Did one gang bust tip the scales?
Police believe arrest of 'zip-tie robbers' caused slowdown in city's violent crime rate
Late last year, a string of vicious robberies put local police in overdrive. The robberies — more than a dozen in all — all followed the same m.o.: A small group of armed men burst in on a business, bound up employees using zip-ties, and fled with the cash.
Police got a break in tracking down the so-called "zip-tie robbers" in January, arresting two young men after a routine traffic stop. They had just robbed a store in Santa Clara.
Eventually police arrested five more members. All seven are believed to be high-level Sureno gang members frequently active in Mountain View.
Because of the arrests police say that crime rates appear to be down this year compared to 2006.
"We can only speculate, but that's our guess," said police spokesperson Liz Wylie. "Busts like that really help combat gang activity."
Only two of the alleged robbers grew up in Mountain View, but Wylie said the others were considered to be major "shot callers" among the Surenos here. The adult suspects include Alan Martinez, Chris Kramer and Juan Luna from Santa Clara; Ricardo Fitz and Cruz Magana from Mountain View; and Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Barrera of Los Altos. The district attorney's office said there may be juveniles involved in the case as well, but no details were available by press time.
"I can tell you they don't always live in the same place," said David Boyd, head of the district attorney's gang unit. He said the DA's office considers them to be hardened criminals, adding that Magana is being held in San Mateo County on attempted murder.
In December and January, police believe, the gang was responsible for 14 robberies in Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Milpitas, San Jose and Mountain View where zip ties were used to tie up store clerks. Three of the robberies in December took place in Mountain View, including one at Las Mustaches Aquaria on Old Middlefield Road: After tying up the store employee, they also approached a son of the store owner in the parking lot, locked him in the trunk of his own car, and stole his stereo speakers and amplifiers.
Police say it was easy to link the crimes because of video surveillance and suspect descriptions. They say two of the suspects had stolen property in their possession at the time of arrest. Once the first suspects were apprehended, police were able to track down the others, Wylie said, using databases which keep track of gang members and who their fellow gang members are.
Preliminary hearings have been held in the case, but a trial isn't expected for several months.
Serious gang crimes declining this year
While lesser gang crimes such as vandalism are up slightly this year, more serious gang crimes are down slightly. From January to May, city records show, there were six reported cases of serious gang crime — compared to nine during the same period last year.
Police define a gang crime as an incident done "specifically for the purposes of the gang," Wylie said, which means it can't simply be a crime done by an individual gang member.
Another way police define crimes is in two categories: "Part I" — which includes more violent crimes such as homicide, rape and burglary — and "Part II" — which includes nonviolent crimes such as fraud, vandalism and prostitution.
Looking at only Part I crimes, police say that out of 2,858 reported in 2006, the most significant gang crimes were 11 assaults with a deadly weapon, one felony battery (a gang fight), and three robberies. That's not a large fraction compared to the total crime statistics for 2006, which included 533 assaults and 71 robberies that year.
Other gang crimes from 2006 include two "brandishing a weapon" incidents and a school fight at Terra Bella Academy. An example of a common but less serious gang crime would be vandalism or graffiti.
Police say crime in general is down this year compared to last. Serious violent crimes have averaged 167 a month in the first three months of 2007, compared to 256 a month for the first three months of 2006 — a 35 percent drop.
Despite these numbers, less serious gang crime is up slightly so far this year. There were 21 gang crimes from January to April of 2007, but during the same period in 2006 there were only 17.
How much the alleged zip-tie robbers' arrests have to do with the decrease in serious gang crime is a matter of speculation. But Mountain View police hope to see a noticeable effect for many years to come.
Because the suspects are facing so many robbery charges with gang enhancements, "They may not be in our city for decades," Wylie said, "which will be great for our crime rate. These were some of the shot-callers."
CRIMES IN 2006:
Weapons Offenses: 42
Total, including all other crimes: 6,438
GANG-RELATED CRIMES IN 2006:
Weapons offenses: 4
Total, including all other gang-related crimes: 67
TOTAL GANG RELATED INCIDENTS, JANUARY TO APRIL
In 2006: 17
In 2007: 21
Source: Mountain View Police Department
For more crime statistics, see www.ci.mtnview.ca.us/city_hall/police/crime_prevention/crime_statistics.asp
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com