Merced County community leaders and law enforcement on Wednesday reacted to a deadly Atwater-area shooting that ended three young people's lives.
Meanwhile, the father of one of the victims spoke out. Robert Fisher lost his 19-year-old son, Matthew, in Saturday's shooting, which authorities have ruled gang-related.
Fisher said his son was not involved with gangs, but may have known some of the people who were.
"If you are around someone that's in a gang, you're guilty by association," Robert Fisher said. "That's how they label you now. It's sad. He should be entitled to go to a party without getting killed."
Matthew Fisher was one of the three people shot to death at a residence near the 9200 block of Westside Boulevard about 11 p.m. Saturday. Samantha Parreira, 16, and Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18, also were killed.
Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, whose district covers the area where the crime happened, said violence is unfortunately "a common occurrence in our society, and it's a tragedy."
"Parental involvement (in preventing violence) is huge, and so is having the right kind of role models for kids. We'd rather spend our tax dollars on education than incarceration," she said.
Law enforcement agencies countywide have grappled with the gang problem for years. In Merced, police arrested 1,094 people with gang affiliations last year -- 847 adults and 247 juveniles. There are about 68 different groups of gangs, said Lance Eber, crime analyst with the Merced Police Department.
According to a Merced police analysis in January, there are 1,862 people living in Merced with known gang affiliations -- 1,374 adults and 488 juveniles. And a majority of those people, about 1,655, are men.
Sgt. Kevin Blake, who supervises the Merced County Sheriff's STAR Team specializing in narcotics and gang enforcement, said he has dealt with gang members for most of his 13 years with the department. "It's not surprising to me -- I've done this job long enough that those tragedies don't surprise me anymore," he said.
But what is troubling is that gang violence is starting at a much younger age, and sometimes even at home. "A lot of these young people are completely immersed in the gang culture at a young age or even born into it because of family members," Blake said. "It's a very challenging cycle to break because a majority of these kids have never been shown another way to live."
Blake said he came across some gang members as a deputy, and he sees their children in the same gangs. "It comes full circle," he said. "They were brought up in that lifestyle, and a lot of times it's multigenerational."
As the problem often starts at home, Blake said, the solution might be to educate the children from a young age. "It's this community's job to educate these kids and let them know there's an alternative way of life," he said. "There's support out there to leave the gang life behind."
Education is more effective at a younger age and easier to relate to when it comes from reformed gang members, he said.
But despite best efforts, not all the kids can be saved, Blake said. "There are those cases that you can try and try and try, and you're not going to be successful in changing their views of the world."
And for those cases, there needs to be zero tolerance and full enforcement, he added. "Our citizens have the right to walk down the street without being afraid of getting shot," Blake said.
Atwater Police officer Robert Vargas, who works as a school resource officer at Atwater High School, said there's been a spike in the number of gang-related incidents he handles.
"I have noticed a tremendous increase in the amount of gang fights and retaliatory incidents that come across my desk," he said, citing at least one or two cases each week.
Vargas said that as gangs grow in size and recruit new members, they're fighting to establish their territory.
But out of the school's population of about 1,800 students, Vargas said he deals with about 100 on a regular basis.
He believes one of the solutions to combating youth violence is getting kids involved in after-school programs, which he said have been a tremendous help.
"It's very important we continue supporting programs that keep kids active after school and show them that there's other things out there," Vargas said. "Without those programs, I think we'd be in worse shape than we are now."
The Boys and Girls Club of Merced County offers such programs for youth as well as a "safe place with adult supervision," said Executive Director Tony Slaton.
Slaton said the club's membership is just under 800 kids, but he sees many young people who aren't plugged into family and community values.
"It starts with the parents, but it's too easy to blame parents," Slaton said. "I most often meet parents who are seeking help, looking for assistance, wanting to become better leaders. But where are those places that parents can get help to become better leaders?"
Slaton believes community leaders, schools and government need to come up with a solution. "I would say that the leadership really needs to come together and have some serious conversation about caring and nurturing our youth."
In the meantime, the Merced County Sheriff's Department is "aggressively investigating" the triple homicide and pursuing potential leads, said its spokesperson, Deputy Delray Shelton.
"People can rest assured that the case is being handled by competent and well-trained supervisors and investigators," Shelton said. "The case is progressing."
The Sheriff's Department is asking anyone with information to call (209) 385-7444. Tips can remain anonymous, Shelton said.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.