Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wapato: Gang violence ensnares innocent Wapato teen

(Copyright (c) 2009 Yakima Herald-Republic)

WAPATO -- Trouble was the last thing Manuel Gomez was looking for as he celebrated his daughter's 11th birthday this weekend.

He'd left the gang life more than three years ago, earned a GED and is three years into college, but his old gang ties continue to haunt him.

And because of that, an innocent 16-year-old neighbor remains hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the face.

"I'm really sorry for the family," Gomez said. "I really feel bad for the family."

Gunfire isn't unusual in a neighborhood just outside Wapato where graffiti-tattered bungalows dot the area. But neighbors say it's the first time a bystander was caught in the cross hairs of gang violence.

Gomez said nearly a dozen children and their parents -- some of them with gang ties -- had gathered Saturday at his singlewide trailer on Horschel Road for the party when a handful of gang members living down the street showed up.

What followed has become an all too familiar scenario in the Yakima Valley: Words were exchanged. Shots were fired.

The mother of Gomez's children, Veronica Ortega, ordered all the children to the back of the house.

"I told them to go to their room and stay down," she said.

A handful of men at the party immediately ran outside, Gomez said.

"They told them to drop the guns and fight like a man," he said. "They wouldn't."

The melee then moved down the street, where more shots were fired.

Sergio Salinas, 18, who lives four doors down, said he heard arguing and gunshots when he looked out his bedroom window. He told his curious 11-year-old sister to go into the other room, away from the disturbance.

"They were arguing and all of a sudden they started shooting," he said, standing outside of his home Monday.

As he dialed 9-1-1, his 16-year-old brother, Jose Salinas, peered out the window, and a stray bullet smashed into his face.

His mother pressed a towel over the wound, which was gushing with blood, Salinas said.

In critical condition, the teen was rushed to Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, where he's since been upgraded to serious condition.

He's breathing with the help of a ventilator.

Sergio Salinas said doctors told him the bullet broke his brother's jaw, traveled down his spine and may have lodged near his kidney.

Sergio Salinas said neither he nor his brother have any ties to gangs.

Police described Jose Salinas as "an innocent victim of the senseless violence."

Five people were released after being questioned at the scene, Stew Graham, the Yakima County Sheriff's Office's chief of detectives, said Monday.

There aren't any leads on an arrest, but investigators will continue to question people in the area, he said.

Sergio Salinas said his family is tired of the problems that continue to spew from an apparent gang house on Hoffer Road and adjacent to theirs in the 100 block of Horschel Road.

"They always get into arguments," he said. "Last time they got into an argument with a girl and almost ran her over."

Gomez said his family knows the victim's family and feels bad about the shooting.

"I never knew that kid to start trouble or anything," Gomez said. "It should have never happened to him."

But it's not the first run-in he's had with those gang members.

"They've already been shooting at my house," he said sitting in his living room Monday morning, explaining that he knows one of them. "These guys know I used to be in gangs."

His three children, which include another daughter, 6, and a 5-year-old son, were lying on the living room floor under blankets Monday morning watching cartoons. There was no school.

"I now have them sleeping in the living room because I was scared of having them sleep in their bedroom," he said.

He wasn't sure if his house was hit with a bullet Saturday night.

His son crawled from beneath the blankets, walked to the living room window and pulled the drapes back. "Right here, see," he said pointing to a gunshot hole in the window.

"I have to teach them if they hear shooting to just stay down," he said. "I feel bad that I have to teach them that."

Gomez, 27, grew up in the area, dropped out of high school and joined a gang. But he left gang life more than three years ago, and earned his GED and is in his third year of college, where he's seeking a degree in social work.

He recently went to Olympia to talk to lawmakers during a student leadership conference about gangs. As he spoke, his mother flipped through pictures of him in Olympia at the conference with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

"I do regret making bad choices," Gomez said. "I'm trying to leave that behind now. I'm trying to grow up. It haunts me, you know."

His only fear now is that this problem may not go away anytime soon.

"I'm not looking for any retaliation or anything," he said. "I just want it to stop."