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Stopping the bullets

Cassandra Scott holds her 4-month-old son, Carter, as 8-year-old Skyler sits beside her in their home on a Friday afternoon. Behind them a blanket with Evyn Scott's face on it hangs over a window. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Cassandra Scott holds her 4-month-old son, Carter, as 8-year-old Skyler sits beside her in their home on a Friday afternoon. Behind them a blanket with Evyn Scott’s face on it hangs over a window. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Cassandra Scott says her son Evyn was always one step ahead of her.

The mother of three said she just couldn’t keep up with the 15-year-old, who stopped going to school and fell in with the wrong crowd.

“He was trying to fit in. He was trying to find himself,” she said. “It’s deeply sad that he trusted those people.”

In March – days after Evyn traded threats with another teen on Facebook – he was found shot to death beside a quiet road near Tijeras.

“They stood over him and shot him in his face,” Cassandra Scott said. “I can’t even think of anything on this earth that could ever justify that.”

Detectives say Evyn was lured into a car in Southeast Albuquerque by people he called friends, while the alleged triggerman, 17-year-old Russell Spencer, hid in the trunk. Spencer is behind bars on an open count of murder.

It’s part of an alarming trend playing out in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. Authorities say Evyn’s slaying is one of dozens of violent acts being tied to more than a dozen youthful gangs around the city.

“Research will show you that people that are in these groups are not only the most likely to be pulling the trigger, but also the most likely to be the victims,” 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said. “So the two most likely outcomes for the people in any of these groups is either prison or death. The real challenge is how do you get in front of that and not just acting after a shooting has occurred.”

To tackle the issue, Torrez is adopting an initiative, known as Operation Ceasefire, that targets the most violent individuals and presents them with an ultimatum. It’s been replicated in dozens of cities after being launched in Boston, where it was credited with a 63% reduction in youth homicides, a 25% reduction in gun assaults and a 32% reduction in calls for shots fired, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Investigators are hoping for the same results, if not better, in the Duke City, as juvenile shooting cases spike in 2019.

Last year, the DA’s Office filed charges against 13 juveniles for serious violent crimes. Five months into this year, 17 juveniles have already been charged with serious violent crimes, ranging from drive-by shootings and gunfights to armed robberies and two homicides, including the slaying of a letter carrier and what authorities are calling the planned execution of Evyn Scott.

Kyle Hartsock, a special investigator with the DA’s Office, said that at least 30% of recent shootings can be tied to gangs, due to the victims’ affiliation – a figure he calls a “low number” because suspects have not been identified in about 60% of the cases.

“If we had a 100% suspect rate, this easily shoots up higher,” he said.

Hartsock works with analysts on an initiative to map out the gang climate around the city and routinely meets with law enforcement agencies to better recognize gang ties.

Their ultimate goal: to stop the bullets from flying.

‘A young man’s sport’

Hartsock said many of the storied, traditional gangs of Albuquerque have been largely dismantled and a new generation is keeping law enforcement busy.

“The nature of gangs, it’s kind of a young man’s sport,” Hartsock said.

The key players are now young men and boys who often boast, flash guns, sell drugs and even incite bloodshed from behind a screen.

“When we think they are showing violent tendencies, we just identify them,” Hartsock said, adding that they are “trying to keep tabs on it to help solve cases but also predict future ones.”

So far, they have identified 14 groups, but more are likely. At least four of the groups have been tied to multiple shootings. One has been connected to eight.

Some of these groups lay claim to territories, such as street blocks and neighborhoods. Others are spread out and “exist in big spaces.”

The groups vary in size from just a few members to dozens, and social media is their sounding board.

What was once spray-painted on ditch banks and brick walls – threats, aliases and flexing – now gets plastered across the internet, mainly on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

That same posturing often ends up in the hands of law enforcement and in case files.

“You’re trying to build your reputation,” Hartsock said. “They have to talk about their exploits. These are not disciplined groups and criminals. That is the purpose of doing it.”

Members will identify with subgroups within their gangs on their profiles. Law enforcement officials refer to these subgroups as crews. Rivalries and alliances play out over public posts and comments. In extreme examples, executions are set up over Facebook Messenger and beatings are shown in Snapchat videos.

In one of the more high-profile cases, investigators say Matthew Delena, 23, and his girlfriend, Leticia Nicolet, 19, along with Kalani Hodges, 17, and Seven Long, 15, set up executions of perceived gang rivals under the guise of drug deals.

The four are accused of carrying out three shootings over a two-month stretch last fall.

Officers speak to two teenagers after a Nov. 21 shooting outside the Whole Foods Market on Carlisle. Police say Vicente Sanchez was permanently paralyzed after being shot several times. Matthew Delena and Kalani Hodges are charged in the shooting. (Source: Albuquerque Police Department)

Officers speak to two teenagers after a Nov. 21 shooting outside the Whole Foods Market on Carlisle. Police say Vicente Sanchez was permanently paralyzed after being shot several times. Matthew Delena and Kalani Hodges are charged in the shooting. (Source: Albuquerque Police Department)

The attacks took the life of Adrian Martinez, 17, and left Vicente Sanchez, 16, paralyzed and Aneas Price, 16, blind.

Afterward, police say, the crew shared a video of Martinez’s killing, talked about finishing off Sanchez as he lay in a hospital bed and called Price’s mother with threats aimed at her other children.

While Delena’s crew may be off the street and on their way to trial, Hartsock said they are monitoring those still out there as ongoing feuds continue to leave bodies in the streets.

“We have to recognize that these groups tend to produce violence as a group. … It’s going to result in more shootings. It’s going to keep compounding until the right person is dead, or they’re all dead, or they’re all locked up,” he said. “We’re behind the power curve every single time. We’re trying to get ahead of it.”

‘Stop shooting’

As part of Operation Ceasefire, the DA’s Office wants to identify the most violent group on the streets and ask its members to stop the bloodshed or face the consequences. Simple as that.

To that end – and to keep better track of shootings going forward – local law enforcement are now given shooting scorecards to fill out “every time a bullet hits a body.”

The scorecard takes note of specifics: the date, time, victim and suspect information, incident type and likely motivation.

Motivations can include domestic violence, drug debt, gang against gang, road rage, self defense, and – the category Hartsock hates most – unknown.

Then the DA’s Office tries to fill in any blanks during meetings with the Albuquerque Police Department, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement entities.

Together, they will examine recent shootings, look for possible connections and advise law enforcement on gang attributes that may come into play on investigations down the road.

“What starts off as a hopeless shooting with a gang member, that’s not going to help, we just gave you whole narratives,” Hartsock said. “Now you can ask more detailed questions when you interview the victim or talk with witnesses.”

Meanwhile, the DA’s Office will work backward to look for unseen gang connections to shootings in the county over the past several years.

That means scouring incident reports of shootings dating back to 2015 and having biweekly meetings with initial investigators on cases to find any gang connections in the hope of identifying trends.

All of this work is built into the endgame of Operation Ceasefire.

Once the DA’s Office has identified the most violent group in the Albuquerque area, it will call its members to a meeting at a community center or some other neutral site.

Attendees will be the chief of police, federal prosecutors, a victim’s family, a reformed gangster and community leaders. The meeting will be short, perhaps 45 minutes, and will come with a simple message: “Stop shooting, stop shooting, stop shooting.”

Members of the group will be offered access to social services – counseling, help with getting a job, resources – to get out of the gang life. But if they go back out on the streets and wreak more havoc, “the hammer drops.”

Authorities will come at them from every angle – whether it’s a property crime, drug possession, child support debt, zoning violations – and make it stick.

“Once you’ve demonstrated that you can credibly do that, then you go to the next group and say, ‘This is what happened to the last group. This future awaits you if you don’t choose a different path,’ ” Torrez said.

Security camera video shows Vicente Sanchez and others walking up to Matthew Delena's car in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market on Carlisle moments before the shooting began. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Security camera video shows Vicente Sanchez and others walking up to Matthew Delena’s car in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market on Carlisle moments before the shooting began. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But what can undermine that message, he said, is judges rejecting requests to detain suspects in gun violence cases until trial. Of the 17 juveniles who prosecutors have asked to detain recently, all but six were released.

“It’s very difficult for law enforcement to deliver a message to a group that says, ‘You will be dealt with swiftly – with certainty and severely – in the system,’ ” Torrez said, adding that he hopes the tide will turn on pretrial detention as Operation Ceasefire ramps up.

From Chief Public Defender Ben Bauer’s perspective, “holding juveniles in custody just to send a message to other potential offenders, it’s not justice and it’s not effective.”

Bauer said it’s on prosecutors to present enough evidence during a detention hearing to prove someone is a danger to the community. He said detainment is not the only option to keep juveniles in line, and that’s why there are conditions for release.

As for Hartsock, he hopes the targeted groups will take advantage of the opportunity they’re being given and he can erase their names from the database. A clean slate.

“We’re not trying to brand people gang members for life; once you do that, it’s problematic,” he said. “They might turn it around.”

Evyn Scott, the 15-year-old Manzano High student with gray eyes and brown curly hair, never got the opportunity to choose a different path.

“I always told him, ‘If there’s ever a problem, as a mother, my job is to defend and protect you. Let me know so I can help fix it,’ ” Cassandra Scott said.

While she never got that chance, she’s still fighting for her son by pushing for stiffer sentences for crimes by and against youths.

To keep Evyn’s memory alive, she has added his name to the Children’s Wall of Tears and the National Gun Violence Memorial – where he joins thousands of others.

“It’s hard to see my child’s picture on that,” Scott said. “You live every day like it’s halfway normal, or at least you try to.”

Evyn Scott's toddler shoes rest on a mantle in his mother's home months after he was found shot to death near Tijeras.

Evyn Scott’s toddler shoes rest on a mantle in his mother’s home months after he was found shot to death near Tijeras. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Her home is filled with reminders: a blanket with an image of Evyn’s face hangs over a window; his toddler shoes sit atop a mantle in a corner.

Evyn’s two brothers are spitting images of him. Skyler, 8, misses his big brother; 4-month-old Carter will never know him.

A relative told Cassandra Scott recently that it is all part of God’s plan, an idea she rejects.

“God did not take him. They took him.”


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