PART 2: Troubled teen ensnared in gang war that spills into downtown Salem

The drive to Portland with the troubled teen went awry soon after pulling out of Salem.

Stopping for a break, the driver waited for 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Fletemier Brown to return from the bathroom.

Instead, he went on the run.

He made his way back to Salem, melding into street life as violent crime in the community ramped up.

In under two years, he would be dead, killed in a gun battle with undercover police officers.

Bobby’s street life led him to equate instilling fear in others with getting respect, according to AJ Gosney, his parole and probation officer from the Oregon Youth Authority.

Later, the teen would tell others he felt he’d been manipulated by older peers who took advantage of him.

That came as gang action emerged again to threaten Salem’s safety.

Decades earlier, Salem slowly and quietly became one of many battlegrounds across the U.S. between the Norteños and Sureños. The rival gangs sprouted out of California prisons and established smaller groups in various states. 

Gang members have continued to be involved in shootings in recent years. Many teens Bobby’s age grew up around deadly street violence and peers choosing sides. 


Part 1: A Salem teen, put in state care as an infant, struggles with adoptive parents. He takes to the streets as violence surges in the capital city.

Part 2: Salem’s gang conflicts reached a boiling point in spring 2022, with Bobby Brown suspected of two shootings in public places downtown.

Part 3:  Bobby Brown’s life and his hopes of starting over in another state are cut short at 16 in a fatal gun battle with police.

Younger and younger kids are increasingly engaged in shootings, some leaving people wounded. Earlier this year, an 11-year-old boy was arrested in Marion County, accused of attempting to kill one boy and shooting at another in a gang-related incident.

Craving a connection with peers, Bobby was the perfect target to be swept up by gangs, according to Gosney.

He continued to run from home and spend time at the homeless encampment that had taken hold in Wallace Marine Park.

There, Bobby befriended a teen who was four years older and recruited him into what he called “Hustler Mafia.” Though not a formal gang, the group was affiliated at the time with the Norteños. Accordingly, Bobby often wore red, the gang’s color. 

In early 2020, Bobby started refusing to do school work, stealing from his adoptive dad and sneaking out. He eventually ran away from home.

When relatives found him on the streets to return him home, he resisted efforts. He broke his brother-in-law’s hand during an altercation.

Police arrested Bobby that day for the assault.

While in juvenile detention, he started a fight with another teen by calling him a “scrap,” a derogatory term for Sureño gang members.

Bobby then was ordered into drug treatment.

That was when he escaped those driving him to Portland. 

He was back on the streets of Salem only a day. In that time, he broke into an auto glass shop to steal a car.

Once again, he was arrested.

In July 2020, a month before his 15th birthday, Bobby admitted to the assault and the burglary, which amounts to a guilty plea in the juvenile system. He was committed to the Oregon Youth Authority. He spent six weeks in a residential youth diversion program in Bend before his probation officer placed him at a treatment home in Coos Bay, hoping he wouldn’t run from there. 

But after two weeks, he fled 10 miles down U.S. Highway 101 along the Oregon coast to a homeless camp, where he stayed with an adult woman.

“Bobby’s level of commitment when he makes a decision was different than other kids,” according to Gosney.

Bobby Brown (friend’s photo)

Police found him, returning him to juvenile authorities. He had a short stay at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn before moving to Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility in Burns. Authorities wanted to keep him away from his Norteño gang peers and his Sureño rivals.

Bobby by then had moved up the ladder of resources for troubled kids in Oregon. Youth correctional facilities, intended for the most serious offenders, are the last rung.

In March 2021, Heidi Fletemier stopped at the Burns facility to visit her adoptive son on the way to her new home in Michigan. Due to Covid concerns, she could only talk to Bobby by phone, facing him through a glass window from outside the facility.

Fletemier was told Bobby would be in custody for well over a year. 

But within eight months, juvenile authorities concluded that Bobby’s improved behavior, grades and engagement in treatment justified releasing him from the most restrictive custody.

He was moved to a residential treatment program on a ranch in Bend but several times visited home. In another six months, he returned home to his dad.

Fletemier last saw her son in January 2022, in Salem.

Bobby Brown (friend’s photo)

He was conflicted.

“I’m not a bad kid,” Bobby told her. 

“I know you’re not,” she said. 

He went on.

“I’m a third-generation gangbanger, mom. This is my destiny,” he said.

His mom was at a loss, she recalled. “What do you say to that?”

In February 2022, Bobby ran away from home for what would be the final time. Because he fled home, juvenile authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. 

He’d decided that he was going to earn the respect of gang peers and rivals.

“Bobby had a lot of different chances to make it right, but it was clear what his choices were,” according to Gosney. “He had opportunities to turn the boat around because he certainly had the skills, the qualities. Talk about just a very bright mind. If he wanted to, he would’ve been a somebody for sure – and he was, in his own right, in his own environment with the gang.”

On a Friday afternoon in March 2022, bullets shattered glass entry doors at Salem Center Mall in a spot between Victoria’s Secret and Cricket Wireless.

The mall sits on a four-block hub at the heart of downtown.

It’s a hangout for kids, especially those roaming over from the neighboring Cherriots bus station.

Shoppers fled for cover.

It was the kind of crime people fear in downtown Portland, but not Salem.

Earlier that day, Bobby had made plans to meet a friend.

That afternoon, two friends got off a bus and headed toward the mall. As they walked, one got menacing Instagram messages from a stranger threatening to shoot him. The teens argued in messages over who had more guns.

Surveillance video showed the two teens join three other boys in the mall, including one police suspected was Bobby. As they walked up the escalator, through the skybridge and stopped at a pretzel shop, a group of around nine people passed by, some of whom glanced back at them.

One of the strangers briskly walked up to Bobby’s group, asking several times, “What’s up? Where are you from?” Gang members often pose that hostile question as a challenge.

One flashed a three-finger gang sign, signaling affiliation with the Sureños.

“Let’s take it outside,” said one in the group in a challenge to Bobby and his friends.

A gift shop worker intervened, telling them to keep the walkway open, and threatening to call security.

The altercation attracted the attention of an elderly woman, who began recording the scene. One teen smiled at her, flashing gang signs as the two groups rode down an escalator.

A young woman sitting by the entrance heard the groups arguing, with Bobby and his friends standing just inside the entry as the others exited.

“If you have a piece, pull it,” one of those outside yelled.

A witness took this photo of shattered glass doors at the downtown mall after a shooting on March 18, 2022. Police said they found nine 22-caliber casings in the entryway and later suspected Bobby Brown was the shooter. (Amirah Montaner)

A teen who police later suspected was Bobby pulled out a gun and fired several shots.

A bullet grazed a teen from the opposing group.

A witness later told police that it appeared the shooting happened “because the group that shot was being provoked by the other group.”

Inside the mall, shoppers fled for safety.

One man ran up the escalator with a small child in hand and another child on foot. Some of Bobby’s friends ran up the escalator behind them.

One by one, Bobby and two of his friends fled the mall and hit Liberty Street.

Dozens of officers arrived and found the injured teen a block from the shooting scene. He was bleeding from his head wound. The bullet was inches away from being fatal.

The victim started telling police that the shooter was wearing a gray mask. But a friend cut him off, telling him not to talk to the police.

“The injured teen and his friends remained but were very uncooperative and interfered with emergency personnel providing aid at the scene,” Salem police said in a statement at the time.

The victim was taken to Salem Hospital, which had gone into lockdown because of the shooting. A group of teens and a parent later confronted an officer at the hospital and ignored his commands to stop as he explained the lockdown.

Meantime, one of Bobby’s friends texted their older friend.

“Need a ride sum hot shii,” he wrote. “Me n Bobby.”

Video appeared to show Bobby and a friend crossing the Union Street Pedestrian Bridge to Wallace Marine Park.

Video shows Bobby Brown’s group in and around Salem Center Mall just before a shooting left a teen boy wounded on March 18, 2022. Police suspected Bobby was the shooter wearing black. (Oregon State Police)

The scene remained chaotic back at the mall.

Police closed off several downtown streets, evacuated the mall and instructed anyone in the area to shelter in place. Many businesses in the downtown corridor closed early.

Police interviewed dozens of witnesses, reviewed surveillance video and obtained search warrants to examine private social media accounts for clues.

Three months later, in June 2022, they suspected Bobby was the shooter and began searching for him.

At around the same time, yet another shooting occurred in daylight in downtown Salem. The swarming response of police and news of more bullets flying would trigger a sense that downtown Salem was a dangerous place to be. 

On a Monday afternoon, Bobby and three friends argued with another group at the transit center. Fights there among teenagers aren’t uncommon.

Bobby and his group moved off, crossing Northeast Chemeketa Street into a small parking lot at what is now Umpqua Bank. They were trailed by those they had been arguing with.

One of Bobby’s friends drew a knife.

A 20-year-old man approached the friend, reaching behind his head and pulling a machete from the back of his shirt.

And then there was gunfire.

Bobby, it appeared, had struck again.

The machete-wielding man ducked and then ran back to the transit mall with his friend. A bullet had entered his left side, pierced his kidney and ricocheted around his stomach.

He was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

Surveillance video at what is now Umpqua Bank on Northeast Center Street shows Bobby Brown fleeing after a shooting left a man in critical condition. Police suspected that Bobby fired shots with a 9mm handgun. (Salem Police Department)

As Salem police investigated the latest shooting, witnesses identified a possible suspect: Bobby Brown. 

Officers recognized the name from their earlier investigation into the mall shooting. Police had already been trying to track down Bobby. 

Now they intensified their search for the teen.

The high school junior had become one of Salem’s most wanted criminals.

NEXT in Part 3: Bobby Brown’s life and his hopes of starting over in another state are cut short at 16 in a fatal gun battle with police.

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.