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Community Regroups to Stem Emergence of Gang Violence

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jimmy Yoguez’s stabbing shattered illusions.

Before the 17-year-old’s death last summer, this suburban community had been largely immune to gang-related violence. The common wisdom held that people moved to Santa Clarita to escape the gang violence in the San Fernando Valley.

The killing “did make a lot of people realize, hey, it can happen in this community,” said Jim Ventress, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley Boys & Girls Club. “We have a problem. It’s not a big problem. But if we keep going this way . . . it could be.”

But almost six months after the first slaying in Santa Clarita involving local gang members, the community is regrouping. Bolstered by the heightened awareness that followed the slaying, civic leaders are placing increasing stress on gang prevention.

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“I hope it never happens again,” Ventress said. “That’s what a lot of people are striving for.”

Those efforts received a boost on Tuesday from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who handed over $10,500 of his discretionary funds to the Santa Clarita Valley Boys & Girls Club. Of that amount, $500 will be matched equally with other donations to create a mural designed and painted by young people in Val Verde.

In addition, Antonovich arranged for another $10,000 grant to the Amer-I-Can program, the anti-gang effort founded by former football star Jim Brown. Members of the organization will teach self esteem and life management skills and train young people to carry on the program’s ideals.

Although Santa Clarita’s gang problems pale in comparison to those of the neighboring San Fernando Valley, city officials expect gang problems to grow with the 25% increase in the youth population expected over the next 10 years.

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Gang membership has already increased dramatically in recent years despite a concerted effort by the city to prevent it, according to Sgt. Lee White, who runs the Santa Clarita sheriff’s station’s anti-gang unit.

White estimated that in 1991, Santa Clarita had 150 identified gang members. Four years later, that number had risen to 1,000, with up to 400 more gang members from other areas who regularly frequent the area.

Those numbers have alarmed city officials like Karin Nelson, the project coordinator for the Santa Clarita Valley Anti-Gang Task Force.

“Our gang problem is rapidly growing . . . but we have a huge denial problem,” Nelson said. "[Some] think we don’t have a problem here. And they are so wrong.”

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The city, for its part, has budgeted $20,000 for its anti-gang task force alone, in addition to other programs geared to youth in the community. The issue was discussed during the Mayor’s Conference on Youth and Family, held in November.

The prevention efforts escalated after the Aug. 8 slaying of Yoguez. The Val Verde teen was not thought to be a gang member, but some who knew him say Yoguez associated with known gang members.

Authorities believe Yoguez and two other Val Verde men had threatened 18-year-old Franklin Leon with metal pipes during a confrontation in Newhall and that Yoguez was slain in the ensuing fight. The district attorney’s office declined to file charges against Leon, saying the Newhall man apparently acted in self-defense.

Community leaders, seeking to cool tensions and prevent instant retaliation, fanned out to speak with gang members and other young people to learn what steps could be taken to prevent violence in the future.

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They later included gang members in an effort to save Val Verde’s park when it was feared that Los Angeles County government budget cuts would close it.

Shane Coleman, president of The Music Channel, began producing programs involving young people that air on a local radio station and on a public access channel, an effort to build self esteem among all young people in the community.

“The loss of Jimmy helped a lot of other young people,” Coleman said, “because they got to live the reality of a loss of life.”


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