A booming Pasadena fights rise in gang killings

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Times Staff Writers

A double killing early Friday in Pasadena is the latest in a string of gang-related shootings over the last year that has officials and residents in the city’s northwestern district on edge.

The shootings have occurred in a relatively small section of Pasadena and involve what officials believe is a gang clash.

Pasadena won much praise for reducing gang violence over the last 14 years, a concerted effort that started after the high-profile killing of three teenage boys leaving a Halloween night party in 1993.


The crackdown resulted in a major drop in crime -- particularly among young people and gangs. The city, which in the 1980s recorded more than 30 homicides a year, by 2002 recorded just three, according to FBI records. But then, homicides started rising.

Over the past 18 months, there were 18 homicides in Pasadena.

The violence has sparked a series of community forums, a new crackdown by Pasadena police and some political soul-searching.

Pasadena has been in the midst of a building boom, adding pricey condos and apartments to its thriving downtown retail district along Colorado Boulevard. But some community activists believe the city needs to focus more attention on its poorer areas to the north, which have large black and Latino populations.

“What we need now as a community, just like any other community, is political will,” said Dianne Segura, executive director of the local YWCA, which launched an initiative in late May called Mothers on the Move to fight the rising violence. “We are only 23 [square] miles. If we can’t solve what’s happening in our neighborhoods, then shame on us.”

The city’s image has long been burnished by the annual Rose Parade, which paints the town as awash in princesses and flowers. In the regal neighborhoods near the Rose Parade headquarters and Rose Bowl, it’s difficult to find a house for less than $1 million, with mansions going for $3 million or more. A gentrification boom has sent housing in other neighborhoods -- notably those with restored California bungalows -- to similar levels.

But the image of prosperity belies the struggles of neighborhoods just north of downtown Pasadena. That area has for generations been an enclave for African Americans and more recently has become an entry point for immigrants from Latin America. (Latinos now make up about 33% of the population, a growth that has generated some tensions with African Americans, who make up about 15% of the city.)


The median annual household income hovers around $51,000, according to U.S. Census figures. Still, nearly 10% of families in the city, and 14% of families with children under 18, have incomes below the poverty line -- numbers that put it on par with state averages.

The gang crime problems, said City Councilman Chris Holden, are a reminder that despite Pasadena’s upscale reputation, other parts of the city need help.

“We have the affluent, but we also have a segment that is really challenged, and brings with it all of the challenges of an urban community,” Holden said. “The reality is that there’s a subculture out there that is using drugs and influence in that way to make money, and they are going to be warring with each other. Pasadena is not immune to that.”

Pasadena police officials said they are responding aggressively to the problems.

In the last year, police recorded 68 incidents in which Latinos were attacked late at night by groups of young African American men as part of a gang initiation. Authorities have since tripled enforcement levels in northwest Pasadena.

The crackdown has reduced such assaults, but gang-related killings continue.

The two men killed shortly before 2 a.m. Friday in the 1500 block of Navarro Avenue in northwest Pasadena were identified as Joseph Vargas, 31, and Sergio Mendes, 34, both of Pasadena. Both men died at Huntington Memorial Hospital from numerous gunshot wounds after being transported by paramedics. Police believe the shootings were gang-related.

By Friday afternoon, police arrested three suspects in Covina in connection with the double slaying: Jonathon Warren, 22; Diana Reyes, 20; and a male juvenile whose name and age were not released.


Earlier in the day, just a few blocks from where Vargas and Mendes were shot, detectives served search warrants in a multi-city sweep related to the slaying in December of Tommie James Evans.

Evans was shot as he sat on his porch in the 100 block of West Washington Boulevard in what police described as gang retaliation for an earlier shooting.

Pasadena police spokeswoman Janet Pope Givens said the rise in shootings may be attributed to a surge in the number of young males ages 18 to 30 or to older gang leaders who have been returning to the area after serving time in prison.

Pasadena has long struggled with issues of gangs and violence. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the subject came up weekly at council sessions as gangs -- mostly Bloods and Crips and their various cliques -- warred over turf.

The violence came to a head with the Halloween slayings of 1993. Three members of a particularly violent gang eventually were sentenced to death for the fatal shootings of three innocent teenage boys carrying bags of candy on their way home from a party.

Authorities said the boys were killed in a case of gang revenge gone wrong.

The killings spawned dramatic changes in the way Pasadena combats gang crimes.

When Chief Bernard Melekian took over the Pasadena Police Department in 1996, he quickly went on the offense, declaring, “No more dead children.” Melekian began a gang enforcement task force and several programs to help young people, including a juvenile-offender peer group court.


In addition, anguished residents staged memorials and lobbied for tougher gun laws.

They formed several community groups and funded summer jobs and violence prevention efforts.

But the gangs remained, say authorities, and now include five African American gangs in Pasadena, each one part of the Crips or Bloods; and six Latino gangs. Neighboring Altadena is home to at least two more gangs.

Pasadena police sources said that many of the shootings, while not specifically related, have at least in part been engineered by gang members, and that some are over drug territory.

“We are targeting known gang members, gang locations and late parties,” Melekian said. “This is a reminder this stuff doesn’t go away. This is a societal problem.”

Melekian said that while some of the violence is between Latino and African American gangs, he believes the racial tensions are easing and are less a factor than battles over drug turf. Many of the recent shootings involve suspects and victims of the same ethnic group, he added.

Although authorities blame gangs, community leaders say that the root causes of the violence are much more complicated.


“Officials don’t want to offend the black community who holler, ‘Do something’ on one hand but then yell, ‘Not my kid,’ ” said Joe Hopkins, a local attorney and the publisher of the Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley Journal, the area’s African American newspaper.

Hopkins, along with Segura of the YWCA and others, pointed to changing demographics in the city, which is now almost 60% nonwhite.

“We are feeling that it is not all gang related -- that it’s inequity related,” Segura said.

Melekian said that Pasadena proved after the 1993 Halloween killings that it could work together to reduce crime, and that moment has again arrived. “Several years ago, this community proved that it could do that,” he said. “This senseless killing needs to stop.”



Recent shootings

Here are details of some of the attacks in the Pasadena area this year.

Feb. 2

Deon Mitchell, 21, was shot in Pasadena and died at 10:03 p.m. Mitchell was a Navy reservist with no ties to gangs, police said. He was in a parking lot, about to get into his car with several friends, when a man walked up with a hood over his face and started shooting. The suspect then got into a dark four-door compact car and fled. Mitchell’s 17-year-old brother Dana Clark was shot five times in the chest during the incident, but lived. Both are considered by police to be random victims.


Feb. 7

Shawn Baptiste, 18, was shot several times in a car at Lincoln Avenue and Orange Grove in Pasadena about 7:53 p.m. and died the next morning, in what investigators called a gang-related killing.

May 7-8

In a 24-hour period, shootings left Tony Walker, 37, and Jamal Varcasia, 21, dead and Christian Peralta, 19, paralyzed. Walker was sitting in a car with another man at 120 E. Washington Blvd. when drive-by assailants attacked. He was shot in the head and torso and died at 1:56 p.m. May 7. Varcasia was struck at close range by 9-millimeter bullets in Pasadena and died at 10:20 a.m. May 8. Three men and a woman have since been arrested and charged with the slayings of Walker and Varcasia. A 15-year-old boy faces an attempted murder charge in the attack on Peralta.

June 4

Leron Brown, 31, was fatally shot while sitting in his car outside an Altadena liquor store, just before 3 p.m. Around 10:30 p.m. the same day, a 25-year-old man was shot in the arm in the 1300 block of Marengo Avenue in Pasadena.

June 5

An unidentified man was shot in the 100 block of Mountain View Street in Altadena, possibly in retaliation for the June 4 killing of Leron Brown.

July 27

Joseph Vargas, 31, and Sergio Mendes, 34, were killed in a shooting in the 1500 block of Navarro Avenue in Pasadena. Detectives later arrested three people in Covina: Jonathon Warren, 22, Diana Reyes, 20, and a male juvenile whose name and age were not released. Investigators said the shootings appear to be gang-related.

Sources: Pasadena Police Department; Times reports