Family and friends of slain teenager David Sandoval release white balloons following a service at Bible Baptist Church on West Casino Road in Everett to honor his life on Tuesday evening. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Family and friends of slain teenager David Sandoval release white balloons following a service at Bible Baptist Church on West Casino Road in Everett to honor his life on Tuesday evening. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Gang activity on upswing in Everett

City leaders and neighborhood activists search for answers to violence.

EVERETT — His parents raised him not to fight.

Ricardo Heredia was skinny in middle school. He hadn’t yet grown into his 6-foot-2 frame. Until eighth grade, he was the only Mexican immigrant in his class.

He listened to bullies spout racial slurs and remembered his parents’ advice. He walked away.

Months after Heredia graduated from high school, young men belonging to a Casino Road gang jumped his friend. The teen was leaving a quinceañera near Forest Park on a Friday night. A group of 20 circled around him in a dark parking lot.

Heredia and his friend met in eighth grade. They understood what it was like to feel as if they didn’t belong. They looked out for each other.

Heredia ignored his parents’ teachings when he heard what happened.

He and others tracked down the gang at a party in Mill Creek the next night. Close to 30 young men fought outside with fists and knives.

Heredia was stabbed three times. He didn’t realize he was hurt until he saw the blood soak through his shirt. The blade had punctured his liver.

Now, at 27, he shares his story with teens he meets through the YMCA’s community center on Casino Road. Heredia graduated from college and now helps others navigate the challenges he learned to overcome. He encourages them to build a life away from the violence that has become all too common in south Everett, inside and outside city limits.

In the past year, a 14-year-old boy was fatally shot outside an apartment building. The alleged shooter was 13. He reportedly had borrowed a gun wrapped in a blue bandana from a 12-year-old friend.

Some young people think they need to live by an unspoken code of bravery, Heredia said. They believe they must stand up not only for themselves, but for others who would also protect them. They won’t take their troubles to parents or teachers.

They might not see the consequences until it is too late, he said.

The uptick

A surge in gang-related violence — coupled with the shootings, deaths and arrests of young people most often connected with those crimes — woke the city.

Police counted 80 reports of gunfire between December 2016 and December 2017. That includes people firing weapons into the air, at homes and toward others. For most of last year, that happened on average about once a week.

About 10 percent of the incidents occurred along a mile-long stretch of W. Casino Road — an epicenter for warring gangs. However, a broader look shows the trouble is really spread throughout Everett. There was a shooting in an upscale neighborhood on Rucker Hill. Another happened in the parking lot outside the city’s north-end hospital.

Police determined 27 of the gunfire incidents were gang-related. Investigation confirmed another 36 were not. In the remaining 17 cases, there wasn’t enough information to conclude either way. A crime must meet certain criteria in order to be categorized as gang-related, which can be tough to prove, police say.

Still, the city saw gang-related offenses — a label police applied to a host of crimes, including graffiti, tagging and homicide — jump by 75 percent within the first 10 months of last year.

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said Snohomish County’s largest city is not alone in seeing an increase in gang activity. Sheriff’s deputies, for instance, are dealing with similar challenges just south of the city limits. It is a problem that historically ebbs and flows.

Additional officers were assigned in October to specifically patrol Casino Road with hopes of making neighbors feel safer. There were no drive-by shootings in November, a first for the year.

2017 shootings in or near Everett

A myriad of factors could be driving the uptick in gang violence, including economic struggles or a lack of mentorship. A teen whose single parent works long hours may look for attention or a sense of belonging elsewhere. Social media also has changed how young gang members communicate, Templeman said. They pick beefs over the internet, where it is tricky for parents or police to intervene.

“That can become volatile,” the police chief said.

The violence has the attention of Everett’s new mayor, Cassie Franklin. She issued an order last month outlining how the city, law enforcement and the community will pool resources to combat gang and youth violence.

Templeman said this is not a problem police can solve alone.

“We’re just one part,” he said. “Without the community stepping up, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

Templeman is encouraging people affected by gangs to share their stories and work together toward a solution.

In August, a woman heard gunfire outside her front door. She yelled to her 77-year-old mother to get on the ground. A Jeep and a dark-colored car drove past her house on Holly Drive. Bullets flew. The Jeep was struck. A couple of men, ages 18 and 21, abandoned the vehicle in the road and sought cover in a nearby home. They later were arrested. The others in the car escaped. Suspects and witnesses in these cases seldom share names of their friends or foes.

The woman living on Holly Drive heard more gunshots two weeks later. A man reportedly shot someone he suspected of stealing his pickup truck.

Another woman recently told Templeman she is afraid to walk to her local grocery store.

Parents are worried what might happen on their childrens’ walk home from school.

Boys and guns

An Everett mother saw her son heading down a dangerous path.

She suspected he had joined a gang in early 2016. She called police, looking for someone who could help the 15-year-old boy.

Everett patrol officer Dave Sinex visited their apartment on Casino Road. He talked with the teen about soccer for nearly an hour. Sinex suggested playing for the team at school and branching out to new friends.

The boy was shot in May 2017. He is now paralyzed and can’t walk.

His mother called police again months later. Someone had driven around their apartment building yelling her son’s name. She suspected it may have been a rival gang member, Sinex said.

In many schools, a teen’s gang affiliation spreads like any other gossip. “On Casino Road, you either stay at home and play video games, you play soccer or you’re in a gang,” Heredia said.

Older gang members look for young people. Heredia said the men typically are in their 20s and are former California gang members. They move north in hopes of abandoning their troubles and end up selling drugs to make money. The best way to do that is in a gang, Heredia said.

He remembers a few men fitting this profile from the brawl outside the Mill Creek party. He recalls the tattoos on their faces and arms.

Everett police are keeping tabs on about 400 active gang members. There are four main gangs and other smaller groups, Sinex said. Members cycle in and out quickly, making it difficult for police to keep track.

“It’s so mixed up. Now different gangs are wearing each other’s colors,” Sinex said.

Many are not old enough to drive, but they can get their hands on guns.

The firearms usually are taken from homes, cars and businesses during burglaries. More than 110 guns were stolen between January 2017 and October, according to the Everett Police Department.

Sinex joined the department three years ago as a new police officer. It’s hard for him to comprehend how people so young become wrapped up in gangs. He remembers stopping a car with a 12-year-old inside and thinking: “You’re a boy. There’s drugs and stolen guns in this car, and you’re in the front seat.”

A path out

Heredia woke in a hospital room after the melee nearly a decade ago. The first person he saw was his mother.

Heredia’s parents brought him to the United States when he was 8 months old. They said goodbye to family in Mexico City so they could secure a better future for him.

In that moment at the hospital, Heredia knew he had made a wrong choice. He vowed to honor his parents’ sacrifice.

Heredia’s parents talked a lot about college when he was growing up. He would nod along, thinking it was too far from reach. He didn’t know how he could afford it.

Then he heard about the My Achiever’s Program through the YMCA, which provides underrepresented young people tools to pursue higher education and a career. He decided to volunteer. Mentors who met Heredia through this program pooled money to fund his first two quarters at Everett Community College.

Heredia later picked up jobs in construction and health care to pay for his classes. He received his associate’s degree and transferred to the University of Washington Bothell.

He didn’t have anyone to ask about developing good study habits or balancing responsibilities. He learned from his mistakes and took steps forward. It was a six-year journey. He graduated in 2016 with a degree in business administration.

Heredia returned to the YMCA after graduation, this time as the director of youth outreach with the organization’s Mukilteo branch. He manages a community center on Casino Road. It’s a safe place where kids can stop by after school to study or eat dinner.

The center hosts daily classes. Kids learn about nutrition by cooking healthy food, to think strategically by playing chess and to express themselves through art.

About 20 young people stop by the center every day. Heredia worries about the ones who aren’t there.

Building up leaders

The consequences of youth violence ripple.

They touch families who lose their children. They also can inspire a change.

What happened to David Sandoval elicited responses from his city and beyond. The 14-year-old was killed in October. He apparently was shot because of his blue shoes.

Since then, the city has stepped up efforts to address youth and gang violence.

“I don’t want something like the tragedy of David to happen again in our community,” Franklin said when she announced her gang and youth violence directive.

An Everett patrol car was assigned early last year specifically to Casino Road. Officers traveled up and down the thoroughfare, stopping in at businesses and talking with people they met along the way. They added a second patrol car in October.

Sinex visited the Boys & Girls Club on Casino Road during a night shift last month. His arrival prompted many questions. Kids pointed to his handcuffs and asked if they were real. Sinex let them feel how heavy they are.

A second grader walked over to the officer to seek help. Someone had stolen his math homework.

Sinex pointed to a man in a thick, gray sweater who was helping a little girl work through a math equation. He told the boy to share what happened with Andre Graham, the Boys & Girls Club director.

Graham is someone they can go to for anything, Sinex said. Some teens join a gang for that kind of mentorship. Everett police host a summer soccer camp, a baseball tournament and a junior police academy to help meet those needs in a positive way.

Those programs are here to stay, Templeman said. Meanwhile, he has re-assigned a crime prevention team to focus solely on gang enforcement. A detective now investigates every reported drive-by shooting. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined the group to assist with firearm-related crimes. Any shell casing collected as evidence is entered into a national database. That way, police can track if a gun has been used in multiple shootings.

The department also is considering a new gang unit.

A brother’s love

Heredia hopes a path toward higher education might draw teens away from the violence in their neighborhoods, as it did for him.

He has two younger brothers. One is 15 and wants to be an architect. His classmates call him a traitor for excelling in school. Heredia shares his parents’ advice. He tells him to walk away.

The teen is planning to enroll in Running Start where he can take college courses as a junior in high school. That means he could earn his high school diploma and associate’s degree at the same time.

Not everyone has an older brother looking out for them.

A 14-year-old boy visits the community center after classes at Explorer Middle School. He used to wear his hood up most days. He tried to act tough, Heredia said.

He once overheard the boy listening to a song extolling the life of a drug dealer. Heredia told him to pay close attention to the words. They also show about how that lifestyle could ruin someone’s future.

“Kids listen to these songs thinking they are going to be the one who achieves it all,” Heredia said. “You’re going to be a person who dies or goes to jail along the way.”

The boy turned off the music. He began lending a hand around the center and watching after the younger ones.

He is learning to be a leader, Heredia said.

Caitlin Tompkins: ctompkins@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3192.

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