Marcellus Haley, 18, was gunned down because he asked out the wrong girl. Brandon Jackson, 16, died trying to stop a car burglary. William Guzman and Michael Walker, both 14, were killed the same day—8 miles apart—because they had friends in gangs.
The four share a common link: They are among the surging number of teenagers who have been killed in Oakland street violence this year.
As of Saturday, nearly 30 percent of the city’s homicide victims—26 out of 88 this year—are teenagers, and the number of youth slayings is on track to double 2005’s total, when 15 of 94 homicide victims were 19 years old or younger.
In 2002, the last time homicides spiked dramatically in the city, 15 teenagers were killed out of a total of 113 victims, or 13 percent. The most teenage victims in a year since then was 16 in 2004—18 percent of 88 total deaths.
Much of the violence is driven by increased gang activity, drug dealing and a willingness to use guns to settle the smallest of disputes, according to police, prosecutors and community activists.
“In Oakland, the stakes are a lot higher,” said homicide investigator Sgt. James Morris. “Some of these young people, like Mr. Haley, just don’t realize how dangerous it can be. There are some very tough, violent young people in this town who resort to firearms to resolve their disputes.”
LaJazz Harper said it’s easy to grow accustomed to the violence. The 16-year-old junior at Castlemont High School in East Oakland has attended 15 funerals in recent years—all for friends and relatives who were killed.
“When you’re around something so long, it just becomes normal,” Harper said.
Most of the funerals were for young men. But the memorial service that haunts her most was for a girl because “you expect it more when it’s a guy.” Her best friend since fifth grade, Tommiesha Jones, 16, was shot while riding in a friend’s car in Richmond two years ago.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Harper, who has pledged to attend no more funerals. “It was sad. … That one just really shook me up.”
Increasingly violent gangs
Gang violence is also on the rise. The number of killings attributed to gang members has increased from 12 percent of the total last year to 30 percent so far this year, police records show.
Ever Ramos had lived in Oakland for only five months after coming from Honduras; he was shot to death Jan. 15 in the Fruitvale district. He was on his way home from work at a landscape company and stopped at a convenience store on Coolidge Avenue when a car pulled up and a person inside asked what gang Ramos claimed, police said. As Ramos, who was not in a gang, shook his head to say no, someone in the car opened fire and killed him.
Police said Ramos and several others who were shot were victims of profiling by gang members, who see an unfamiliar Latino male and assume he’s in a rival gang.
“They call it checking,” said Sgt. Brian Medeiros, who is investigating the Ramos case. “These Hispanic gangs walk up or drive up and want to know what gang you’re in. If you give the wrong answer—or maybe no answer—they’ll shoot.”
That’s also what happened to Walker, who was shot to death May 25 in the 800 block of West Grand Avenue after a carload of young men—believed to be Sureños—called to him and opened fire when he didn’t respond, police said.
Like Walker, Guzman and Alberto Salvador Villarreal, 15, had friends involved in gangs. They both died in separate incidents—Guzman on May 25 in the 9200 block of International Boulevard and Villarreal on Jan. 14 in the Fruitvale district—when rivals came around and sprayed the area with gunfire.
Growing Latino gangs
Police said increased tension among the city’s three major Latino gangs—the Norteños, Sureños and the Border Brothers—is responsible for at least seven of the 26 homicides involving teenagers.
Membership has grown as the city’s Latinos have spread from the Fruitvale district to parts of East Oakland close to the San Leandro border and West Oakland. These gangs have an estimated 500 core members and perhaps another 500 associates, often called wannabes, said Lt. Pete Sarna, who oversees the gang unit.
In 2002, police said many of the killings were a result of ex-convicts coming home from prison and trying to re-establish themselves in the street-corner drug trade. But younger dealers had taken over those areas, and deadly feuds ensued.
Poverty and hopelessness
Some community leaders who work with youths in high-crime areas said poverty and a sense of hopelessness are the causes behind the killings.
“The solution is plugging more people into jobs, putting more money into our schools. And that’s not being done,” said Venus Rodriguez, director of Let’s Get Free, a youth program that’s part of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Khadijah Wheatfall said she did everything she could to keep her son, Marcellus Haley, out of harm’s way. She moved Haley and his two sisters out of East Oakland—first to San Leandro then to Union City—when they were in elementary school “because Oakland is too crazy, too violent, especially for raising a young man.”
But because of money problems, she was forced to move back to her parents’ home in East Oakland last year. Her son dropped out of high school and began hanging out with a group of young men when he wasn’t working part time as a retail clerk.
Haley got one teenage girl pregnant and then fell in love with another one, whose boyfriend then threatened to kill Haley if he didn’t get lost. Haley dismissed the threat as trash talk and kept visiting the 17-year-old girl at her parents’ home in West Oakland, his family said.
On Feb. 16, as Haley stood talking to some friends outside his aunt’s apartment in the 3600 block of Coolidge Avenue, a gunman walked up and shot Haley several times.
Investigators believe the boyfriend, whose name is not being released, is responsible. But authorities have not arrested him “because everyone is afraid to testify,” Morris said.