The Spokane Valley shootings that left three people hospitalized may reflect growing tensions among Hispanic gangs in the area, sheriff’s deputies said Tuesday.
Two of the three suspects in Sunday night’s assault have ties to Hispanic gangs in Yakima, Moses Lake and the Tri-Cities, deputies said.
The third, 17-year-old Jeremy Johnson, was charged Tuesday with five counts of first-degree assault.
Deputies said Johnson was driving during the attack and admitted firing one shot from a 9mm semiautomatic handgun at passengers in another car.
Even though he doesn’t have a criminal record, he could be tried as an adult because of his age and the seriousness of the crime.
The other suspects who were in Johnson’s car, Jose Mendoza and Robert DeLao, both 20, remained at large late Tuesday. Mendoza doesn’t have a criminal record in Spokane. DeLao has been arrested once for theft, but no charges were filed.
Johnson told detectives that during the shooting his gun jammed after the first round. Mendoza, who also goes by the nickname “Wino,” fired more bullets from another 9mm handgun, Johnson said.
Torrey Lowery, 18, was shot in the chest while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car. Two other victims in Lowery’s car - Heidi Hughes, 20, and Sabrina Lewin, 17 - also were shot, one in the knee, hip and neck and the other in the leg, wrist and finger.
Two other passengers were not injured.
Sheriff’s detectives said a confrontation had been brewing between the two groups for some time. Lowery knew who Johnson was and identified him as one of the shooters, sheriff’s reports show.
“This was not a ‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time’ kind of thing,” said Sgt. George Wiggen, who oversees the Sheriff Department’s drug and gang unit. “This was your typical gangster shooting and typical gangster shootings are all about respect.”
Johnson, who is non-Hispanic, started hanging out with Mendoza and DeLao and even had the Spanish phrase “La Raza Por Vida” written on the back window of his car.
The words translate to “the race for life,” with the word “race” referring to Chicano people.
“(Johnson), he’s emulating these other Hispanic guys, trying to be like them,” said Detective Rick Van Leuven, a gang expert for the Sheriff’s Department.
“Even though he’s white, it’s not uncommon for gangs in Spokane to be multi-ethnic - for white males to affiliate with Hispanic or black or Asian gangs.”
At his detention hearing Tuesday, Johnson’s mother wouldn’t comment on her son’s gang involvement, but did express sympathy to the victims who were “brutally injured by my son.”
“He will take responsibility for his actions and be punished according to the law,” a tearful Rhonda Smith said.
Several of the youths who were in Lowery’s car during the shooting are involved with gangs, deputies said. A blue bandanna hung from Lowery’s rearview mirror - a symbol “indicative of people who align with gangs,” Van Leuven said.
Hispanic gangs in the United States mostly consist of two core groups called the Sorenos and Nortenos, or Southerners and Northerners. Like the Bloods and Crips, the two Hispanic groups are rival gangs who often vie for power.
The Hispanic gangs originated in California years ago, with the Bakersfield area being the dividing line between the Nortenos and Sorenos. But as the groups started moving out of California into other states, the north-south distinction faded, Van Leuven said.
Lately, detectives have started noticing an increase in gang violence within the same cliques, or sets, Van Leuven said. The Nortenos and Sorenos have smaller, separate gangs within each group.
“We haven’t seen that before but now we’re seeing them start jacking each other around,” he said.
Detectives blame some of that on young gang members moving to Spokane from bigger cities, where they didn’t have much power or seniority within the group.
“They once were peewees and then they come up here and realize they can be the big man in the gang now, so they start things happening,” Van Leuven said.
That type of “branching out” results in more tensions among gangs because there are more rivals to deal with, he said.
After Sunday night’s shooting, Johnson told deputies he drove to an apartment at Steve’s Trailer Park on North Adams Road in the Valley.
According to sheriff’s reports, the three hid both guns and bullets in a plumber’s access hole in the ground. Johnson was arrested Monday while driving in Coeur d’Alene.
It is still unclear what sparked the shooting, although Wiggen said it likely had to do with one group believing the other was showing disrespect.
“It could have been a stare or a few words or a look or whatever,” he said. “We’re not talking about rational people, but irrational youths with overblown egos. To them, shooting somebody, it doesn’t matter who, brings respect.”
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