Santa Monica police investigate a shooting in an alley near the intersection of 16th Street and Michigan Avenue on June 11. (File photo)
Santa Monica police investigate a shooting in an alley near the intersection of 16th Street and Michigan Avenue on June 11. (File photo)

CITYWIDE — A spate of shootings ripped through the Santa Monica community in early June, putting youth and gun violence squarely back into the limelight after several years of relative calm.

All three incidents — which began June 7 with a shooting rampage that left six dead including the shooter and ended with two more injured and one dead in unrelated shootings by the end of the following Tuesday — happened within the boundaries of the Pico Neighborhood, the poor side of an affluent community with a higher concentration of minority families than the rest of the city.

It continues a decades-long pattern detailed in homicide statistics held by the Santa Monica Police Department that show the Pico Neighborhood with almost half the homicides in a 22 year period.

The city-approved definition of the neighborhood lies between Centinela Avenue to the east, Pico Boulevard to the south, Lincoln Boulevard to the west and Santa Monica Boulevard to the north up through 20th Street, at which point the boundary jogs south to Colorado Avenue.

A smaller area bounded by Interstate 10, Pico Boulevard, Lincoln Boulevard and Centinela Avenue is used separately by the Santa Monica Police Department because of “entrenched crime concerns” there, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, spokesperson for the department.

Between 1980 and 2013, that area saw 75 of the 212 “incidences of homicide” that occurred in Santa Monica, Lewis said.

That term does not refer to the total number of people killed because multiple people could be killed in a single incident, Lewis said.

The smaller portion of the Pico Neighborhood, which activists call the “Red Zone,” accounted for 51 of those homicides.

The numbers did not surprise Oscar de la Torre, a longtime Pico Neighborhood resident and founder and former executive director of the Pico Youth & Family Center, a program that received money from City Hall to work with at-risk youth.

In opinion columns to the Daily Press and in City Hall, de la Torre and his supporters put forward 62 deaths in the area since 1986, although it’s difficult to say where the discrepancy lies between that number and the police department’s given the different methods of calculation.

de la Torre has long held that while the rest of Santa Monica moved forward into economic prosperity, lifted by the rising tide of tourism and the blossoming tech industry, the Pico Neighborhood was left behind.

Many residents there feel the same, pointing to a new library under construction at Virginia Avenue Park as a promise almost 20 years in the making, and one that almost got the ax when state officials made a grab for funds held by the former Redevelopment Agency.

“We’ve had this problem of young people losing hope in the Pico Neighborhood, losing hope in life,” de la Torre said.

Those feelings of hopelessness and incidences of deadly violence took a front seat in the public debate after 23-year-old John Zawahri killed his father, his brother and three strangers before police took him out on the Santa Monica College campus.

The young man was armed with an automatic weapon, handgun and 1,300 rounds of ammunition when he took off through the Pico Neighborhood that day, spraying bullets, destruction and death.

The following Sunday, a man in his 30s was shot, but not killed while riding a bicycle in what police described as a gang-related crime.

Just two days later, Gil Verastegui, 29, was shot and killed in an alley off of Michigan Avenue near 15th Street.

Three men, all young, were arrested in connection with that shooting by the end of the day, continuing SMPD’s track record of clearing murder cases in which 25 of the last 27 murders have been cleared by arrest or other means.

The men were arrested in an area dominated by the Sotel gang, and Verastegui himself was also a gang member, according to reports.

The Pico Neighborhood still harbors some gang activity. Between 1991 and 2013, 36 incidences of homicide occurred in and immediately around the “Red Zone.” Of those, 22 were gang-related, Lewis said.

A new community response called the Cradle to Career initiative has brought together organizations and agencies throughout the city in an attempt to tackle the multi-faceted social problems that push young people onto paths of violence, or allow them to fall through the cracks.

The City Council budgeted over $200,000 to support those efforts at its most recent meeting, and an anonymous donor gave $50,000 to help target youth violence and mental health issues.

Those gains come at a loss to the PYFC, which retained two-thirds of its funding for the next year to serve as a drop-in and referral center rather than the case management services it offers now.

de la Torre sees that as a mistake.

“This is not the time for the city to regress in sustaining youth violence prevention initiatives,” he said.

Officials in City Hall maintain that the new “whatever it takes” strategy will advance the cause by breaking down boundaries between different service providers and allowing them to target resources at children and families that need it most.

“Individual institutions did what they could,” said Jonathan Mooney, a Santa Monica resident and Cradle to Career consultant, at a press conference on June 18. “Solving any social problem is about doing it collectively.”

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