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Tuesday, January 15 , 2019, 6:28 pm | Light Rain 54º


Epidemic of Homicides Puts Safety of Santa Maria — and Santa Marians — in Question

Police say many of the killings aren’t random but community criticism rises as community’s violence spirals

Santa Maria Homicides — By Location

With Santa Maria’s murder rate seemingly escalating by the week, many people are questioning whether the city is safe.

Police officials say the string of violence doesn’t appear to involve random victims, but elected leaders admit they share the community’s frustration at the carnage.

After each killing, the chorus of concerns grows as locals wonder whether it’s safe to shop in Santa Maria or allow their children to see a movie there.

Police Chief Ralph Martin said most of the recent homicide victims likely were targeted by their killers.

“These are specific targets, and there are some definite gang overtones in a majority of these unsolved homicides,” he told Noozhawk.

The city of 102,216 has seen an epidemic of homicides since Dec. 22, 2014, with 21 victims in all. While a few have had specific motives, including domestic violence and a bar fight, many of the dead appear to have been singled out, Martin said.

“This concerns all of us,” Mayor Alice Patino said. “We’re putting our resources where our mouth is on this.”

City Council members have been briefed on investigations, which are intricate and sensitive because authorities want to avoid putting lives in jeopardy or harming any future prosecution of those responsible, Patino added.

“We’re out there and I can’t tell you exactly what we’re doing, but I’m very confident our police are going to solve these cases,” she said.

The numbers are staggering. Three double homicides were recorded between Dec. 26 and Jan. 25 alone.

While the city saw only three homicides all year in each of the years 2010, 2013 and 2014, Santa Maria logged three murders on one day this month. 

Victims include a 15-year-old and three 17-year-olds, all males.

In the 15-year-old’s case, police were able to quickly arrest two suspects in the boy’s Jan. 25 fatal stabbing, which occurred during a confrontation between two groups on East Donovan Road, just blocks from Pioneer Valley High School in northeast Santa Maria.

Other cases were not as simple.

“These would appear to be somewhat premeditated,” Martin said. “We’re having a more difficult time.”

Investigators believe the gang fight on East Donovan Road is unrelated to the double shooting hours later near downtown Santa Maria.

The two shooting victims — later identified as Agustin Jaime Montano-Barajas, 29, and Alexis Morales, 25, both of Santa Maria — appear to have a gang connection, however, Martin said.

Many of Santa Maria’s homicides have apparent gang ties, but others stemmed from domestic violence, a bar fight and a teen pregnancy.

There are similarities among some of the homicides. Victims who were sitting in vehicles, windows rolled up. Three of the cases involved two victims. Many have no obvious robbery motive.

“These look more like executions,” Martin said, adding that many of the killings occurred quickly and stealthily.  

Investigators continue to be frustrated by the lack of cooperative witnesses.

Martin declined to say whether some of the recent violence can be attributed to out-of-town gangs, rather than the cross-town rivalry suspected in other cases.

“I can’t comment on it,” he said. “The investigations are confidential, they’re sensitive, and we’re confident that we’re going to crack several of these.”

The violence has left some wondering whether it’s safe to shop, dine or be out after dark in Santa Barbara County’s largest city. Council members have been receiving withering criticism from angry residents.

“I’m absolutely confident the Police Department and city management are doing everything possible to bring a successful conclusion to these things,” Councilman Jack Boysen said.

City officials share residents’ frustrations.

“Obviously, we’re as outraged as everyone else,” Boysen said.

Councilwoman Etta Waterfield says she understands why constituents are upset.

“If I didn’t have background knowledge of what actually is happening I would feel same way,” she said.

Councilman Bob Orach recalled receiving a middle-of-the-night notice about yet another homicide in the city.

“What do you think rest of night was like?” he asked. “We’re all extremely upset. I just can’t fathom.”

Solutions aren’t simple. Councilwoman Terri Zuniga said a multiprong approach is needed, including law enforcement, groups that work with youths and faith-based organizations.

But families are another key factor, she said, and other council members also cited home life as a vital piece of the solution.

City officials, including four council members, recently participated in a community meeting aimed at stopping the violence.

Another session was held Thursday, but Santa Maria Joint Union High School District officials refused to allow a reporter to attend. The gathering included dozens of people, including elected officials, educators and faith leaders.

According to Patino, one speaker also mentioned the importance of family, telling the group, “It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes a parent to raise a child.”

The group, which is planning another meeting for February, is focused on finding ways to stop the violence, she added.

“Not often do you find a group of people where you all want to find solutions,” she said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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