GRANT COUNTY, Wash. – More than 10 years ago, “Maniac” moved to Central Washington to escape a Los Angeles street gang.
An illegal immigrant from Tijuana, Mexico, Maniac – who refused to provide his real name for this story – sought refuge in Grant County, a largely rural and agricultural area where his grandfather was already working in the fields.
His plan was to join his family picking apples, grapes, cherries or the other staple crops grown in Washington’s fourth-largest county, geographically.
Instead, the 35-year-old was drawn back into a life of violence, drugs, guns and other gang-related activities. Now he’s one of 40 known gang members locked up in the Grant County Jail in Ephrata – occupying about half of the available beds.
Maniac’s story is not uncommon in Grant County, where only five of a dozen sheriff’s deputies patrol 2,700 square miles each day. Individual cities have their own police departments, but they are short on manpower, adding to the problem.
According to officials, in the past six years the expanse of the county has made it a “quasi-safe haven” for between 20 and 25 Latino gangs that identify with either the Norteño or Sureño brands. Officials have documented 350 known gang members, and as many as 200 more gang associates.
“That’s a low estimate,” said Grant County Undersheriff John Turley, who said the spike in gang activity is the largest he’s seen in a decade. “Our intelligence tells us there has been a big push by California prison gangs to bolster their population.”
Since January, officials have investigated five gang-related homicides – twice as many deaths as the county typically investigates in a year. At the same time, there have been more than 30 gang-related drive-by shootings.
The Sheriff’s Office recently received a $250,000 federal grant to hire two gang officers to assist with intelligence-gathering and community prevention.
It’s not the first time Grant County law enforcement has tried to eradicate the growing gang problem. In 2007, a gang unit was formed to document graffiti, gather gang intelligence and make contacts with gang affiliates. The unit disbanded after a couple of months because of budget cuts.
“The worst thing we can do now is stick our head in the sand and ignore it,” Turley said. “The way we are going to get a foothold is to involve the communities to such a degree that they will help us.”
In the federal grant, officials described Grant County as a place where “bodies are dumped with little more than tattoos as identifiers,” drive-by shootings happen on a weekly basis, and recently, deputies dealt with a “mafia”-style hit gone bad, leading to the arrest and conviction of two Sureño brothers.
“To be honest, the problem is lack of law enforcement. We call for a deputy and it takes more than an hour,” said Larry Davis, of Schawana, Wash. “We are at the south end of the county, and we’ve been told we are a low priority.”
Davis and his family own and operate several businesses in Schawana and Beverly, Wash., situated along the Columbia River northeast of Yakima. They have been in the area since 1958 and have watched the last three years as Latino gangs have infiltrated their small communities.
Davis said two Latino gang sets are at war in a three-block radius of his home. His brother’s trailer was 100 yards from a retaliatory drive-by shooting in Schawana in June, where gang members shot nine rounds into a singlewide trailer with nine people sleeping inside, including an infant.
“It could have very well been my brother,” Davis said.
With the rise in violence, Davis said he’s prepared to take the law into his own hands. Turley, standing nearby during a recent interview, acknowledged that because of response time, people like Davis need to protect themselves.
“I’ll shoot back and they know it,” Davis said. “We have a reputation of taking care of our own.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other families in the region.
Protecting family runs deep in the Latino communities as well.
In Mattawa, Wash., where the population is 98 percent Hispanic and fluctuates with the growing season as migrant workers come and go, communication with law enforcement is a struggle. Many residents steer clear of the law because of immigration issues, or they fear retaliation from gang members, making it difficult to gather information, officials said.
“Initially they don’t want to tell us anything because they are afraid we will call and get them deported,” said Deputy Joe Harris, who often patrols Mattawa, in southern Grant County. “They have an ingrained sense of distrust for police, making it very difficult.”
Mattawa town councilwoman Annabel De La Garza is a perfect example of how personal and entrenched the problem is. She has three sons. One just graduated from high school and is going off to college. Two are known gang members.
One of her boys was stabbed in a recent incident of gang retaliation, and last month the body of a 17-year-old gang member was dumped near her front yard. She’s also dealt with drive-by shootings.
“It’s like I live in two worlds,” De La Garza said. In addition to being an elected official, she works as a dental assistant and translator for a clinic across the street from her home. De La Garza, 43, came to Grant County 20 years ago, when her husband got a farm job.
“This has been a very scary time for me,” she said. “I always knew what they were, and I never approved, and I never accepted it. But I never played dumb.
“But I’m a mother, and I’ve always been and always will be there for them,” De La Garza said. “My heart goes out to those other parents that are finding out that their kids are gang members; and it’s not going to stop just like that.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Spokane is watching the region’s gang activity closely.
According to the FBI, gang members with ties to Spokane and surrounding counties have been contacted by law enforcement in 13 other states, including as far east as New Jersey and Florida.
“It is something that is requiring an increasing amount of law enforcement,” said Agent Frank Harrill.
But while the federal government is able to provide enforcement for high-profile drug and gun-running cases, and watches gang activity as it crosses state lines, the street-level crimes are dealt with by local jurisdictions.
In Moses Lake, Grant County’s largest city, the police department failed to get a federal stimulus grant for additional officers.
“We’ve had an awful lot of malicious mischief committed by juveniles, such as tagging or graffiti,” said Capt. Dave Ruffin.
But Turley said the problems are bigger than teenagers tagging fences, and additional resources are needed now. There have been a number of shootings in Moses Lake proper, including the killing of 19-year-old Juan “Pooky” Vasquez Jr., who last month was shot to death near the Grant County airport, allegedly over $25 in marijuana.
The Sheriff’s Office says it will use the $250,000 federal grant to push forward with an effort to inform the community of the extent of the gang problem. Turley said he hopes his two new officers will be able to demonstrate a continuing problem, as well as progress, to make federal funds more permanent.
“I’m so sick and tired of this being a flash in the pan; we show up, raise hell, arrest some people and they never see us again,” Turley said. “It can’t just be about arresting people and throwing them in jail. That’s worthless.”
Maniac is a prime example. Even from his cell in the Grant County Jail, he says he is second in command of his gang, the West Side 18th Street Sureños. Although he was sentenced on a warrant for an old domestic violence charge, his criminal history shows a list of other crimes, including assault.
When he is released in nine months, he’ll likely be deported, and says he is ready to quit the gang life. But his wife and children live in Washington, so he’ll have to come back.
“The reality is that when you don’t have a lot of choices, you have to choose your family, your ’hood.”