Dion Holloway, 17, told friends he was glad he was not affiliated with gangs because he did not have to look over his shoulder when he walked down the street in northwest Pasadena.
But on Sept. 25, Dion was shot and killed on a sidewalk in what police say was one of Pasadena’s 10 gang-related killings this year. His family believes Dion was mistaken for a gang member.
The killings have contributed to a growing sense of unease in northwest Pasadena and fears that gangs are becoming a larger force in the area.
Although 10 gang-related killings is a relatively small number compared to the figures in some cities -- there has been only one other homicide, unrelated to gangs, in Pasadena this year -- the toll is startling because of the city’s recent peaceful history. In the three previous years, there was a total of 13 gang-related killings.
From 2000 to 2003, there were one or two gang homicides every year, but none of the victims were juveniles. This year, in addition to Dion, a 16-year-old girl died in a shooting linked to gangs.
According to estimates that police say are conservative, there are 11 gangs with about 500 identified members in Pasadena and Altadena, the unincorporated community to the north. Gang activity in the city is almost entirely restricted to the northwest region, where most residents are black or Latino, city officials say.
Fear of gangs prompted Margie Geary to keep a watchful eye on Dion. Geary was his legal guardian, and he considered her his grandmother. “Dion never went anywhere by himself,” she said. “I drove him everywhere.”
On Sept. 25. Geary, 62, was in the hospital for knee surgery, so that night, Dion walked to a friend’s house to pick up some CDs. He never made it.
A little after 10 p.m., police found him dead of multiple gunshot wounds on the sidewalk in the 1700 block of Belmont Avenue. Three men have been arrested in the death of the youth, who had recently become a father and dreamed of playing football for USC and the NFL.
His mother, Vanessa Shepherd, 46, had spoken to Dion a few days earlier. “I had told him to be careful on the streets,” she said.
Shepherd, who lives in northwest Pasadena, said she intends to move away, as have others she knows in the area.
Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who came to Pasadena in 1996, compared the situation today to the 1993 “Halloween massacre,” when three trick-or-treating teenagers were killed by gang members.
That incident rocked Pasadena and led Melekian to create the No More Dead Children program that resulted in many gang arrests and a relative lull in the city until 2005, he said.
Melekian said many gang members imprisoned in the 1990s have since been released, which might explain the upswing in gang activity.
Comparing 1993 to today, he said: “That was the turning point then; this is the turning point now. I will shoulder a share of the blame for enjoying the accolades for zero [juvenile gang] homicides . . . but I really think on some level we turned the corner. Now it feels different in that we have a broad range of the community saying, ‘What do we do?’ ‘How can we be involved?’ This has the potential to be a great thing.”
One issue that may prove a roadblock, many residents say, is the role race plays in northwest Pasadena.
Chris Holden, a longtime councilman whose district includes the area, described it as a historically black community that is learning to adjust to the arrival of Latino residents, who now outnumber blacks.
At a recent meeting of a new community group called Neighborhood Outreach Workers, some residents painted a portrait of a city where blacks and Latinos are pitted against one another.
A few said that this year’s gang-related homicides were evidence of this, stating that Latinos were killing blacks and vice versa.
Police say that perception is wrong.
In 2006, Melekian said some homicides that year were the result of “an ongoing turf battle between black and Hispanic gangs.” But the killings connected to gangs this year, such as Dion’s, are not race-related, he said.
Police figures show that all gang-related homicides this year involved black or Latino victims. But of the eight killings with identified suspects, only two involved suspects and victims of different races, even though race was not a motive, police say. Two killings involved both Latino and black suspects.
There have been some racially motivated crimes this year, police said, but they have been beatings, assaults known on the street as “sock on Mexicans.”
The victims of these attacks, which involve robbery and, on occasion, the use of racial epithets, are Latino and usually male, police say. Victims and police describe the assailants as African American youths, some tied to gangs. A rumor that the assaults were gang initiation rites has not been substantiated by police.
Luis Melendez, 27, a day laborer from Honduras who came to Pasadena in 2005, said he was walking home from a job one night a year ago when three black men hit him on the head with a gun and tried to rob him.
“They said I deserved it because I am Latino,” said Melendez, who added that he did not report the attack to police because he is undocumented.
Police say the department logged 59 such assaults in 2006; 21 have been reported this year. Police attribute the drop to outreach work with Latinos likely to be targeted.
Black and Latino community leaders say they are aware that racial animosity, real or perceived, is an unavoidable issue. “I think that those types of criminal acts have served to perpetuate the perception of it,” said Councilman Victor Gordo, whose district also includes northwest Pasadena.
Many people say the killings have been a wake-up call.
LaWanda Sanforo, 54, has a 19-year-old son in jail awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder in a crime that police say was gang-related.
“At first, I was bitter, real bitter,” she said of her son’s arrest. A member of Neighborhood Outreach Workers, she works with youths. “Now for the children of Pasadena, I don’t want any more death,” she said.
Jean Burch, a lifelong city resident and pastor of the Community Bible Church, notes a recent change in the outlook of local religious leaders.
“We realized we were being as bad as the gang members themselves,” she said. “We only cared about our own churches. We now say we pastor a church of 146,000 people.”
Gordo said Latino and black community leaders already work together but can do a better job on gangs. “I think we all welcome the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to working together toward addressing the issue and root causes jointly,” he said.
Some city leaders, such as Holden, say gangs can be combated only by tackling those root causes, such as weak support for students at home or school.
The Rev. John McCall, a social worker and head of D’Veal Family and Youth Services, referred to the “school-to-prison pipeline” at John Muir High School, where Dion was a senior, the only secondary school to serve northwest Pasadena.
The four-year dropout rate at Muir is 30%, nearly double the district and county rates, according to the state Department of Education. More than half of the 10th-graders perform below grade level in math and English.
Pasadena schools Supt. Edwin Diaz called the situation at Muir “very, very disturbing.” Diaz hopes to create smaller classes, provide more individualized instruction and invest in helping at-risk families and children.
“I definitely believe that public education and the type of programs we provide can have an effect on the number of kids who eventually get involved in gangs,” Diaz said, adding: “It’s really an issue that needs the entire focus of the community to have a significant impact.”
Young residents share adults’ concerns. Belen Murillo, 17, a senior at Muir, said she sometimes feels unsafe at school. Derylreill Griffith, 16, a junior, said he and his friends “don’t go to parties because people get shot.”
Melekian said that several of the gang shootings occurred outside parties. Since February, police have made response calls to parties a higher priority. But the chief said there have not been many calls about parties lately.
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Pasadena at a glance
Area: 22.5 square miles
Ethnic/racial makeup: White 53.5%; African American 12%; Latino 34.9%; Asian American 13.6%; other 6.7%
Per capita income: $34,953
Median family income: $59,301
Sources: U.S. census, city of Pasadena