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After drop, gang violence flares up in Pasadena
Double killing rattles city that has seen 18 slayings in as many months.
By Richard Winton and Cara Mia DiMassa, Times Staff Writers
July 28, 2007

A double killing early Friday in Pasadena is the latest in a string of gang-related shootings over the last year that has officials and residents in the city's northwestern district on edge.

The shootings have occurred in a relatively small section of Pasadena and involve what officials believe is a gang clash.

Pasadena won much praise for reducing gang violence over the last 14 years, a concerted effort that started after the high-profile killing of three teenage boys leaving a Halloween night party in 1993.

The crackdown resulted in a major drop in crime — particularly among young people and gangs. The city, which in the 1980s recorded more than 30 homicides a year, by 2002 recorded just three, according to FBI records. But then, homicides started rising.

Over the past 18 months, there were 18 homicides in Pasadena.

The violence has sparked a series of community forums, a new crackdown by Pasadena police and some political soul-searching.

Pasadena has been in the midst of a building boom, adding pricey condos and apartments to its thriving downtown retail district along Colorado Boulevard. But some community activists believe the city needs to focus more attention on its poorer areas to the north, which have large black and Latino populations.

"What we need now as a community, just like any other community, is political will," said Dianne Segura, executive director of the local YWCA, which launched an initiative in late May called Mothers on the Move to fight the rising violence. "We are only 23 [square] miles. If we can't solve what's happening in our neighborhoods, then shame on us."

The city's image has long been burnished by the annual Rose Parade, which paints the town as awash in princesses and flowers. In the regal neighborhoods near the Rose Parade headquarters and Rose Bowl, it's difficult to find a house for less than $1 million, with mansions going for $3 million or more. A gentrification boom has sent housing in other neighborhoods — notably those with restored California bungalows — to similar levels.

But the image of prosperity belies the struggles of neighborhoods just north of downtown Pasadena. That area has for generations been an enclave for African Americans and more recently has become an entry point for immigrants from Latin America. (Latinos now make up about 33% of the population, a growth that has generated some tensions with African Americans, who make up about 15% of the city.)

The median annual household income hovers around $51,000, according to U.S. Census figures. Still, nearly 10% of families in the city, and 14% of families with children under 18, have incomes below the poverty line — numbers that put it on par with state averages.

The gang crime problems, said City Councilman Chris Holden, are a reminder that despite Pasadena's upscale reputation, other parts of the city need help.

"We have the affluent, but we also have a segment that is really challenged, and brings with it all of the challenges of an urban community," Holden said. "The reality is that there's a subculture out there that is using drugs and influence in that way to make money, and they are going to be warring with each other. Pasadena is not immune to that."

Pasadena police officials said they are responding aggressively to the problems.

In the last year, police recorded 68 incidents in which Latinos were attacked late at night by groups of young African American men as part of a gang initiation. Authorities have since tripled enforcement levels in northwest Pasadena.

The crackdown has reduced such assaults, but gang-related killings continue.

The two men killed shortly before 2 a.m. Friday in the 1500 block of Navarro Avenue in northwest Pasadena were identified as Joseph Vargas, 31, and Sergio Mendes, 34, both of Pasadena. Both men died at Huntington Memorial Hospital from numerous gunshot wounds after being transported by paramedics. Police believe the shootings were gang-related.

By Friday afternoon, police arrested three suspects in Covina in connection with the double slaying: Jonathon Warren, 22; Diana Reyes, 20; and a male juvenile whose name and age were not released.

Earlier in the day, just a few blocks from where Vargas and Mendes were shot, detectives served search warrants in a multi-city sweep related to the slaying in December of Tommie James Evans.

Evans was shot as he sat on his porch in the 100 block of West Washington Boulevard in what police described as gang retaliation for an earlier shooting.