
One had accepted an invitation to attend. The rest were compelled by probation terms. None appeared excited to be there.
Opposite the youths sat a panel of adults. Some wore badges. All wore stern expressions.
For the next hour, the young people said nothing. One by one, the adults stood to warn, threaten, exhort and encourage the budding gang members to choose some other path, any other path.
"If you could just hear one time your mother or your grandmother or your sister just grieve over your bedside," said trauma nurse Anita Schlenker as the young people squirmed, some looking down. "I just imagine what they're saying as they're grieving over your body, whether you're dead or paralyzed or in a coma. They're asking, 'Why? Why did you choose this lifestyle for us?' "
Across the United States, penetrating injuries gunshot and stab wounds account for 11 percent of emergency room trauma, on average. Last year in Stanislaus County, such wounds, commonly associated with gang violence, stood at 27 percent.
"Each one of you is headed for death or prison for life if you don't make choices to extricate yourself from a violent lifestyle," federal prosecutor Kim Sanchez told them.
Wednesday's gang call-in, as such meetings are labeled, was the latest in the Modesto Police Department's four-year intervention effort aimed at teens and young adults on the bubble. The invitees already have had trouble with the law and are known to associate with hard-core gangsters, but haven't yet been caught doing something worthy of a long sentence.
Without a course correction, the speakers said, that surely is coming. Seasoned gangbangers force young members to do the dirty work, authorities say, and it's getting ever dirtier.
Modesto gang murders, assaults and drive-by shootings have increased an average of 149 percent in seven years. The city endured 98 gang-related shootings in 2012 alone. Authorities say 64 gangs with about 5,000 members and many more aspirants operate throughout Stanislaus County.
"The path you're on, you have to be pretty naive to be in a gang and think, 'I'm not going to have to eventually kill someone,' " said former gang member Joshua Daniel. He was nearly 30 the first time he drove a car, having been locked up since his mid-teens.
Some presenters tried a "scared straight" approach.
"If the violence doesn't stop, we will be coming to your house. We will be targeting you. We will be rifling through your stuff," Police Chief Galen Carroll told them. Police could hassle their family members or park an armored vehicle at their homes to photograph anyone coming and going, he added.
County prosecutor Tom Brennan said he has put hundreds of gang members in prison and would do the same to these youths if they don't wise up.
"I'm good at it. I thrive on doing what I do," Brennan said. "You know what that makes me? If you keep committing the crimes, I'm your worst enemy because I like doing it. So I beg you: take advantage of this only opportunity."
Status will be tracked
As the meeting closed, each young person was paired with a volunteer to assess needs: tutoring, job searches, counseling. Others with Youth for Christ will follow up and track their status.
The Modesto City Council last week agreed to pay Youth for Christ $50,000 to take over coordinating duties for the Police Department's Project Ceasefire, formerly known as Project SAFE. It's modeled after a Boston program that had some success steering at-risk youth away from gangs.
Earlier Wednesday, Youth for Christ workers joined a barbecue at Elliott Alternative High School, played volleyball with students and addressed a math class. The room became quiet when Joseph Cabral, 34, said he brought a gun to his school in the Bay Area and later stabbed a teacher. He has spent most of his life behind bars.
"You like being told what to do?" Cabral asked students. "I know you guys don't. Don't go to jail or to prison because you get told all the time what to do, what to eat, when to shower."
Such persuasion has mixed results.
About a third ignore the advice and commit new crimes. Three young women attending a call-in late last year specifically were warned not to avenge recent aggression from another gang. Three months later, police say, they were among a group that hunted down, stabbed, shot and murdered a rival in east Modesto, and nine now face murder charges.
"The good news is, we're identifying the right people" for intervention those who could be on the verge of bad choices, said police Lt. Scott Heller.
Another third grasp the lifeline and check out resources, and the remaining third drift off the radar; police count both latter groups as wins because the net effect is less violence.
A former gangbanger who attended a 2010 call-in got job-training help and has stayed out of trouble. He worked up from apprentice to mechanic for a local company and now drives a truck throughout the region, police say.
Cabral, one of two former inmates reaching out at Elliott, also appeared at the gang call-in that evening, speaking from experience and from the heart.
"I don't know my dad. My mom and sister are big-time dope fiends," he said. "I've committed robberies my whole life. I've had very bad anger still do. I'm still broken.
"But I'm going to tell you the truth: I'm here because I don't want you making the same mistakes I made. I don't know any you cats, but I love every single one of you."
On the Net: www.ci.modesto.ca.us/mpd/crime/gangs.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
Gang intervention: Project Ceasefire, (209) 342-9194; Wake Up, (209) 572-9873; Juvenile Justice Behavioral Health, (209) 525-5401
Job training: Work for Success, (209) 652-1252; Project YES, (209) 566-1558; Alliance Worknet, (209) 558-6988
Parent and student support: (209) 569-2873
Counseling: Center for Human Services, (209) 526-1440; Josie's Place, (209) 558-4464; crisis line, (209) 558-4600
Homeless youth: Pathways, (209) 526-3809
Substance abuse: Alateen, (209) 524-3907; First Step, (209) 527-3270
Literacy: Stanislaus Literacy Center, (209) 548-9266