A history of violence
Gang shootings in Gainesville
July 3, 1994: Maria Gonzalez, 45, is killed in her sleep when gang members riddle her Broadway Place mobile home with bullets. Alejandro Salazar Garcia and Angel Rivera, members of Logan’s Gang, mistakenly thought Gonzalez’s home was occupied by rival gang members, authorities said.
Nov. 12 1995: Eric Duke, a member of the “White Crips” gang, is charged with murder in the shooting death of Bonificio Carbajal-Munoz, 33, who was killed in a drive-by shooting after being accused of touching Duke’s girlfriend.
Feb. 16, 1997: Rigo Verduzco, 19, a member of the Puchachos gang, is gunned down in the parking lot of the Athens Street Burger King by members of the rival Brown Side Vatos gang. The shooting prompts the formation of the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force. Suspected gunman and BSV member Juan Bayona, 17 at the time, is a fugitive in Mexico for 11 years before his capture in 2008. He pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter and is serving a 20-year sentence.
June 2, 1998: BSV gang member Juan Ramone “Chucky” Ayala is shot to death and three others are wounded in a drive-by shooting outside the Red Barn pool hall on Atlanta Highway. Douglas Villegas, a member of the Vato Loco gang, is charged in the shooting.
June 13, 2002: Teenagers Juan Zuniga and Mario Cavaco are shot to death in a drive-by shooting outside a birthday party on Smallwood Road. BOE-23 gang members Charles Douglas Graham, 15, and Angel Mario Deleon are charged in the killings. Deleon is convicted and gets two life sentences, but Graham, the suspected triggerman, is acquitted. In 2008 Graham is convicted of unrelated drug charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Aug. 8, 2005: Four people are shot and wounded at a wedding reception outside a Gainesville nightclub in the Blue Ridge shopping center. At least two of the victims are members of the PLC gang. The SUR-13 gang is suspected in the shooting.
Aug. 14, 2007: Adrian Reyes, 16, Ernesto Reyes, 18, Christopher Rivera Sanchez, 17, and Jose Arellano-Villatoro, 17, members of the BOE and La Onda gangs, are charged with shooting into a Lenox Park home occupied by five people. Three of the defendants and Enrique Toribio Rodriguez, 20, are also charged with shooting at a home in the Silverwood subdivision that was occupied by a married couple. No one was hurt in either shooting, but the shots, fired from a 12-gauge shotgun, damaged doors, windows and a car. One shot fired at the Lenox Park home barely missed a sleeping woman. The suspects target the homes with the mistaken belief they were occupied by members of rival gangs MVS and SUR-13. All plead guilty and are sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Aug. 9, 2009: Juan “Baby Peanut” Gomez, 16, a member of the La Onda gang, is shot to death and three others are wounded during a confrontation with members of the SUR-13 gang on Harmony Church Road. SUR-13 members Robert Jacob “Soldier” Montez and Miguel Guerra “Smiley” Garcia were indicted last week on murder charges.
Sources: Times archives, Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force
Though a fatal Aug. 9 shooting draws attention to the potential for gang violence in the area, most reported gang-related crimes are not violent, officials say.
After all, most documented gang members in Hall County are under the age of 20.
“This is what folks don’t realize,” said Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff. “These are still kids.”
Jolliff sees a number of documented gang members pass through the county’s juvenile courts. And while gang members commit crimes all across the board, the ones who stand before Jolliff usually are there for fighting or graffiti.
“Most of the fights are at school and on the school bus and usually over the rival gangs,” Jolliff said.
Documented gang members in the county mostly range between ages 12 and 20. Those who go before Jolliff usually are there for damaging property, committing burglaries and small thefts, according to Lt. Scott Ware, commander of the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force.
Of those crimes, graffiti is the most visible.
“Graffiti’s a big one,” Ware said. “... That’s what the citizen that’s not involved in the criminal element, doesn’t have criminal associates, might see. And that might very well be their only experience with any type of gangs in Hall County, driving by and seeing some gang graffiti on a wall. Typically, and hopefully, it will remain that way.”
Gang members use spray paint to “tag” public and private property with the names of their respective gangs, either to earn recognition, mark territory or to show disrespect to another gang’s territory.
And though vandalism is not a violent crime, the graffiti can lead to fights between rival gangs, Ware said.
“A lot of times, the gang members will regard graffiti, another gang’s graffiti, as a visible sign of disrespect. They’ll cover it up, put their own (graffiti) there and things just escalate,” Ware said.
“... Respect with the mindset of a gang member is a very, very big issue. If a documented member perceives that a member from another opposing gang has disrespected them, then for lack of better words, it’s on. And unfortunately, things can escalate from there.”
To mitigate the after-effects of gang graffiti, the sheriff’s office paints over it weekly, Hall County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Col. Jeff Strickland said.
“We don’t tolerate that,” Strickland said. “It’s sort of like the broken windows theory. ... We’re seeing a lot less graffiti now than we did five, six years ago, but that is a very important element of our multi-level response to gangs.”
The Gang Task Force also investigates all reports of automobiles burglarized in the county, Ware said, because authorities usually find that gang members are connected in some way.
“We definitely (investigate) all the entering autos; we believe that they’re closely connected to gang activity,” Ware said. “... The crimes typically appear to be the type of crimes that would be committed by juveniles, as opposed to a more seasoned, career criminal.”
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said the majority of gang members he prosecutes are facing charges of drug possession. However, authorities do not believe gang members are responsible for major drug trafficking in the county.
More often than not, gang members are arrested for drug use, not an intent to sell drugs, Ware said.
Years ago, members of a gang on the southside of Gainesville were known to sell crack cocaine, but Ware said that gang is no longer active.
“Not to say that you won’t get a gang member occasionally arrested for dealing, but I think it’s very safe to say that more times than not they are under the influence of something, whether it be alcohol, marijuana, or huffing paint or some other type of chemical,” Ware said.
Of the five major active gangs documented in the county, all commit essentially the same types of crimes, authorities say. And for all of them, gang-related violence is the biggest concern.
Until recently, when 16-year-old La Onda member Juan “Baby P-Nut” Gomez was killed by a rival gang member, gang violence had only resulted in one death in the county in seven years.
A member of the street gang SUR-13 has most recently been connected to Gomez’s death. Previously, SUR-13 members were involved in an armed robbery, and members of MVS, or Mexican Vatos Society, were involved in the armed robbery of a local taxicab driver.
But usually, gang-related violence goes unreported, said Joe Amerling, vice president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association and a local gang investigator.
“They’re certainly involved in aggravated assaults and simple assaults that are never reported,” Amerling said. “Certainly when kids get beat down, they don’t want to tell anybody, and they’ll tell their friends and they’ll go and retaliate.
“... The reason we don’t hear about it is because gang members do not want to cooperate. They would rather retaliate than cooperate.”
For juvenile gang members, the maximum punishment for gang-related crimes usually is a 30-day sentence and probation that includes some type of community service, Jolliff said. When juveniles are charged with vandalism, they often are required to spend time painting over graffiti, he said.
On serious cases involving gangs, authorities ask prosecutors to seek a maximum sentence, which for juveniles can be five years imprisonment on serious felonies, and also ask for special conditions on probation, Strickland said.
“When possible, we ask for banishment from the county while they’re serving their probation,” Strickland said.
Today, Georgia prosecutors have more freedom when it comes to charging gang members.
“If you can identify somebody as a gang member, and you know he’s an active gang member, and he commits a crime, then you can charge him with that crime — possession of marijuana — but you could also charge him under the Georgia Criminal Street Gang and Terrorism Act, which is a felony,” Amerling said.
Proving that a person charged with a crime is an actual member of a gang is more difficult to prove, however.
Although the mere existence of street gangs opens the area to the possibility of what Darragh calls “dangerous foolishness,” there is no reason for residents to live in fear, Ware said.
“Do I live in fear? (Do) I expect my family to live in fear? No,” Ware said. “I’m a member of this county; I grew up here; I went to high school here; I’ve got a daughter here.
“I’m going to go to the stores just like everyone else is. I don’t have a fear of walking down the street and getting shot. But it is here and we prepare for the worst, and ultimately hope for the best.”