Police arrested three men Wednesday in connection with the drive-by shooting that critically injured a toddler while he played in front of his west Modesto home last month.
The April 25 incident and a fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy later that night sparked two weeks of intense gang suppression in the city, spawned fear in nearby neighborhoods and prompted a number of community forums in which residents discussed ways to confront gang behavior.
The three men police say they believe to be responsible in the shooting of 22-month-old Josue Becerra have been in custody for 3½ weeks.
Brothers David Harper, 30, and Daniel Harper, 32, both of Modesto, were arrested on suspicion of violating parole April 26, the day after Josue was shot, according to Modesto police.
Roneel Prasad, 22, of Modesto, was arrested the next day, also on suspicion of violating parole, police said.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said department officials chose not to announce that three suspects were in custody because it could jeopardize the investigation.
"We just didn't want to release the information until we were ready to make an arrest," Wasden said.
Police detectives say they believe David Harper was the shooter, but they are trying to determine if anyone was in the car with him, said Sgt. Craig Gundlach, a Modesto police spokesman.
David Harper was charged with attempted murder, while Daniel Harper and Prasad were charged with being accessories to the crime.
Gundlach said Daniel Harper and Prasad took steps to hide evidence and help David Harper elude capture after the shooting.
Josue was shot in the abdomen about 7:30 p.m. as he played in front of his parents' rented home on H Street, a block from Modesto High School.
The toddler was rushed to Doctors Medical Center before being moved to Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland, where he underwent surgery. The bullet remains lodged in one of his kidneys, but he has been released from the hospital and the family has returned to the area.
Man was walking past home
Witnesses told police a man in his 20s, with a ponytail hanging past his waist and wearing a red sweater, was walking past the Becerra home just before the shooting.
At the same time, a dark compact car with a sunroof, possibly a Honda, drove by. As it did, the passenger fired through the sunroof in the direction of the house, according to witnesses.
Detectives have since found and spoken to the man with the ponytail, who is believed to be the intended target of the shooting, Gundlach said. But the motive is unclear to detectives.
Gundlach said the shooting possibly was gang-related, since he said David Harper and the intended target had some affiliation with gangs. But he also said there is a possibility the shooting was motivated by personal issues.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," Gundlach said. "We're looking at all possibilities."
Initial information gathered in the investigation led detectives to the Harper brothers and later to Prasad, but Gundlach said there wasn't enough evidence and witness statements to arrest them in connection with the shooting.
After a suspect is booked in jail on a charge, Gundlach said the district attorney's office has 48 hours to review the investigation and decide whether to file formal charges in court.
"Definitely, we weren't at that point," Gundlach said about the few days after the Harper brothers and Prasad were taken into custody.
Gundlach said the three men were in custody in jail on the parole hold, while detectives and gang investigators hit the streets to talk to more witnesses and people with information about the suspects.
Evidence was sent to state Department of Justice labs for examination. Detectives say they believe they found the car used in the shooting, but Gundlach declined to comment further for fear of tainting witness statements or deterring people from coming forward.
"We want to talk to more people, and we want them to describe what they saw from their recollections rather than what they are seeing or hearing in the news," Gundlach said.
He said investigators kept an open mind about who was involved in the shooting and did not focus all their attention on the men in custody.
"The last thing we wanted to do was announce that we have the suspects, and the actual suspect still be out there," Gund-lach said. "We wanted to make sure that these people were the individuals involved."
It wasn't until Wednesday that police detectives, with the help of the district attorney's office, had enough information to identify David Harper as the suspected shooter and the two others as accessories to the crime, Gund-lach said.
Images still haunt neighbor
Bernadette Vasquez, 37, on Wednesday afternoon talked about the shootings before police announced the arrests. She lives about 50 feet of Josue's home and had a clear view of the shooting as she walked in front of her home.
"I saw that car turning the wrong way on H Street and then bang, bang, bang," Vasquez said while pointing to Josue's home Wednesday. "Then we saw the father holding that baby."
The images of that evening still haunt Vasquez, and she wondered how anyone could get away with shooting an innocent boy who was just playing in front of his home.
"It still affects me today," Vasquez said. "That picture still comes out in my mind. It was just a little baby.
"This has to change. What's going to happen if another baby gets shot?"
A few things did change in this west Modesto neighborhood, Vasquez said. More police officers were seen patrolling the neighborhood and gang members changed their ways.
"Instead of wearing their gang colors, they wear the white T-shirts and the blue jeans," Vasquez said.
Teen and friend shot, one dies
Modesto police investigators are working on two other recent shootings.
A few hours after the toddler's shooting, Valdemar Rojas Jr. and his 15-year-old friend were riding their bicycles along Marlow Street, just north of Robertson Road, when a white sedan pulled up alongside and the car's occupants opened fire, according to Modesto police.
Rojas and his friend were chased into Rock Pine Court, where they were fired upon again, fatally wounding Rojas. His friend was treated for his injuries and released from a hospital.
Gundlach said the investigators have put in the same amount of effort into making arrests in the fatal drive-by, but there is little information about the shooting and no suspects have been taken into custody or identified.
Police investigators identified a suspect in the May 1 shooting death of Clarence "Buddy" Mason, but Maurilio Vasquez, 23, of Modesto has not been found.
Detectives believe Vasquez rode up on a bicycle and shot Mason and a 29-year-old man as they walked Mason's dog about 2:30 a.m. near Kerr and Larkin avenues in Modesto's airport neighborhood.
Modesto police ask anyone with information about these cases to call CrimeStoppers at 521-4636. Callers to CrimeStoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.