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Archive for Sunday, November 10, 1996

VERDICT HANDED DOWN IN LAST OF GANG-RELATED SPURT OF VIOLENCE

November 10, 1996

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On Tuesday, the last criminal sentence for a series of gang-related shootings this year was handed down by a district judge. The trial in a separate gang-related murder is set to begin in December.

Suddenly, young men were shooting at each other.

In different parts of Lawrence, the eastern-most to the western-most, guns were fired from cars and at parties. The motivation fueling the shootings was not robbery or even carjacking, a crime to which the city was ominously introduced with a 1993 incident that ended in murder.

Exclusively, it seemed, the motivation was either revenge or intimidation. Violent territorial statements spoken by people not yet old enough to legally buy a beer, in a city largely familiar with such things through television.

Echoes of gang activity have also been heard in the smaller cities and rural areas surrounding Lawrence. In Ottawa in September 1995, innocent bystander 14-year-old Stephanie Perez was shot and killed during a gang conflict.

Suddenly, gang activity wasn't just visible, it was audible. A clear and present danger.

"This year has been the manifestation of those influences," said District Judge Michael Malone, who has sentenced three of those involved in gang gunfire.

So far in 1996, at least six gang-related shootings have been reported within the Lawrence city limits. Most involved Topeka gang members.

A Topeka man was shot and killed Aug. 15 outside a nightclub. A house near 13th and New Jersey was shot at June 10. A car chase ended with several shots being fired at a car and house in northwest Lawrence. A house near 24th and Alabama was shot at in May. And shots rang out March 31 at an apartment party in Eddingham Place.

A barrage of gunshots between a house and several cars Sept. 29 near the east city limits is also believed by authorities to have been gang related.

Almost all of the alleged shooters were arrested. Almost all have been prosecuted.

On election day -- when Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney Tonkovich and District Judges Malone, Paula Martin and Jack Murphy retained their offices by significant margins -- one of the last cases in those shootings came to a resolution.

Alonzo Boyd, 20, Topeka, the man behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle during an attempted drive-by shooting, was ordered by Malone to serve two years probation with community corrections facilities. For the May 28th incident, he was found guilty of aiding and abetting both an aggravated assault and a shooting at an occupied residence.

Because Boyd's prior criminal record consisted of one misdemeanor, he was not eligible for jail time, according to state sentencing guidelines.

In August, the Topeka man holding the smoking gun in the passenger seat, 21-year-old Marcus Knight, was found guilty of shooting at a Lawrence teen-ager and was sentenced to more than five years in state prison. Two people in the back seat were not formally charged, and charges against a third passenger were dropped.

Perhaps most shocking, the dispute that spurred the group to chase and shoot at a carload of Lawrence youths began at a grade school playground, Sunset Hill Elementary, 901 Schwarz.

By no means has Lawrence degenerated to the terror of typical urban guerrilla warfare. Nevertheless, what was once the province of the juvenile court, probation officers and residents digging trenches in the fight to slow gang influence, has become the concern of a wide-eyed community searching for ways to prevent the next bullet.

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  • Each of the five Douglas County district judges have heard cases in the past few months involving gang activity. Juvenile court judge Jean Shepherd has heard them for years -- teen-agers accused of auto burglary, battery, assault, drug use and weapon possession. Those cases typically are not public record.

The adult court system, Malone said, has only recently been initiated to gang activity in court.

"For the first time, there was testimony about rival gangs," Malone said. "It had never been presented as evidence that gang activity was a motive for criminal activity."

The testimony, or lack of it in many cases, made for prosecuting nightmares.

"We have had more difficulty securing witness testimony and attendance than in any other type of case," Tonkovich said. "We have gone so far as to have witnesses -- who should have been friendly to the state -- arrested to ensure their appearance and testimony."

At the end of October, Tonkovich announced a gang and youth crimes prosecution unit. Combining the expertise of three assistant DAs, the prosecution unit will target repeat offenders in the 12- to 24-year old age group, Tonkovich said.

Shelley Diehl, a juvenile prosecutor since 1991, Rick Trapp, a former Lawrence police officer, Douglas County sheriff's officer and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, and drug prosecutor Dan Dunbar were picked to head the prosecutions. They will also work with law enforcement to coordinate the prosecutions.

"You can't predict criminal activity," Tonkovich said. "But I feel that it is an issue we still need to be concerned about."

That issue sinks deep into the lives of those involved.

"You're dealing with much more than a criminal act," Malone said. "You're dealing with an attitude, you're dealing with a lifestyle."

Despite complications, all but one of the court cases involving this year's shootings have been resolved.

Knight and Boyd were sentenced. In August, Richard Soler, 19, Jamestown, was found guilty by Murphy of the New Jersey street shooting, which did not result in injury. Soler was sentenced to two years in prison.

In October, William Franco Garcia, 19, Lawrence, was sentenced to five years and nine months for convictions of attempted voluntary manslaughter and criminal possession of a firearm. Malone ruled that Garcia fired a handgun during a party of more than 50 at Eddingham Place apartments. Garcia has appealed the ruling.

In December, Damon McCray, 23, Topeka, will stand trial for the murder of 24-year-old Onzie Branch -- former high school classmates -- outside a nightclub in the 800 block of West 24th.

Prosecutors will try to prove McCray, seeking revenge for a beating five years ago, shot into a vehicle and hit Branch, who had known gang ties in the Topeka area.

As the tide of arrests, trials, pleas and sentencings crashes to the shore, family members of victims and suspects and members of the public are left reeling but regrouping.

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  • The onslaught of gang activity locally and the resulting crime have spurred changes not only in the DA's office but in law enforcement and the community.

In June, the Lawrence Police Department created a special investigations unit, the thrust of which was the tracking of gang activity. City officials recently approved the purchase of a computer system with digital photographing, allowing police to more effectively catalog suspected gang members.

In September, the city organized a day-long presentation "Gangs in Lawrence: A Call to Action." More than 1,000 residents attended. A follow-up conference is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon and evening at Southwest Junior High.

City leaders and concerned residents have asserted that the climate of Lawrence as a connected community will prove beneficial in the response.

"There does seem to be a huge, keen interest in what are kids are doing," Malone said.

One Lawrence family who has seen a member suspected of gang involvement and imprisoned for criminal acts maintained it is saddened, but far from embarrassed.

"We feel so much that he is innocent," said Pat Garcia, mother of Williams Franco Garcia. "He's part of our family, we're not ashamed of him."

Convicted of two felonies, Garcia was transported last week from Douglas County Jail to the state department of corrections in Topeka to serve more than five years in prison.

"There's nothing you can do," Pat Garcia said.

Stella Boyd, mother of Alonzo Boyd, came to her son's sentencing last week and told Malone she would be "a good warden" in keeping her son in line. Part of Boyd's probation involves living at home with his mother.

Boyd said she did not know, for several years, that her son was involved with gangs. "This is what he wanted to be -- a gang member. I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home."

She said she hopes other parents will take notice of situations such as hers.

"There's a lot more in life than killing, carrying guns, wearing baggy pants," Boyd said. "Stay in school, get an education. I hope this will be a lesson for him."

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