Officer’s Slaying Shocks even Gang Experts
Neighbors say a teen suspect may have tried to impress his dad.
Bettye Wells Miller, Ben Goad, Doug Quan And Rich Brooks, The Press-Enterprise (CA), Apr. 24
Even by gang standards, the shooting death of a California Highway Patrol officer at a Pomona courthouse last week was excessive, clergy and law-enforcement officials who work with gang members said.
Prosecutors have said the killing of Officer Thomas Steiner was gang-related. Pomona detectives have said the 16-year-old charged in Steiner’s death, Valentino Mitchell Arenas, might have wanted to join the city’s 12th Street gang. Arenas was charged Friday with first-degree murder.
“That kind of crime is way beyond what you would expect from an initiation,” John Macias, a 12-year veteran San Bernardino police patrolman who grew up in gang-ridden East Los Angeles, said Saturday. “Gangs don’t want that kind of heat brought down on them.”
Heinous acts within the gang subculture are all too familiar, Inland police said.
“Respect in the gang culture is not like what you and I know,” Riverside police Sgt. Frank Assumma, who has been with the gang unit since 1991, said by phone. “It’s synonymous with fear. What better way to instill fear in the community or inside the gang culture than to ultimately kill an authority? The biggest, baddest dog on the block is the most respected.”
Fontana neighbors of the Arenas family said Saturday they believe the teen was trying to impress his father, who was released from prison about three months ago. Valentino Arenas, the father, was re-arrested and booked into the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga on April 21 on a warrant and charges of falsely identifying himself to police. He is being held without bail.
Neighbors said gangs are not a problem in the Fontana neighborhood, and speculated that the younger Arenas had fallen in with the wrong crowd in Pomona.
Olga Kuric, who lives next door, described him as a nice person who seemed to be without friends. “He was always home with his mom and his three sisters,” she said. “He used to wash my car.”
Other neighbors said they noticed a change in Arenas after his father returned from prison. The once-pudgy teen suddenly lost about 30 pounds as he began spending more time with his father, going to work at construction jobs in the Pomona area.
“He never came out at all around here,” said 19-year-old Luis Acuna, who lives on the same block.
Gang activity appears to be increasing across the country, according to the National Youth Gang Survey, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The 2001 survey, the most recent available, found that nearly half of cities responding reported more gangs and gang members over the previous two years.
California’s prisons have only worsened the problem of gang violence, said a long-time observer.
“As the prisons grew, the gang situation got even worse,” Luis J. Rodriguez, an award-winning author, said by telephone Friday night. He is best known for his 1993 memoir of gang life, “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.”
“In prison … they’re going to get out as well-trained, sophisticated criminals,” he said.
Macias said most gang members are initiated in one of three ways:
They are “courted in,” usually a vote among the gang’s hierarchy when the would-be member is a family member or close associate of the gang.
They are “jumped in.” As many as six members of the gang fight the prospective member, sometimes beating him until he is unconsciousness. This is used to gauge toughness.
They commit a crime, from something minor to murder.
Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Justino Flores, who has tracked gangs in the Lake Elsinore area for more than a decade, said he was shocked to hear that Wednesday’s shooting may have been part of a gang initiation. In his experience, committing a crime usually means stealing a car, burglary, robbery or assault on a rival gang member. He’s never heard it escalate to murder.
Cheryl Kersey, San Bernardino County deputy district attorney, said by phone Friday that most gang members join at the ages of 12 to 14.
Kersey has prosecuted hundreds of gang cases, including nearly 30 gang-related homicide trials.
“It always seems to come back to: They don’t have guidance in their home life. Most of the time, they don’t have two parents raising them, so they never learn boundaries and respect for other people.”
Teens most at risk
As police crack down on gang leaders, gang behavior is getting more bizarre, said Richard Rios, pastor of Victory Outreach in Riverside. Many gangs are developing a war mentality and are attacking police, he said by phone.
Rios has worked with gangs in Riverside for seven years and in San Bernardino for 21 years.
“It’s a cycle, like with organized crime,” Rios said.
Macias said some youths turn to gangs because they know no other way. Many view it as a rite of passage. Some boys grow up in homes where their fathers or grandfathers are gang members and they don’t know any other way of life. Others are pressured by peers and gang leaders from their neighborhood.
“Some join a gang just to be safe in their neighborhood,” Macias said.
There is no typical victim of gang violence, Kersey said.
“It can be an innocent person walking down the wrong street. Most of the homicides are motivated by (protection) of gang territory,” she said. “That often confuses society, because they think the victim has to do something bad to get killed — and they don’t.”
Still, the shooting of a police officer is extremely unusual. Kersey doesn’t know of any officer being wounded during a random gang shooting in San Bernardino County. Nor does she easily accept the notion that the Pomona case stemmed from a teenager seeking gang membership.
Being 16, the age of the defendant, is a bit too old to be seeking gang membership, she said. But anything is possible.
“It could be an initiation,” Kersey allowed. “It could be showing loyalty to the gang. And the other thing you don’t want to say out loud: He could be just a freak — he could just want to shoot a cop. It’s hard for society not to have a reason. But sometimes there isn’t one.”