Fear of gang violence pervades Glenn town

By Leslie Layton
Bee Correspondent

(Published Feb. 6, 1999)

HAMILTON CITY -- In better years, the community center at the Ideal Mobile Home Park brimmed with life. It was a place children could celebrate birthdays, go roller skating. That was before gangs began terrorizing the residents of this tiny farm town that for decades has provided cheap farm labor to help harvest lucrative north valley crops near the banks of the Sacramento River.

Now, there's not much left of the community center's recreation room and kitchen -- just charred concrete walls blanketed with gang graffiti, a burned-up stove, heaps of ashes and yellow crime tape. The building was boarded up two years ago because of vandalism by the two local gangs, the Nortenos and Surenos.

At 4 a.m. Sunday, it was destroyed by one of the 10 arson fires that have hit Hamilton City in the past week. And early Tuesday, sheriff's officials say, a fire burned an unoccupied trailer in the park, scorching the sides of neighboring trailers, a nearby vehicle and some clothing on a clothesline.

The rash of fires in this unincorporated Glenn County town is seen as a showdown between angry gang members and an energetic new sheriff's administration. For the past two years Hamilton City, 10 miles west of Chico, has been plagued by a series of property crimes and sporadic gunfire that have caused thousands of dollars in damage, and exacted an even higher price in fear.

Law enforcement officials say Hamilton City's gangs are not only surprisingly large, but are also well-known among Northern California gang investigators. Glenn County Sheriff's Deputy Justin Gibbs has been documenting gang activity in this town of 2,500 people and is surprised by the fact that he's identified 100 youths and young adults as hard-core gang members. Most people in this community know each other, and many are related. But few can fully explain why gangs have taken root. In some neighborhoods, residents say kids join gangs out of fear.

One 14-year-old Hamilton City boy, who asked not to be identified, suggested he had little to lose by becoming involved in the gang that has already absorbed his older siblings. If he ever got a job, he said, it would be "field stuff. Not like businesses. I'm not going to graduate from high school."

Although this rural town is surrounded by bucolic orchards, sheriff's Lt. Larry Jones describes its gang activity as "urban terrorism." Since Jan. 28, arsonists have torched five vehicles and an abandoned house. And there was an attempt to set fire to the Chester W. Walker Memorial Library downtown. "I feel this is out of control," said a Hamilton City woman who recently quit her clerical job to protect her home and property. "These kids are sending us a message: 'We are in control and we're not going to go away.'"

The Glenn County Sheriff's Department says it's not going away any time soon, either.

The gangs are "going to win a few little battles but I can assure you we are going to win the war," said Glenn County Sheriff Robert Shadley, who took over the Sheriff's Department a month ago. "Everyone should be concerned but not alarmed; we have committed the resources" to deal with the gang problem. Gibbs said that more than 15 gang members have been arrested recently -- seven in the past week, including two who are suspected of setting the trailer park's community center on fire.

The outbreak of fires began a couple of weeks after the Sheriff's Department started a crackdown called "Operation Clean Sweep." Acknowledging complaints that police protection has not been adequate, the Sheriff's Department budgeted $10,000 for overtime to keep officers on the street in Hamilton City.

In addition, Shadley applied for a $55,000 federal grant to combat gangs. And after touring Glenn County and witnessing the amount of gang activity, officials from the federal Department of Justice told the sheriff that he should increase his funding request. If awarded the planning grant, Glenn County would have to show how it would adapt urban, anti-gang programs to its rural communities, as well as promote interagency cooperation.

Throughout the north valley, there is growing concern over gang violence spilling across county lines. Recently, representatives from Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties met in Chico to discuss the possibility for expanding the existing three-officer Butte-Glenn Gang Task Force. But Hamilton City, on the east side of one of California's poorest counties, is a startling example of a town with few resources to fight its battle with street gangs. Residents point out that unlike other nearby cities, it lacks its own police department, school resource officers and a recreation district that would offer youth-oriented programs.The town depends on the Sheriff's Department headquartered 25 miles away in Willows for protection. And many residents and business owners are angry over what they view as inconsistent protection.

Arturo Jacobo, who owns the Mi Ranchito grocery store, said he believes that gang members are running Hamilton City and will at some point target his store because he refuses to sell alcohol to underage kids. "We need to unite and demand police protection," said Jacobo, who was robbed three times last year.

Hamilton High School Principal Ray Odom is optimistic the new sheriff's administration will help the town regain its tranquility by showing a responsiveness that will encourage the community to begin more self-policing. In the past, he said, it has taken four hours for an officer to respond to a call at the school. The result of such delays, Odom added, is that residents fear they won't be protected if they report crimes.

Indeed, some residents have experienced gang retaliation. They say crime victims or individuals trying to curb crime have received threats and have been targetted by vandals. Even sheriff's officials suspect that some of the arson fires, as well as a shooting at the department's Hamilton City substation, were a response to arrests of gang members.

In 1997, the community was hit with a series of 17 arson fires. In 1998, sheriff's officials recorded 24 cases of "shots fired." And there was a shooting that hit the Glenn County public bus as it made a trial stop in Hamilton City. As a result, Glenn Ride transit service dropped plans to add the stop to its route.

Sheriff's officials note their jurisdiction stretches from Hamilton City to the Mendocino National Forest 100 miles to the west, making it difficult sometimes to respond to calls promptly. And while they are now reallocating resources, in the past there have been at times only two swing-shift patrol cars available for the entire county.

But the new sheriff has said that Hamilton City must be quickly brought "back into the loop." Shadley said he plans to assign a community policing team to the town. And sheriff's deputies stress they need more cooperation from town residents.

Several residents, working with county and law enforcement officials, have set a town meeting for 7 p.m. March 2 at Hamilton Union High School. And this week, sheriff's officials announced a secret-witness reward program to encourage tips that could help solve major, gang-related crimes. The Sheriff's Department said it would offer a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to arrests for property crimes where there was $20,000 or more in losses and for drive-by shootings.

Rival gangs from Orland and Hamilton City have carried out retaliations in nearby Chico in Butte County. Gangs in the two towns carry on a seething rivalry characteristic of the feud between Norteno and Sureno gangs. After an October drive-by shooting in Chico, Bobby Bass, of Hamilton City, was arrested and charged with shooting at a vehicle. Bass, 21, is considered a key Norteno gang figure.

In the Ideal Mobile Home Park, where most parents work long hours in the fields most of the year, the fear at home is palpable. An 11-year-old girl, playing with other children on the recreation center lawn earlier this week, said she had heard gang members talking. "They're not afraid of the cops," she said.

One resident at the mobile home park said he stood in his tiny yard in the pouring rain early Sunday, watching as the flames from the community building drew dangerously close to trailers and gas lines. "Next time it might be our home," he said. "The rain probably saved us from something much worse. It was very dangerous, very ugly."