Hundreds of residents attended a community meeting organized by
Morgan Hill police Wednesday to air their frustrations about
escalating and ongoing gang violence, urge parents to keep an eye
on their kids and neighbors to get to know each other, and ask
questions about the Nov. 4 shooting that killed 14-year-old Tara
Hundreds of residents attended a community meeting organized by Morgan Hill police Wednesday to air their frustrations about escalating and ongoing gang violence, urge parents to keep an eye on their kids and neighbors to get to know each other, and ask questions about the Nov. 4 shooting that killed 14-year-old Tara Romero.
Police Chief David Swing spoke to the crowd of more than 300 residents, a standing-room only audience that spilled out the doors of the auditorium at the city’s community center, about the incident, the history of street gangs in Morgan Hill, and what police generally do to counteract gang activity. He and a panel of city and county officials also fielded questions from the crowd and opened up the floor for comments, many of which consisted of impassioned pleas for residents to pay attention to their surroundings and work together.
“It starts at home,” said Roland Barreras-Saldivar, whose son Jesse Saldivar, 18, was killed in a stabbing incident in Hollister in July. Barreras-Saldivar choked back tears as he talked about his son, and urged parents and community members to work together as “a unit” to help kids.
Romero, a freshman at Sobrato High School, was killed in the shooting which happened about 9:30 p.m. Friday on a grassy knoll at the corner of Del Monte and Cosmo avenues. She was one of four teenage victims who were leaving a birthday party at the Village Avante apartment complex when the shooting happened.
The community, including many people who did not even know her, has rallied around efforts to memorialize Romero and raise money for her family’s funeral expenses.
Prosecutors charge suspects
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office charged each of the five shooting suspects with murder, four counts of attempted murder, and discharging a firearm at an occupied home, according to D.A.’s office spokeswoman Lisa McCrary. All were charged with enhancements for firearms and street gang affiliations.
Esmeling Bahena, 18 of Morgan Hill; Ricardo Diaz, 19 of Morgan Hill; Fernando Mateo Lopez, 20 of Gilroy; Primitovo Hernandez, 23 of San Jose; and Ramon Gutierrez, 17 of Morgan Hill were arrested the night of the shooting and subsequently charged for the crime. Though he is younger than 18, Gutierrez was charged as an adult, McCrary said.
Police arrested the suspects shortly after the shooting. A Morgan Hill officer on patrol in the area saw the Chrysler 300 they were driving blow through a stop sign near Spring Avenue.
The officer turned around to pursue the vehicle, and heard the reports of the shooting over the radio at the same time. With the assistance of dozens of officers from nearby agencies, Morgan Hill police arrested the five suspects at a home on Barnell Avenue.
Two guns – a handgun and an assault weapon – were found in the suspects’ possession, police said.
The suspects are believed to be members of the Sureño street gang, police said. But the victims were not affiliated with or involved in any gang activity. Police think they may have been mistakenly identified by the shooters as someone else.
Carlos Flores, a Gilroy resident and former member of that city’s gang task force, said at Wednesday’s meeting he has worked with one of the suspects, as part of his work with a community agency that helps troubled youth. He declined to specify which of the suspects he worked with, but said that, in general, kids need prolonged guidance and more opportunities than just jail to correct bad behavior. Incarceration, he said, only worsens the situation.
“I think these communities that are wealthy, they’re not using their money for the kids that really need it,” Flores said. “There’s no such thing as a bad kid – it’s the environment they grew up in.”
Victim “fighting for her life”
Two wounded girls who were shot in the incident remain in the hospital, according to their aunt.
Rosa Castaneda, 14 of San Jose, is “fighting for her life” after being shot in the stomach, said her aunt Brenda Martinez of San Jose, who attended the meeting Wednesday. Castaneda suffered extensive internal injuries due to the gunshot and underwent emergency surgery. On Wednesday her family learned she had fluid in her lungs.
Alicia Sotelo, 14 of San Jose, who was shot in the leg, is still in the hospital. “She’s doing better, but she has a long road ahead of her,” Martinez said. “We’re hoping for the best. They have good friends and a caring family.”
The 15-year-old male victim, Alex Chavez of Morgan Hill, was treated and released within a day of the shooting, police said.
At Wednesday’s community meeting, Swing said there were more people than the four victims standing in the grassy area at the time of the shooting, and the suspects might have targeted the others. Swing urged anyone else who was there or who knows who was there to come forward.
In response to questions about what the police plan to do to alleviate gang and other crime problems at Village Avante and other parts of town, Swing said police have scheduled a meeting with the apartment complex property manager.
Village Avante has a history of gang-related activity, though police said earlier this week that it’s calmed down in the last couple of years.
Neighborhood continues to mourn
A makeshift memorial at the site of Romero’s death continued to grow this week. Flowers, candles, balloons and handwritten notes saying good-bye and bidding the teen to “Rest in Paradise” covered the murder site on a patch of grass between two apartment buildings.
Near the sidewalk at Del Monte and Cosmo avenues was a newer memorial, also made of balloons, candles and good-bye notes.
Several young teens stopped by the site after school Wednesday afternoon, standing silently over the site of their peer’s death, some praying. None of the teens wanted to speak publicly.
“It could have been any one of these kids,” said Village Avante resident Bill Shimko, 57, who lives with his teenage daughter in one of the apartments adjacent to the alleyway where Romero died. A stray bullet went through the wooden gate surrounding his backyard patio on the night of the shooting, Shimko said.
A previous shooting on Halloween night, on another street surrounding the sprawling apartment complex, did not result in any injuries, but Shimko and other residents think the same suspects were involved. The incident was not recorded in public police logs, and the residents said they did not report it.
And several days before that, several gang-related suspects standing on the corner of Spring and Barnell avenues flashed gang signs at another resident who was driving by. Later that same night, Oct. 22, the same suspects were seen driving by the intersection in a light brown Chrysler 300. That’s the same make of vehicle in which the suspects in the Nov. 4 shooting were traveling when the crime happened.
It is unknown if it’s the same vehicle, or if those involved in the previous incidents were the same suspects that allegedly shot Romero and her friends. Police did not return phone calls before press time Thursday.
“Parents have got to take control of their kids,” Shimko said. “They should put (Romero’s killers) away for life.”
Down the street at the same time as the community meeting, at the United Methodist Church, hundreds of teens and parents showed up for a spaghetti feed to raise money for Romero’s family and funeral-related expenses.
Amy Porter-Jensen spearheaded the effort. Her daughter went to school with Romero since elementary school. Porter-Jensen said Thursday they raised at least $7,000 on spaghetti dinner sales, which at $10 per plate means more than 700 dinners were served. The money was presented to Romero’s family that evening.
Dozens of teenagers – friends and acquaintances of Romero’s – lingered outside the church during the fundraiser. Damian Zuniga, 13, was one of dozens of teens wearing sweatshirts with Romero’s picture printed on the front. He carried a poster-sized card with a collage of pictures of Romero, and handwritten notes scribbled throughout.
“Taking her away was like taking a piece of our hearts,” said Zuniga, who attends Britton Middle School and has known Romero since he was small. “She would always put a smile on your face, and brighten up your day.”
– Car wash, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, at Napa Auto Parts,17175 Monterey Road in Morgan Hill. $5 per car and all proceeds goto Romero’s family.
– The Music Tree, 17470 Monterey Road, will raffle a Fenderguitar, amplifier and lessons. $5 per ticket, $500 value. Details:themusictree.com.
Donations can still be made to a Wells Fargo bank account set upby Romero’s sister for that purpose. The account number is7555832786, and the name of the account is “Regina Zamora/TaraRomero Fund.”
– 7 p.m. Sunday, vigil at Johnson Funeral Home, 17720 MontereyRoad.
– 10 a.m. Monday, funeral services and mass at St. CatherineCatholic Church, 17400 Peak Ave.
– A reception and celebration of Romero’s life will follow themass at the Gilroy National Guard Armory, 8490 Wren Ave. inGilroy.