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SALT LAKE CITY — Two separate shootings in Salt Lake County on Feb. 12 left two people dead. In both cases, children were caught up in the violence.
The KSL Investigators spent a night with the Metro Gang Unit to get a better sense of a growing problem; gangs are recruiting more kids.
Friends in shock
Alan Hernandez Lopez, 16, was gunned down in South Salt Lake on his way home from school Monday afternoon.
Wednesday evening, four mourners expressed pain and disbelief while gathering to remember their friend. Through tears, one mourner, Elizabeth, said, "He's just a kid, he doesn't deserve to die like that, he was supposed to grow up and be someone."
Metro Gang Unit detective Jerry Valdez looked on. "Sorry for your loss," he said to the group of four girls.
Valdez said he feels their pain.
"We don't want another 17-year-old dying," he said.
Gang unit ride
Recently, the KSL Investigators uncovered a troubling fact. Police have identified 50 gangs in Salt Lake County and estimate there are about 1,300 juvenile gang members. Valdez said the gang problem has risen to levels not seen since the 1990s, with a disturbing twist.
"You have juveniles out here and that's the difference now. In the ’90s, it was adults," he said.
The KSL Investigators rode along with Valdez one night. During his shift, a tip came in about a wanted gang member. Detectives set up a perimeter and waited for the suspect to make a move. Within a half hour, the suspect got into his car and left a house in Rose Park. Valdez tailed the suspect's hatchback to a nearby gas station. They waited for an opportunity. As the suspect came out of the gas station and walked to his car, police moved in. Valdez flipped on his car's police lights, blocked the suspect’s car at the pump and jumped out of the door.
"Stop! Get on the ground," Valdez shouted.
The suspect started to run from officers, but another detective was already at him and the suspect laid down. Detectives arrested the suspect, Charles Davison. Valdez searched his car and found what police believed to be crack pipes in the car, disguised with miniature roses.
"Happy Valentine's Day," Valdez said.
Valdez said Davison had been on the run since 2013. Valdez said Davison was a negative role model who needed to be captured.
"These youngsters see that stuff and they say ‘Hey, if he can get away with it, why can't we?’" Valdez said.
That's why the fight against gangs is not just on the streets. It's also in the schools. Police and teachers are trying to stop the gang's recruitment efforts.
School prevention efforts
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said, "These kids are so young, we have to do something now."
She agreed the gang problem has resurged to its 1990s levels. She said prevention will play a huge role in stopping the carnage.
"We do have Choose Gang Free. It's a program where we go into the schools and we teach gang free prevention," Rivera said.
In the Granite School district, fifth-graders signed a pledge Thursday as they graduated from the district's program.
The group of students put their hands over their hearts or saluted as they recited, "I will ask for help if I or someone I know is feeling pressure to participate in gang activity."
Gang prevention specialist Maria Garcia has spent four years working in the district as a gang prevention specialist. She said the students learn many skills during the 10-week program.
"These students feel comfortable that they do know who to go to, how to create a plan in case they end up in a peer pressure situation,” Garcia said.
But there are challenges here, too. The district needs more money. The program is in 13 elementary schools, but spokesperson Ben Horsley said it's not enough.
"We do serve some high crime areas where there's a significant amount of gang activity, and it's unfortunate we're not a recipient of anti-gang funding," he said.
Horsley said the district did not win grant funding from the state for the anti-gang program this year. The funding gap means not all children learn the skills necessary to choose a gang-free life, whether in the Granite School District or across the county.
Valdez said kids exposed to gangs feel immense pressure.
"The unfortunate thing is they're going back home to other gang members, their mom or dad are gang members, so this is a lifestyle that they've lived, so they're going to keep living this cycle until we try to put a stop to it," she said.
The gang unit will keep working, both on the streets and in schools. There is more pain and loss to try to prevent.