Ontario Police Officer Tomas Elizondo points to partially painted-over gang graffiti on a shed in south Ontario recently. Elizondo said the city has a gang problem. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)
ONTARIO – Over a six-week stretch late last year, a string of shootings hospitalized three people, hurled bullets into cars and through apartment walls, and littered city streets with empty shell casings.
Ontario police believe the violence reflects increasing street gang activity.
“There is a gang problem,” said Ontario Police Officer Tomas Elizondo. “I think gang activity is rising.”
Interviews with local police and a review of records by the Malheur Enterprise show the city recorded 31 gang-related cases in 2016. Last year, that jumped to 158.
Graffiti reports attributed to gangs also jumped from 58 to 169. The upsurge in gang-related cases came as the city’s overall arrests fell.
According to Ontario police, three gangs are active in Ontario. They are the 18th Street Gang, the Nortenos and the Brown Magic Clica (BMC), which can trace its roots to Nyssa and California.
The 18th Street Gang began in Los Angeles and is one of the largest criminal syndicates in the nation with members in more than 20 states.
Police said BMC has the biggest footprint in Ontario with more than 100 within its ranks.
The surge in graffiti incidents indicated to local police that gangs were expanding their operations. Then the shootings around Ontario began. Last June, a shooter in a car fired into a parked car near the Ontario Train Depot in downtown. Three men in that car escaped injury, but the daytime gunfire alarmed business operators and customers.
In November, someone opened fire on a pickup truck and an apartment on Arcata Way, sending .380-caliber rounds into an apartment and through two interior walls. A couple sleeping in a back bedroom escaped injury.
The couple said they had no idea why they were targeted, though the man told police he had “several enemies in his past” but hadn’t been threatened recently.
One witness reported seeing a red sports car in the area at the time of the shooting and an Ontario officer tailed a similar-looking vehicle into Idaho before he lost it. Meanwhile, other officers recovered eight casings from the street.
Less than a month later, there was a fistfight and another shooting, this time only a block off one of Ontario’s busiest streets and a popular restaurant.
After two combatants broke off from a fight in a rear yard of a home on Northeast 3rd Street, witnesses reported seeing two cars with several passengers. A passenger in one stepped out and walked up to the front door of the home, carrying a shotgun. The men inside had hurriedly closed the front door, according to the Ontario police report. Children were inside.
The gunman opened the front door and let loose with a single round from the shotgun, hitting a juvenile who was later treated at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center. Police reports reflect officers had a challenging time trying to untangle the attack as accounts conflicted. The victim told police he didn’t know who shot him.
Three days later – Dec. 6 at about 9 p.m. – two men were wounded in a drive-by shooting on Northwest 7th Street. The two were sitting in a car when another vehicle approached, slowed and unleashed a volley of gunshots. One of the men was hit in the right knee and left ankle and transported to St. Alphonsus Medical Center. The second victim was driven to a Nampa hospital for treatment.
Police spoke with numerous people regarding the incident but made little progress solving the crime. They did, however, recover five .380 casings from the scene.
On Dec. 15, at about 5:30 p.m. an Ontario resident stepped outside of her home to dump the garbage and spotted a red car drive past. The woman then heard a shot and then, after a short pause, two more shots. After another pause, she heard one more shot.
Police found five shell casings around the intersection of Northwest 7th Avenue and Fortner Street, but found no damage or any indication someone had been shot.
The cases remain unsolved. Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz said those incidents are just the most obvious gang-related cases.
“I believe that gang-related crimes are often unreported by victims in fear of retaliation,” said Kunz.
“When we do have a shooting, the people getting shot at know each other but won’t talk to police for fear of retaliation. So, they are tough to really investigate,” said Elizondo.
Threat ebbs and flows
Criminal syndicates in Ontario are not a new problem but the sharp escalation of violence last year revealed that the illegal organizations are growing bolder nearly seven years after a law enforcement operation paralyzed gangs locally.
The police sweep, dubbed Operation Black Magic and part of a federal racketeering probe that began in 2010, produced federal and state indictments against 30 people from Idaho and Oregon, including two Ontario residents believed to be linked to gangs.
The police sweep neutralized but didn’t eliminate the gang threat, according to local police.
The resurgence in Ontario worries police because gang activity usually leads to more crimes, said Elizondo.
He was Ontario’s designated gang officer twice before but as city resources dwindled, he returned to patrol. He remains the agency’s leading gang authority.
“You get a lot of drug trafficking, trafficking in guns and they are usually guns stolen in burglaries. And you get human trafficking and prostitution,” said Elizondo.
Thefts and break-ins generate money for the gangs, said Elizondo. He said they typically are organized, know the streets, and take precautions when they operate.
Gang participation is a “young man’s game,” said Darrel Patzer, a senior parole and probation officer with Malheur County Corrections.
That means older gang members, often with state or federal prison time under their belts, manage the day-to-day operations but it is younger men and women committing the crimes.
“The ones on the street raising the hell are the 14-, 15- to 20-year-olds doing what the shot-callers say, trying to earn their stripes,” said Patzer.
Patzer said gang activity goes through cycles, depending on police resources available to combat it and public attention.
One factor suspected in the most recent surge is that gang members arrested in the past are filtering back to the area after their prison terms expire.
One individual told police after the Dec. 6 shooting that “…a lot of BMC (Brown Magic Clica) guys are getting out of prison and it was going to start up again.”
Elizondo said his instincts tell him that may be so.
“My gut feeling is some of them are still involved but I don’t have the proof,” said Elizondo.
Patzer said that for eight years, he was focused on gang members. The caseload dropped over recent years.
“It diminished quite a bit since police resources have diminished,” said Patzer.
He said that doesn’t mean the gang threat faded.
“No matter what level of gang activity you have in your community, it is organized crime. Most think of organized crime as like La Costa Nostra. But these folks are not getting together to plant flowers. They are people who get together to plan and carry out criminal activities,” said Patzer. “Then you have the pros who go to prison, get educated and find out how to do it better.”
Elizondo said the public plays a big role in helping police curb the challenge.
“The community, they need to be our eyes and ears,” he said.
Kunz said his force is stretched thin.
“We clearly do not have the staffing at this time to dedicate an officer to focus on the gang problems,” said Kunz.
Now, said Kunz, patrol officers handle gang issues with other duties.
“Additional staffing allows for more non-obligated time – not responding to calls, writing reports – that officers can work on more proactive enforcement that would most likely lead to crime prevention,” said Kunz.
A full-time gang officer, Kunz said, “can not only gather intelligence of gang activity, but build a rapport with family or gang members. The benefits are many.”
Lt. Mark Duncan, the Oregon State Police Ontario station commander, said cooperation between police agencies is crucial to stop gangs.
“One agency cannot do it alone. It is imperative that we work closely together. But the No. 1 way to combat crime is you have to be proactive,” said Duncan.
Duncan said the public can’t ignore gangs.
“The other thing is community education so they don’t turn a blind eye and say it isn’t my problem,” said Duncan.
Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.