.A Perfect Storm

news-crimeUPDATE: Soon after this issue of GT was sent to press on Tuesday, Feb. 26, news broke of two shootings in Santa Cruz—one on North Branciforte Avenue in which two Santa Cruz Police Department officers were killed and another on nearby Doyle Street in which the suspect was killed. Detective Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker—a 28-year-veteran on the force—and Detective Elizabeth Butler, who has been on the force for 10 years, are the first officers in the history of the city to be killed in the line of duty. Stay tuned for more information on this shocking incident.

City officials and police address a recent crime wave

In the wake of several devastatingly violent crimes in Santa Cruz this month—including one that left a man shot to death in front of a popular downtown bar—many in the community are starting to fear for their safety.

Public officials and police, who have been calling the rash of recent incidents a “crime wave,” say preventing this kind of violence in the future will require a lot of community input. But some Santa Cruz locals say they are fed up.

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Third generation local Cynthia Ritenour, an upper Westside resident and mom, echoes a growing sentiment that Santa Cruz is becoming more and more dangerous.

She says she no longer feels safe with her family in town.

Back in 2006, Ritenour says she felt Santa Cruz was becoming a hot spot for transients, gang life and drug use, so she and her family rented their house out and moved to Costa Rica.

They lived in Central America for six years and, although there were thefts and petty crimes, she says that life there seemed safer.

In March of last year, following her son’s high school graduation in Costa Rica, the Ritenour family moved back to Santa Cruz. With the recent spate of crime, she says things seem worse than ever.

“Our plans have changed,” she says. “With everything that’s been happening, it’s made us decide we don’t want to stay here.”

The latest crime wave began on Feb. 9 when 32-year-old Santa Cruz resident Pauly Silva was shot and killed downtown. The investigation is ongoing. Police have arrested two suspects—both Norteño gang members—on charges not associated with the murder.

Two days later, a 21-year-old female UCSC student waiting for a bus on Natural Bridges Drive was approached by a man with a rifle and bandana over his face. He came up behind her and demanded she hand over her backpack. The victim ran away after believing the suspect had struck her in the head. After being picked up by a passing motorist and taken to Dominican Hospital, doctors discovered she had actually been shot in the back of the head. Fortunately, the small caliber bullet did not penetrate her skull and she is recovering.

The young woman taking a bullet in the back of the head struck a chord for Ritenour.

“This girl being shot in the back of the head,” she says. “I mean, my god. That’s right down the street.”

A week later, on Feb. 17, a 21-year-old woman visiting UCSC was reportedly robbed, beaten and raped on a secluded campus walkway in the middle of the afternoon. Police released a composite sketch of the suspect last week. 

In the same two-week period, there was also an armed robbery at the Food Bin on Mission Street on Feb. 13, a fatal shooting in the parking lot at Watsonville High School on Feb. 15,  and an unsuccessful home invasion robbery in Santa Cruz on Feb. 20, in which, by the time police arrived, residents were already restraining one of the two suspects on their front lawn. The other suspect has been identified and has a warrant out for his arrest. The perpetrators from the Food Bin robbery and the Watsonville homicide are still at large. Added to the list was an attempted burglary on Friday evening, Feb. 22, in which a couple returned to their Westside home to find a man and a woman preparing to make off with valuables.

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the group Community Against Gun Violence planned to hold a rally downtown called “Speak Out Against Gun Violence.”

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins and a retired homicide detective for the county, Stoney Brooke, spoke at the event.

At the Santa Cruz Neighbors meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19, in the SCPD community room, Mayor Hilary Bryant and UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal discussed the recent attacks that have left both the city and campus communities reeling. 

“We’re a small town, and the impact is tremendous,” Bryant said.

Both the chancellor and the mayor say they have received a high volume of letters from concerned parents of UCSC students, requesting information on what measures are being taken to ensure students’ safety.

In an effort to make the campus safer and prevent rape, Blumenthal described a new campus service that students and faculty can call late at night to have someone escort them to their destination.

“Two weeks ago, I would have said UCSC is one of the safest campuses in the UC system,”  Blumenthal said, “but it doesn’t feel that way today.”

“We will all rest more easily once the perpetrators are caught,” he added. UPDATE: Upon concluding their investigation on Feb. 28, UCSC police reported that the rape was a false report. 

Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson, who also attended the meeting, says that the crime wave should be seen as just that—a string of unfortunate instances, not a statement on what Santa Cruz has become. 

“It’s a lot of violent activity in a short period of time,” she says. “No one should consider it as the norm.”

She also says she believes there needs to be a shift in the way the community handles crime and drug abuse—“a zero tolerance attitude”—or violence will become increasingly problematic.

At a city council meeting earlier this month, Deputy Chief Rick Martinez broke down some of the challenges SCPD is facing.

From 2011 to 2012, there was a 16 percent increase in calls for police service and a 53 percent increase in the number of arrests. Beginning in July of last year, the SCPD also divided two of their special units—one for street crime and gang activity and the other for parks—so they could designate resources to eradicate illegal campsites, which has diffused manpower allocated to other fronts.

The department is also currently short-staffed. Of the total 94 positions the SCPD is allotted, eight positions are unfilled and another nine officers are out of action with injuries, says Deputy Chief Steve Clark.

“That’s a significant portion of the force,” he says, adding that the city is currently working to fix those problems, and to fill the empty positions.

Of eight new applicants who have progressed to the background check stage, Clark hopes to have five finalists starting at the academy on May 20. That would put new officers on the streets by February of next year.

Despite their efforts—which have included pioneering predictive policing technology in recent years—Clark points out that it’s impossible to prevent every bad thing from happening. And sometimes, when bad things happen, they occur in a cluster.

“Like the perfect storm,” he says.

“Oftentimes when this kind of thing happens, you see a knee-jerk reaction in the community, and you can’t do that,” he says. “As soon as you do that, you’ve given over your ability to really think through the process and develop an effective plan. This is a spike in crime. But we’ve had spikes before, and we’ll have spikes again.”

Clark says that spikes like these can sometimes be attributed to gang activity around the Central Coast drifting into new areas, when gang members sometimes push boundaries. He says the SCPD is responding by “making life difficult” for gangs.

“We’re doing everything we can legally to stop them,” he says. “Make life uncomfortable for them. Interrupt their ability to communicate. Plan and disrupt their ability to go about their activities.”

“If they’re out in their car, we’re stopping them,” he adds. “That puts a focused pressure on them.”

Meanwhile, Ritenour is making trips up the California coast, looking into potential residences away from Santa Cruz.

Locally, on any given night, she says she sees drug deals at a park near her home and people coming out of the woods above her house carrying sleeping bags. She says items have also been stolen out of her shed.

Underlying Ritenour’s sense of dread is the memory that one her son’s friends was present at the 2009 murder of 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio—she had known Tenorio since he was a young boy—and that she and her family live across the street from where Carl Reimer was shot and killed in 2009. It’s all too close to home.

“I love Santa Cruz,” she says. “It’s really sad. I’ve seen it go from a quiet little beach town to full of gangs and drugs and guns, and it’s a shame.”


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