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Santa Maria Sees Spike in Homicides, Gang-Related Violence

Gangs suspected of being linked to as many as five of the nine killings in 2015, with two victims 17 years old

A memorial remains at the corner of Western Avenue and Barrett Street where Oscar Daniel Joaquin, 17, was brutally attacked July 28. His death is one of nine homicides in the city so far in 2015.
A memorial remains at the corner of Western Avenue and Barrett Street where Oscar Daniel Joaquin, 17, was brutally attacked July 28. His death is one of nine homicides in the city so far in 2015. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Police Chief Ralph Martin keeps the names of Santa Maria’s homicide victims close to his heart.

In a pocket on his dress shirt, the Santa Maria police chief carries a piece of paper spelling out the city’s murder cases complete with victims’ names, location and arrested suspects.

The pocket was empty for a time Wednesday only because his staff was adding the name of the newest victim Abrahan Rojas, 21, to the list which also includes the prior year homicides and fatal traffic collisions.

The Oct. 30 fatal shooting on South Smith Street marked the ninth name on Martin’s list and triples the number of city homicides compared to last year.

“We’re looking at numbers we haven’t seen in the city, if ever, in a long time,” he said.

In 2014, the city saw three homicides and two in 2013. Last year, the city saw two of its homicides in the final eight days of 2014.

Homicides and non-negligent manslaughter cases are the only Part 1 crimes — others are rape, robbery, assaults, burglary, larceny/theft, vehicle theft — spiking in Santa Maria this year, the chief said.

The chief said several of the killings and other shootings this year stem from an increase in violence among the city’s two major gangs.

In all, the chief said three — and possibly as many as five — of the nine homicides involved gangs. 

”There’s obviously something going on between our two major gangs,” Martin said, adding police don’t know if it’s drug related, a power struggle or something else.

In cases connected to gangs, separate shootings claimed the lives of two 17-year-old boys weeks apart in Santa Maria.

On July 28, Oscar Daniel Joaquin was found with gunshot and machete wounds near the intersection of Western Avenue and Barrett Street.

More than six weeks later, Robert Luna showed up at Marian Regional Medical Center with gunshot wounds. Police later learned the shooting occurred near the intersection of McClelland Street and Bunny Avenue.

But several other shootings — victims survived these incidents — also appear to have gang ties. This includes the Sept. 28 shootings of three people in the 1000 block of West Cypress 

A crime-scene investigator takes photographs on the night of Oct. 30 after 21-year-old Abrahan Rojas was shot and killed in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
A crime-scene investigator takes photographs on the night of Oct. 30 after 21-year-old Abrahan Rojas was shot and killed in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Martin was reticent to refer to the gangs by name.

“I do not want to mention the name of the gang to give them any type of credibility,” Martin said. “They’re noting but a bunch of gun-toting cowards that shoot innocent people.” 

Identifying a suspect is just the first step of an investigation.

“We may have a lot of knowledge but proving it is a different case,” Martin said.

“We can only take what the DA thinks they can prosecute. We may know who a suspect is, but putting them at the scene might be a little more difficult, until people come forward and help us.”

Investigating these cases can be difficult and hamper detectives’ efforts to make arrests, due to both apathy that and fear of witnesses, the chief said.

The solution to gang violence lies in the community — religious leaders, families and schools in addition to police, Martin said. 

“We know we prevent a lot out there. It’s hard to document the negative,” Martin said, adding suspects have said they were about to commit a crime, but didn’t because a motorcycle officer was in the area ticketing someone.

In response to an increase in cases the agency doubled the detective’s bureau, which in recent years had just five investigators.

“We’ve taken two of our gang detectives and beefed up our detective’s bureau to now have 12 detectives in there, with a goal of eventually having 16,” he said, adding he hopes to reach that number by mid-2016.

The gang unit has four officers, but Martin expects to see that number grow eventually.

While gang involvement may be connected to many of the homicides, different motives led to deaths in the city’s other cases.

In early June, Teresa Meza , 41, died after she was stabbed multiple times in what police called a domestic violence homicide. 

The suspect, Jesus Quezada Gomez, 50, was shot and killed by police after threatening to shoot anyone who came near the residence in the 300 block of West Williams Street, police said.

The police chief called the death “probably a suicide by cop.”

In March, a lover’s triangle reportedly led to the death of Alejandro Diaz Alvarez, 39, of Santa Maria in the 900 block of West Morrison Avenue. Wilfredo Rodriguez Chicas, 27, of Santa Maria was arrested as the prime suspect.

Police investigate the fatal shooting of Alejandro Diaz Alvarez, 39, on West Morrison Avenue in March. Click to view larger
Police investigate the fatal shooting of Alejandro Diaz Alvarez, 39, on West Morrison Avenue in March.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

And a dispute inside a bar ended in a fatal hit-and-run in the parking lot off East Main Street. Police labeled the death of 38-year-old Gerardo Barragon Leon, and arrested Ismael Lares, 34, of Santa Maria in connection with the crime.

Santa Maria’s highest profile homicide for 2015 involved the brutal rape and assault of Marilyn Pharis, 64, in her home in July. She died eight days later, and two men, one an undocumented immigrant with some prior criminal history, have been charged with murder in the case. 

While some cases remain unsolved, investigators continue their work to make arrests.

“They’re not put on the back burner by any means; We’re constantly working on them,” Martin said.  

“Every case has been assigned and even though they may run cold for a while we pick them back up and run with them.” 

The spike in homicides is frustrating for Martin, whose focus has been rebuilding the department since his hiring.

“It’s disappointing after doubling the amount of cars we have out on the street and everything that we’ve done,” he said. 

“We’re just addressing so many problems on so many different fronts.”

Seven more officers will be sworn-in soon. As those rookies complete training so they can fill patrol cars, Martin said he hopes to move more experienced officers into detective bureau and gang unit slots to help combat the violence. 

“Will it simmer down? Yeah, it will,” Martin added. “And we’ll get a break in a few of these things and we’ll make arrests.”

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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