Spike in gang crimes plagues CA's Coachella Valley

Associated Press
In this photo taken Nov. 19, 2010, Riverside County District Attorney office's Senior Investigator Nic LaBella, a member of the Police Gang Task Force gets ready to patrol the streets of Desert Hot Springs, Calif. The promise of buying "Your Dream Home" in Palm Springs Country Club Estates has changed, its memory christened an unlikely legacy, one of the most violent street crews per capita in Southern California: the Barrio Dream Homes gang. After a two-year calm, the notorious gang is again the focus of police following a recent drive-by shooting that killed two and left three wounded. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
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The master-planned Palm Springs Country Club Estates rose from the Southern California desert in the post-World War II boom, promising weary veterans and their families a fresh start with a sign that oozed optimism: "Come buy your dream home."

That promise abandoned this tract of dusty, single-story homes long ago, but its memory christened an unlikely legacy, one of the most notoriously violent Southern California street crews: the Barrio Dream Homes gang.

After a two-year calm, the notorious gang is again the focus of police following a recent drive-by shooting that killed two and left three wounded, including a 2-month-old baby boy. The infant's father, who remains hospitalized with gunshot wounds, is a Barrio Dream Homes member, as is one of the dead, said police Lt. Chuck Robinson.

The Nov. 2 incident was the latest in a spike of gang-related crime in the Coachella Valley, a crescent of desert about two hours southeast of Los Angeles that boasts world-class Palm Springs golf and country clubs alongside scrappy migrant housing encampments that feed its agricultural engine.

Authorities have counted 19 homicides this year in the 45-mile-long valley and a string of eight murders in Indio and Cathedral City — next-door neighbor to Palm Springs — in the past few months has police particularly on edge. In Cathedral City, a 16-year-old mother was shot in the head as she showed off her newborn to friends. And in Indio, two men in costume were shot dead at a Halloween party.

"We've had gang activity like this in the past, but in the 26 years I've been here, I can't recall this many killings in this short a period of time," said Daniel Wilham, the vice chairman of the Coachella Valley Gang Task Force.

After local police chiefs worried about the renewed specter of gang-on-gang violence, the Riverside County Gang Task Force moved resources to the Coachella Valley to reinforce the 11 gang specialists who routinely patrol the area, said Capt. Cynthia Mayman, task force director. Some 500,000 people live in the valley.

For Cathedral City residents, the shooting that targeted Barrio Dream Homes members after months of quiet is particularly worrisome. Gang culture forbids shooting at women and children, residents say, and they worry about retaliation that could spiral out of control.

A 12-year-old neighbor boy was walking home around dusk after playing the video game Modern Warfare at a friend's house when he saw the shooting unfold on the sidewalk just outside his family's front gate.

On a recent afternoon, the boy with a faint spattering of freckles and long, dark lashes pointed to where the two victims fell, less than two feet from his driveway. A memorial of dozens of candles, pictures and posters marked the spot.

"I was coming down the street," he said, his voice barely audible and his eyes fixed straight ahead.

The Associated Press, which has a policy not to name crime witnesses who are minors, is not identifying the boy or his family.

His mother worries about her son, who has become withdrawn and silent since he witnessed death.

"He's changed a lot from that day," she says, as her son darts inside to change into a black memorial T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of 20-year-old victim and gang member Augustine "Menace" Garcia. "He's very quiet and won't answer when I talk to him."

The Barrio Dream Homes gang, one of the most established, has a colorful history that stretches back generations to the first years after World War II and remains linked to three large Mexican families, according to court records.

When original plans for the ritzy Palm Springs Country Club Estates stagnated early on, 80 percent of the homes were sold to lower-income, working-class families. Many were immigrants who fled Los Angeles to escape growing prejudice from white city dwellers and had witnessed the tensions that spawned the infamous weeklong "Zoot Suit Riots" between Mexican-American men and U.S. sailors in 1943.

Strong distrust of law enforcement after the riots became a hallmark in their new community and that hostility coalesced into a gang. By the 1970s, members were conducting drive-by shootings and turf wars with rival gangs from nearby neighborhoods.

One such fight happened at a drive-in theater where gang members had gathered to watch the 1979 movie "The Warriors." The movie about rival New York gangs ended with several real people dead.

"I have investigators here that have arrested grandfathers and fathers and now there's another generation of these gangs coming out," said Ken Bambrick, a special agent with the state's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the commander of the Coachella Valley's gang team.

"They're keeping one step ahead of law enforcement and we're constantly having to redevelop our investigative skills."

Those who have worked in anti-gang enforcement for years say the recent uptick in violence can be traced to several recent external factors.

The district attorney's office has imposed injunctions against four gangs, including Barrio Dream Homes, True Crimes Boys and the West Drive Locos in the Coachella Valley in the past three years.

Suspected gang members can be arrested in certain areas of the city, if they wear gang clothes or associate with other suspected gangsters.

Task force members have also conducted raids and sweeps in Desert Hot Springs and Mecca, where gang members robbed a public bus at gunpoint, shot out the window of a sheriff's patrol car and fired at a sheriff's helicopter.

The recent resurgence of violence could be a result of the crackdown that left leadership vacuums in some gangs and forced surviving members to move outside their territory to avoid arrest — a move than can stir up rivalries with other gangs and invite retaliation for trespassing on foreign turf, Bambrick said.

The violence, particularly against the Barrio Dream Homes gang, could also be a rival trying to expand or cement its reputation in the valley, anti-gang specialists said.

Residents of the quiet residential block where the shooting happened are more interested in stopping the violence than understanding the twisted politics behind it.

Sonia Chavez, who lives across the street from the shooting site, said she hoped police quickly solve the case for the sake of the victims.

"I hope these kids get justice, God I do," Chavez said. "They deserve it, especially that girl, only 16 years old. She was just beginning her life and didn't even get to enjoy her baby."

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