The sign, a new roadside marker, bears the name of her youngest son, Antonio Marks. For Reyes, the sign will be a painful reminder of mistakes and loss.
She also hopes it will be a warning to kids that joining a gang or aspiring to be a gangster will put them on the wrong path.
“My son died because he was in a gang,” Reyes said.
A year ago today, Marks, 17, was beaten and stabbed to death in downtown Sultan by a group of teens who claimed allegiance to the Brown Pride Soldiers. The members, then ages 16 to 19, carried light blue bandanas. Some penned “BPS” on their backpacks. Their young skin was marked with gang-inspired tattoos. These small-town kids believed they were a gang.
Their reputation for committing crimes was growing in the months before Marks’ death, but the brutal slaying caught the town off-guard.
Gang violence seemed like a problem for big cities, not somewhere like Sultan. The east county town is home to about 4,200 people.
Research shows, however, that nationwide, gangs are spreading into rural communities. Police have identified 60 active gangs in Snohomish County and 850 gang members and people affiliated with gangs. There are gang members in every city in the county. In a 2008 survey, more than 1,000 eighth-graders and high school sophomores and seniors reported being in a gang.
The murder was a wake-up call, said Dave Wood, director of services for the Sky Valley Volunteers of America.
“If it can happen on main street in Sultan, it can happen anywhere,” he said.
In the year since the murder, city and school officials, community advocates and residents have taken a hard look at their town. They’ve searched for ways to prevent further tragedies.
They say the work is paying off.
Overt gang activity has nearly disappeared, Sultan Police Chief Jeff Brand said. People have become more aware of the signs of gang activity. The town has seen a surge in volunteers and community activism. New programs to help youth were started, and others will begin in the coming months. A senior center even arose out of the community meetings that were held shortly after the murder.
“We’ve come a long way since last June,” Wood said. “There is more to be done.”
The city was awarded a grant to start a teen court. Beginning in the fall, high school students will sit as judges and dole out the punishment for young, first-time offenders who commit low-level, nonviolent crimes. The teen courts have proved effective in preventing some kids from getting into more trouble, said Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick.
A mentoring program also is expected to begin in the coming school year. More kids are attending the weekly Saturday night Safe Stop program. A similar program that offers late-night activities for youths was started on Wednesday nights in Gold Bar.
Young people also are noticing a difference.
“The violence at my school has gone down,” 16-year-old Fabiola Arroyo said. “The administration is more aware. They reach out and try to help if anyone has problems.”
Staff can’t control what happens in a student’s home, but they want to create a family atmosphere at school so kids don’t feel like they need to join a gang for acceptance, Sultan School District Superintendent Dan Chaplik said.
“We want these 2,000 students to feel like we care about them as much as if they are our own kids,” he said.
The 2009 murder also sparked and increased efforts around the county to address gang violence.
The county’s Community Gang Response Team was able to secure a $200,000 grant to fund a street outreach program. Advocates will work with at-risk youths to connect them with programs aimed at providing kids with the resources.
The murder led organizers to specifically target the Sky Valley, including Sultan and Monroe, said Marty Arellano, director of youth operations with Cocoon House.
United Way of Snohomish County recently donated money to fund a county school outreach specialist. That person will be meeting with districts to work on creating school policies specifically around preventing gang and youth violence, Arellano said.
Community advocates say they would like to see more parent involvement when it comes to preventing youth violence. In Sultan, about 25 parents attended a training session to learn about the signs of gang activity.
Reyes hopes to speak to parent groups in the future.
“I shouldn’t have let my guard down,” Reyes said. “I was worried, but the denial got in the way. We need to open our eyes. This is real. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
Reyes said she is grateful to the city for agreeing to put up the sign. She hopes the marker will make a difference in someone’s life.
Her son’s killers are behind bars. The five are serving 10- to 15-year sentences for murder.
There remain seven to eight members of Brown Pride Soldiers in town, Wood said. They don’t seem to be engaged in serious gang activity, police said.
Eslick said Sultan is moving forward. She doesn’t want the town to only be known for a single, tragic incident.
“There is not the gang-feel in our community anymore. I think a lot more people feel safe walking the streets,” she said.
Sultan is a community on the mend but there is still a need to be vigilant there and in all cities, said Ann Gifford, the director of community partnerships with the sheriff’s office.
“We know if we stop paying attention, we’ll have a crisis on our hands,” she said. “We’ll never be able to dust off our hands and say, ‘That’s all taken care of.’”
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; email@example.com.
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