Update: 14-year-old girl shot and killed in MH; five arrested

Friends, family, acquaintances and people who didn’t even know Tara Romero, 14 of Morgan Hill, continue to mourn her death in a drive-by shooting Friday night.
Romero was one of four teenage shooting victims who were leaving the neighborhood near Village Avante apartments when gunshots rang out through the sprawling residential complex, and a car full of alleged Sureño gang members sped away. The suspected shooters were arrested shortly after the crime.

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Friends, family, acquaintances and people who didn’t even know Tara Romero, 14 of Morgan Hill, continue to mourn her death in a drive-by shooting Friday night.
Romero was one of four teenage shooting victims who were leaving the neighborhood near Village Avante apartments when gunshots rang out through the sprawling residential complex, and a car full of alleged Sureño gang members sped away. The suspected shooters were arrested shortly after the crime.
Police believe the shooters were gang members, and the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We don’t believe that the victims were gang-related, however the suspects are gang-affiliated,” said Morgan Hill police Capt. Jerry Neumayer. “All are being charged with homicide and attempted homicide. We believe they were targeting another rival gang, and may have thought (the victims) were from the rival gang.”
Also injured in the drive-by were a 14-year-old girl from San Jose with a bullet wound to her right leg, a 15-year-old boy from Morgan Hill who was shot in the leg, and a 14-year-old San Jose girl who was shot in the stomach, Neumayer said. At press time, the 14-year-old girl who was shot in the stomach was out of an induced coma imposed by doctors, but she remained in critical condition, Neumayer said. The other female victim remained in the hospital in “stable condition,” and was being monitored. Police declined to release the names of any of the victims.
The suspects arrested shortly after the crime are suspected members of the Sureño street gang. Police have responded to the Village Avante apartment complex in the past for gang-related activity, though the neighborhood has been relatively quiet the past two years, Neumayer said.
A Morgan Hill officer was patrolling the area when the incident was reported, Neumayer said. The officer saw the Chrysler blow through a stop sign, traveling quickly from the scene. He chased the car to an address on Barnell Avenue, calling for backup at that same time, Neumayer said.
Police set up a perimeter around the residence, and called out the suspected shooters with the help of Gilroy police, California Highway Patrol, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies and the Morgan Hill-Gilroy SWAT team, Neumayer said.
Arrested were Esmeling Bahena, 18 of Morgan Hill; Ricardo Diaz, 19 of Morgan Hill; Fernando Mateo, 20 of Gilroy; Primitovo Hernandez, 23 of San Jose; and a 17-year-old male from Morgan Hill. The four adults were booked into county jail, and the 17-year-old was booked into juvenile hall, Neumayer said.
Police declined to say which of the suspects is the shooter or shooters.
A handgun and assault rifle were found in the suspects’ possession – one inside the Chrysler and one outside near the Barnell Avenue residence, Neumayer said. The two girls were taken to Valley Medical Center, and the male was taken to San Jose Regional hospital, where he was treated and released, police said. Romero died before paramedics could take her to a hospital, witnesses said.
Police think the group was leaving a birthday party at an apartment at Village Avante, Neumayer said. They were outside on foot at the corner of Del Monte and Cosmo avenues about 9:30 p.m. when the suspects drove by in a Chrysler 300. At least one occupant of the car fired an unknown number of rounds at the teens. The victims tried to flee, but all four were struck by bullets.
At the site of the shooting, an impromptu prayer service organized by Romero’s friends and relatives was held Saturday afternoon.
Romero’s sister, Regina Zamora, said since the tragic shooting her family has been contacted by many people who want to help. The family set up a bank account at Wells Fargo for that purpose.
Zamora, 39 of San Jose, said her sister will be missed by many people.
“My sister was a beautiful young lady. She was outgoing, sweet, energetic, not afraid to be happy and dance with her older sister,” Zamora said. “She loved life and had lots of friends.”
On Sunday, flowers, candles, balloons and a photograph of Romero, a freshman at Sobrato High School, adorned the site where she died, in a grass alleyway between two apartment buildings. A resident of the apartment complex, who did not know the victims, was re-lighting candles that were drenched by Saturday night’s rain. The rain also washed away thick puddles of blood on the grass marking where the four teenage victims fell after being shot in what police characterized as an indiscriminate drive-by attack perpetrated by five gangsters who mistakenly thought the group on foot was associated with a rival gang.
Romero lived in Morgan Hill with her mother, Annette Romero-Navarez, who could not be contacted by press time.
Ann Sobrato High School students reacted at school Monday to the death of their fellow Bulldog. Principal Debbie Padilla made an announcement in the morning and held a moment of silence. Some students who knew her made T-shirts, including Susana Rodriguez, 14, a freshman. She and a friend wore their white T-shirts to school that read in teal letters “RIP Tara” on the front.
“It was real quiet today without her, she was the one that made everyone smile,” said Rodriguez, who had third period biology with Romero and went to Martin Murphy Middle School with her as well. “We weren’t super close, but it’s still hard.”
Residents, witnesses shaken by attack
On Saturday morning, shocked residents of Village Avante and witnesses to the crime described a tragic scene the previous night. Thick layers of blood painted the grass where the victims fell. A 29-year-old woman, who was one of the first bystanders outside after the gunshots stopped, stood staring blankly at the murder site, trying to process what she saw Friday night.
“Poor little innocent girls, they were just minding their business,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. She and her five sons were visiting her mother who lives at Village Avante.
Numerous residents reported hearing the gunshots, which they said numbered between six and 12.
The victims were shot while standing near a grassy knoll on the corner, between the sidewalk and the apartment buildings. Witnesses said they carried Romero to another grassy spot about 50 feet away, in an alley between two buildings.
A 12-year-old boy was watching television at home alone when one of the rounds entered his living room, putting a bullet hole in the wall near the ceiling. The boy’s father, Leopoldo Cervantes, 62, showed where the bullet came through the fence outside, into the apartment’s dining room, through two bathroom walls and into the living room.
Police said stray bullets struck three apartments.
The last murder in Morgan Hill happened Oct. 4, 2009, when Juan Arellano, Jr., was shot with a handgun outside the Crest Avenue apartments. That incident was gang-related, but no one has been arrested in connection with the murder.
Police are planning to conduct a neighborhood meeting to reach out to shaken residents and address their concerns about the violent incident.

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