Salem park shooting prompts new worry about local gangs

The police tape had hardly come down when the question emerged whether the fatal shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park represented yet more gang violence in Salem.

The March 7 crime had certain markers of gang involvement.

It involved teenage boys, in a confrontation, escalating into gunfire that killed one, hospitalized two others and landed one in handcuffs.

So far, the Salem Police Department and the Marion County District Attorney’s Office haven’t revealed any findings of what motivated the shooting. They say the investigation is still underway.

Detectives are working to identify other teens who were involved to keep them safe and prevent retaliation, Deputy Chief Treven Upkes told a group of South Salem High School parents and students at a forum last week. 

But interviews and reports show that violence by gangs and groups has marred Salem for years, and some now sense the heat of conflict has been turning up.

That was the case when a 20-year-old was sentenced Thursday for being the driver in a fatal drive-by shooting.

His attorney told the sentencing judge in a proceeding one week after the park shooting that his client wanted now to “have some impact on this epidemic that is the gang violence and gun violence in our community.”

“They’re not going to listen to a defense attorney, a DA or a judge. They’ve got to listen to somebody who’s been there before.”

-Spencer Todd, Salem defense attorney

Every week, police are reporting shootings around the city. Many are drive-bys – shots fired from vehicles on city streets with all involved gone before police can arrive.

Juvenile authorities and community leaders who work with young people say teens are increasingly involved in gangs – organized criminal groups with older members who engage in drug trafficking and other crimes. The juveniles also gather in groups, looser affiliations of young people who may fight with other groups but don’t generally commit other crimes.

The pace accelerated when young people were isolated at home during Covid school closures, school officials said. Teenagers had few opportunities to socialize. Those already struggling were more likely to be recruited into gangs – a place where they could find some sense of belonging.

Graffiti continues to be the branding device of choice in the community. Those involved use graffiti on buildings and walls. But in some instances competing gangs mark over the letters and symbols – a test of will carried out with spray paint.

Nearly six years ago, public officials openly addressed the gang threat in Salem.

Salem police said in a 2018 presentation that gang recruitment often begins as early as elementary school. 

A year later, the police department scrapped its gang enforcement team – officers who became experts in gang practices and members.

Upkes said the decision was driven by limited police resources, and the fact that Oregon has no law adding time to prison sentences for gang involvement.

But the escalating violence into 2023 prompted police to take a harder look at the gun crimes disrupting neighborhoods, schools and shopping venues.

A city report in November found at least half of shootings over the past five years involved members of gangs or more informal groups as victims, attackers or both. Researchers estimated that the number of such crimes could be as high as eight out of 10 based on incidents where detectives couldn’t determine affiliation or identify a suspect.

Police last year identified to researchers eight active gangs in Salem, local sets of the Norteños and Sureños.

“The motives for these shootings are not always gang-on-gang conflicts. Instead, most shootings were precipitated by personal disputes between individuals over money, prior criminal activities, and other interpersonal conflicts,” according to the report.

The researchers also consulted law enforcement and school officials, who noted that “adult offenders were taking advantage of young people who were significantly less likely to receive harsh penalties for thefts or firearm offenses,” the report said.

But along the way officials shied from publicly labeling crimes with any gang connection.

In recent years, the Salem police have issued largely neutral announcements of yet another shooting, another death. While neighborhood groups talked of gang connections, police stayed quiet.

But a different picture emerged over the years once arrests were made and felons, including juveniles, were prosecuted.

Year by year, the gang-related cases spooled out in Marion County courtrooms.

When and why gangs in the Salem area began warring is unclear. But tensions appear to have flared when Ishaq Saleem, 16, of Keizer, was shot and killed at Englewood Park in northeast Salem a month after the gang unit was shuttered.

“The murder has been determined to be gang related but no arrest has been made,” Marion County prosecutors said in a court filing. “A number of subsequent shootings are suspected to be in retaliation for Ishaq Saleem’s murder.”

In September 2020, McKay High School student Andrew Rosas was gunned down on a school night in the park next to Hoover Elementary School. The school on Northeast Savage Road just north of Center Street is turf claimed by Savage Block, a local set of the Norteños.

Prosecutors alleged in court filings that a suspect asked Rosas if he was part of “Savage.” The 18-year-old said he wasn’t and then was shot to death.

Near the same park in January 2021, 16-year-old Gerardo Trujillo-Torres shot Joshua Steward, 24, and his girlfriend, killing Steward. Two men had arranged a fake drug deal with the victims and ordered the teen, a member of Savage Block, to kill them, prosecutors said in a court filing. 

The sentencing March 14 of Yahir Cruz-Rosales and John Juarez-Juarez, both 20, in Marion County Circuit Court was the latest to tie violent crime in Salem to gangs. The young men chased 20-year-old Eduardo Garcia for over three and a half minutes before Juarez-Juarez pulled alongside his car and Cruz-Rosales shot him three times in Hayesville.

Those involved in killing Cruz-Rosales had themselves previously been shot at. Juarez-Juarez was shot in the neck as a 16-year-old in December 2019, and Cruz-Rosales in February 2022 was in a vehicle that was shot 17 times on Northeast Portland Road. 

Attorney Spencer Todd represented the driver, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and attempted murder.

Todd told Salem Reporter that when Juarez-Juarez gets out of prison in around 15 years, he wants to work with juvenile authorities to intervene in the lives of young people who have taken “their first step in the gang world.”

“They’re not going to listen to a defense attorney, a DA or a judge,” he said. “They’ve got to listen to somebody who’s been there before.”

Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson took the occasion of the sentencing last week to put the public spotlight of her office on gang threats in her county.

“This is another senseless gang-related shooting death,” Clarkson said in a statement. “It is worrisome how common this narrative has become for young men in this community. This case, combined with tragic recent events, emphasizes the need to focus on gun violence prevention and community-based intervention of gang violence.” 

Salem’s police chief, Trevor Womack, is the city’s face of that intervention.

Acting on last fall’s report, Womack has started the city down the road to a community effort to reduce violence.

Last week, though, he deferred weighing in on the current status of gang violence.

Womack said Thursday that he had no information about the level of street gang activity in recent weeks. He said his agency last year hired outside researchers to look at shootings through mid-2023 but does not have the staff to compile real-time data on gang actions in the city.

He has promised to devise a strategy by next year to reduce gun violence, saying in a statement after the shooting in Bush’s Pasture Park that “this level of violence is simply unacceptable and intolerable.”

“The plan is not to restart the gang team, because honestly what we’re doing now, I think, is much better.”

–Debra Aguilar, Salem deputy police chief

But the community wants immediate action, as made clear in a public meeting at South Salem High School last week.

There, citizens who filled the school library to standing-only capacity pressed for information.

Salem Police Deputy Chief Debra Aguilar told the audience the agency was aware that some gathering of students was going to happen on the day of the park shooting. But the department placed officers downtown, where they believed the involved students would be.

That warning came from the Salem-Keizer School District, but police are not sure if it was the same group of kids involved in the shooting, according to Salem police spokeswoman Angela Hedrick. 

Those in the audience Wednesday asked the deputy chief why Salem’s gang unit was disbanded. 

“The plan is not to restart the gang team, because honestly what we’re doing now, I think, is much better,” Aguilar said. “We have a larger team, I think we have more focus.”

She said the previous team, which had two officers and a sergeant, was focused on gathering information and passing it on to detectives. 

“What we have now, even though we don’t call it a gang team, what they are doing really is trying to really focus on the areas and the people who are engaged in violence which I think is really what we need,” she said.

Hours after the meeting, police fielded yet another call about gunfire in northeast Salem. By the time officers responded, only casings were left behind.

Troy Gregg, director of the Marion County Juvenile Department, said his agency has noticed a marked increase in the past year of youth gang activity.

He said in that time there also has been a rise in juvenile charges related to weapons. Gregg said those accusations have typically been related to gangs.

City and county officials also only recently began mentioning gang involvement when discussing juvenile crimes.

“It’s been kind of one of those things that has really faded from the conversation that people want to have when it comes to juveniles for the issue of labeling and different things like that,” according to Gregg. 

That is changing as Marion County is seeing juveniles involved in more violence “targeted directly to gangs,” he said. “I think it’s becoming, now, back again on the forefront of more conversations.”

On Friday, yet another civic group weighed in, urging community action.

“Now is the time for us to come together as a community and reaffirm our commitment to our youth. We must wrap them in love and support, providing them with the guidance and resources they need to thrive,” according to a statement from R.J. Hampton, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP. “We cannot afford to stand idly by while our children suffer in silence, nor can we ignore the harsh realities they face on a daily basis.”

“But our responsibility does not end there. We must also hold ourselves and each other accountable for the well-being of our community. We must actively work to dismantle the systems of oppression and inequality that perpetuate violence and disenfranchise of our most vulnerable members. We must advocate for policies that prioritize the safety and dignity of all residents, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status,” Hampton wrote.

Oni Marchbanks, a Salem community activist, said the public isn’t fully aware of the extent of gang activity because it’s not “a priority on anybody’s list.”

“They pick and choose what they want to pay attention to,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s been enough community conversation around the gangs. They don’t have focus groups. They don’t ask the kids in school who’s experiencing the harm. They don’t listen to their voices.”

Marchbanks said that despite official silence on the park shooting, witnesses have told her the park shooting had a gang connection. She declined to publicly elaborate and Salem police wouldn’t confirm her information.

She said young people who join gangs are usually looking for a place to belong. 

“In a gang, you’re seen. You get this false sense of respectability,” she said. “They just want to belong, and behind that tough way of being and that mentality, they’re still human.”

Salem Reporter’s related coverage:

Grief, ambivalence as South considers next steps for school safety

In tense meeting, South Central neighbors press school district to restrict open campus

“Waiting to hear gunshots”: South Salem students describe anxiety, trauma as school locked down following shooting

Salem schools may get weapons detectors following Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

UPDATED: 16-year-old boy turns himself in, charged with fatal shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park

Community prays, calls for action after Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

Police identify 16-year-old boy killed in Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

“The kid died in my lap”: witnesses describe tragedy, mayhem as 3 shot in Bush’s Pasture Park

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.