The handgun tattoed across Rebecca Villanueva’s chest wasn’t supposed to be indicative of her life anymore.
The 23-year-old’s Facebook profile picture features her and three friends wearing yellow and green caps and gowns. On Sept. 3 she commented, “isnt this the cutest fucken graduation pic u ever did see HELL YA!!” To be honest, it is a cute picture.
But a little more than three months since that comment, Villanueva, who graduated from the San Jose Conservation Corps charter school in the summer before getting an internship at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, now sits in a county jail cell, charged with murder.
Police say she and others had a role in the Nov. 30 shooting that left 17-year-old Daniel Capetillo dead in front of his house. The gang-related murder was the 43rd homicide in San Jose this year. Since then, two more people have been killed, leaving the “Safest Big City in America” moniker more of a memory than reality.
But a closer look at police data shows a disturbing new trend: Kids in San Jose are killing each other at an unprecedented rate.
Almost a quarter of the city’s homicide victims this year—nine—have been 18 or younger. By comparison, that same age group accounted for five murder victims in 2011 and two in 2010.
Nearly all of these murders involving young people have been gang related, and the suspects and victims are often the same age or just a couple years apart. Eighth grader Heriberto Reyes, 14, was beaten to death at a downtown park. John Sonenburg, 18, was found lying dead on the ground next to his truck. Dashawn Brown, 18, was shot and killed while walking down Edenview Drive.
Last week, the 45th murder of 2012 took place at a Christmas work party in North San Jose, easily pushing this year’s total to a 21-year high.
The city’s beleaguered police union has been all too happy to sound the alarm in its PR fracas with the mayor’s office. Far fewer officers are on the streets due to budget cuts, layoffs and resignations—from more than 1,400 in 2008 to less than 1,000 actively on duty today.
Police Chief Chris Moore, who will join the exodus from the SJPD ranks in January when he retires, says that violent gang-related incidents in San Jose are actually down this year, but the incidents occuring are more severe. In the first 11 months of this year, the city experienced 263 violent gang-related incidents, according to the SJPD. In comparison, there were 294 similar incidents in the same time frame in 2011.
“What were seeing, of those incidents that did occur, they were more violent,” Moore says. “But we got a lot of people who are shot or stabbed in our city who survive. Our homicide numbers would be significantly higher were it not for the trauma care.
“Just because they don’t die doesn’t mean there aren’t a significant number of assaults involving these people. It’s not just the deaths. The deaths may have gone up, but it’s fairly consistent that 17, 18 and 19 year olds are a disproportionate number of victims and suspects.”
The Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force released a report this month noting that crime in October and November showed “the majority of victims were in the 15-19 and 25-29 age range, while the vast majority of offenders were in the 15-19 age range.”
As a result of these trends, the task force recently lowered its outreach target age to 6 years old.
“They’re getting pretty heavy social pull at a very young age,” says SJPD Sgt. Jason Dwyer. “If you wait till they’re 9 or 10 years old, it’s almost too late.”
Villanueva was supposed to be an exception to that rule. Robert Hennessey, founder of the Conservation Corps, remembers seeing her on campus. She was no different than the 430 other people in her graduating class, he says, who successfully managed to get “their lives back on track, get an education and become successful.”
But the streets have a way of clawing people back into the game, whether it be disreputable friends and family that never leave a person’s life or the lack of a job or money. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a U.S. think tank, found that 82 percent of 16-19 year olds in California are unemployed. More than half of the state’s 20-24 year olds are also without jobs.
“I got more than enough friends who ain’t got no job, no money,” says Daniel, a 22-year-old San Jose native who volunteers at the Silicon Valley De-Bug community organization for at-risk youth. “So, people turf it out a little bit. It’s a little more savage.”
There is an argument to be made that San Jose is still a safe place to live, even for criminals. Oakland just suffered its 124th homicide of the year last week, while San Francisco is a few short of 70. But a shift is clearly taking place in San Jose.
“I’m hearing, particularly from moms, an escalation of fear,” says Raj Jayadev, De-Bug’s coordinator. “I definitely sense more fear. You can get touched in places that used to be off limits. Places that felt safe might not be there anymore.”
Easy access to weapons is an issue that might see more attention from SJPD in the coming months. Oftentimes, members of gangs will share weapons, allowing one gun to be used in multiple crimes by different individuals.
“Gang sets may only have access to one or two weapons, and that’s why its really important to get guns off the street,” Moore says.
The city has not had a gun buy-back program set up since the 90s, the police chief says, but it might be time to reintroduce the idea.
“I think we had over 400 (guns) the first time we did it back in the 90s,” he says. “Typically, there are no questions asked.”
Moore estimates that the soonest a gun buy-back program could begin is the first quarter of 2013. By that time, however, the city’s police department will be under the control of a new chief.