PUBLIC SAFETY

Teen committed to Oregon Youth Authority for fatal 2023 stabbing at Salem Center Mall

A 16-year-old Salem boy has been committed to the Oregon Youth Authority for fatally stabbing a young man in Salem Center Mall a year ago.

The teen admitted on May 13 in Marion County Juvenile Court to first-degree assault. Prosecutors dismissed allegations of second-degree murder and unlawful use of a weapon as part of the teen’s settlement, the juvenile equivalent of a plea deal.

The death of Enrique Sanchez-Franco, 20, of Salem, resulted in a complicated case.

Sanchez-Franco was the first to pull a knife and instigated the altercation by slapping the teen, according to his attorneys. But the boy stabbed him as he turned away. His lawyers said that Sanchez-Franco challenged him because of the color of his clothing, though the teen has denied being in a gang. 

Marion County prosecutors originally sought to try the teen as an adult but later pivoted back to juvenile court.

Salem Reporter does not typically identify youth suspects unless they are adjudicated for murder in juvenile court, their case has been moved to adult court or their crime was highly visible and authorities have publicly identified them.

After the recent settlement conference, the teen was taken to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn. 

Under the settlement, he could remain at MacLaren until he turns 25, though the Oregon Youth Authority can move him to a residential program or release him earlier based on his behavior.

Marion County Circuit Judge Lindsay Partridge said at the recent hearing that the teen admitted to causing “serious physical injury resulting in death by means of a knife.”

In some juvenile cases, prosecutors may agree to a felony that carries the same period of commitment that the original allegation would have, according to Marion County Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy. That decision is usually based on the quality of evidence.

Often, prosecutors want to guarantee an adjudication – similar to a conviction in adult court – to save taxpayer money and make a future appeal less likely, Murphy said.

Salem Center Mall downtown (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mall dispute turns deadly 

The 15-year-old boy left North Salem High School during a lunch break on May 12, 2023,  according to Ellen Yeoman, an attorney representing the teen.

He and four girls stopped to get food at Safeway before heading to Salem Center Mall.

The teen was sitting on a bench just outside Macy’s, waiting for the girls to use the bathroom, when Sanchez-Franco approached him.

Sanchez-Franco demanded that the teen take off his red sweatshirt. He refused.

Sanchez-Franco asked, “What do you bang?” Yeoman told Salem Reporter. Gang members often pose that question to confirm another person’s affiliation.

The teen responded that he wasn’t part of a gang. “Take off that (expletive) ketchup, then,” Sanchez-Franco said.

Sanchez-Franco walked away briefly but returned moments later and slapped the teen. Surveillance video at the mall was grainy but showed Sanchez-Franco holding a knife.

The teen then pulled a knife. “I don’t bang,” he was heard repeatedly saying on video. “What are we doing? There’s cameras everywhere. I don’t want to do this.”

The stabbing occurred in Macy’s and was not captured on camera.

Yeoman said the stab wound was shallow but struck a vital organ.

“At the specific moment where the stab occurred, Enrique had turned his body away,” Yeoman said. “We felt like, but for the specific body positioning at the time that the incident occurred, we would have had a self-defense claim.”

Sanchez-Franco ran back into the mall walkway while the teen fled to the parking garage.

Police responded just before 12:30 p.m.

The Salem Police Department announced three hours later that a man had been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries from a stabbing. The suspect had fled.

Officers found the teen later that evening in a car parked outside a residence, according to Yeoman. He was arrested and lodged at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center.

Police the next day identified the victim as Sanchez-Franco and announced that he had died overnight.

Somber day in court

A year after the stabbing, it came time for the teen’s fate.

Family members of the teen and the victim packed a courtroom in the Marion County Courthouse downtown.

A juvenile probation officer told Judge Lindsay Partridge that the teen was under little to no supervision, had poor school attendance and was using marijuana daily at the time of the stabbing.

The high school freshman was behind in school when he arrived at detention. Now, he only needs two credits to graduate.

Aside from one incident involving inappropriate language, the teen had no reports of misconduct while in detention, the probation officer said in court.

He also had no previous referrals to the juvenile department before the stabbing.

Yeoman said in court that the teen was “massively remorseful.” When he first arrived in detention, before he learned that Sanchez-Franco had died, he asked if he could apologize for the victim’s family. 

After Sanchez-Franco died, the teen wrote his name on a board in his cell to honor him. 

“He wanted to remind himself the person’s name that he took the life of,” according to his other attorney, Jeff Jorgensen.

The detention manager and two of the teen’s teachers wrote letters describing the strides that he had made while in custody. One teacher wrote that the teen had become his “star student.”

“Never have I had a student in detention that I could trust to be such a positive influence on his peers around him. Whether the peer is a middle school student or about to graduate, they look to (him) and his success as motivation to do it themselves,” the teacher wrote. “When he isn’t in class, other students ask when he is going to come back and what he thinks about what we are learning.”

Other staff said that the teen helped translate lessons for students who only spoke Spanish, and that he helped clean graffiti and messes left behind by other students.

Yeoman told Salem Reporter that the teen is interested in doing social work after he is released.

But she recalled the boy telling her that Sanchez-Franco’s death will always weigh on his conscience. He said he thinks all the time about how the loss of one life may have been the impetus for positive change in his.

The teen apologized to Sanchez-Franco’s family in the courtroom.

“I understand I took someone very valuable from them,” he said.

The boy said he didn’t know how they felt because he had never lost someone close to him. “But I know it hurts,” he said.

Sanchez-Franco’s aunt told the teen in court that he wasn’t showing remorse.

“I know my nephew wasn’t the greatest person, but the way he died wasn’t supposed to be the way he died,” she said. “I know you’re telling us that you’re sorry but you don’t show it.”

A young relative said that the settlement didn’t serve justice for Sanchez-Franco’s family, describing it as “a slap on the wrist.”

She said the outcome gives kids like her the impression that it’s okay to take a knife to the mall and kill someone. Even if Sanchez-Franco may have provoked or bullied him, she said, the teen didn’t have the right to kill him.

Sanchez-Franco’s mother said her family will never be the same again. 

“Did it not hurt you when you were doing it?,” she asked the teen. “Did you not feel awful inside?”

Sanchez-Franco’s other aunt described his happy spirit even in difficult times. She said her nephew loved football and soccer.

She said she couldn’t believe that he was stabbed in a community space such as the mall, where people are supposed to be shopping and having fun with their children.

“This gang stuff needs to stop, ” she said. “He just took someone that could’ve brought so much positivity to this world.”

Sanchez-Franco’s younger sister also questioned why the teen didn’t run if he was scared for his life.

Partridge said that the case “presents some very complicated facts,” but the result was the same. “You lost your son,” he told Sanchez-Franco’s mother.

Yeoman asked the judge to place him in a residential program rather than a youth correctional facility. The teen also agreed to pay the family $5,000 in restitution.

Marion County Deputy District Attorney Tim O’Donnell said that while the stabbing was the teen’s first referral to the juvenile department, “it’s a very serious referral.”

O’Donnell said the strict environment in juvenile detention isn’t a good representation of how the teen would behave in the community.

He said the teen chose to go to the mall with a 6-inch dagger and wear the color that he did.

For decades in Oregon, teens charged with violent felonies were prosecuted and sentenced as adults, but a law passed in 2019 left that decision to judges. Juvenile offenders are now rarely tried in adult court. 

“These gang cultures in the community, they’re aware of that,” according to O’Donnell.

He said the message that young people can kill with little accountability puts the community in danger.

Partridge said that he believed the teen was remorseful, but could also understand the suspicion of Sanchez-Franco’s family.

“There’s always going to be a hole in their lives that you’re responsible for,” he told the teen. “I don’t know if you were gangbanging or not, but I do know that somebody carrying a big knife to the mall is not normal behavior.”

Perhaps the teen felt he needed the knife for protection, Partridge said, adding that such circumstances are often complicated and “not black-and-white.”

He said he couldn’t think of anyone else who had been in juvenile detention in Marion County for this long and has done as well as the teen had.

Explaining the commitment to a secure facility, Partridge said the teen previously struggled while under little supervision in the community. 

The judge said that MacLaren was the right next step for rehabilitation because it’s a structured environment but not as strict as detention. He said he didn’t believe sending the teen straight to a residential program was in his or the community’s best interest.

Partridge told the teen that the only way to show he is remorseful is by continuing on the path that he’s been on over the past year.

“You’re never going to be able to right this situation,” he said. But he told the teen he can be a positive influence to others in the future.

Partridge acknowledged that the teen would have faced a much different outcome if he was older. He said that would be a hard pill to swallow if the victim was his own child.

“My heart truly goes out to you folks,” he told Sanchez-Franco’s family.

RELATED COVERAGE:

UPDATE: Man dies after Friday stabbing at Salem Center Mall

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.