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Drive-by killing not a sign of gang trends, Santa Rosa officials say

The fatal drive-by shooting in Santa Rosa?s South Park neighborhood Monday night has the hallmarks of a gang-related crime, though police aren?t ready to say so conclusively.

If the shooting death of Luis Suarez, 18, is determined to be a gang homicide, it will belie the general downward trend in gang violence in Santa Rosa over the past several years.

?There does appear to be some gang ties with some of the parties involved, however I cannot yet tell you if it was a gang crime. We don?t have that confirmed,? Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Lisa Banayat said Thursday.

Suarez, a Ridgway High School student, was shot to death Monday night as he walked on Grand Avenue, blocks from his family?s home. On Wednesday police arrested a 17-year-old male from Kelseyville in connection with the shooting and also arrested Fernando Mendoza, 20, of Santa Rosa, on a parole violation after questioning him in connection with the death.

Suarez was not a known gang member but knew people who were in gangs, said Banayat. ?Obviously the gang crimes investigations team is assisting with this case and researching the history of the parties involved trying to figure out if it?s gang-related,? Banayat said.

Over the past several years, violent crime in general has decreased in Santa Rosa along with violent gang incidents. Since 2006, when gang-related violent crime spiked in Santa Rosa to 127 incidents, the number has decreased more than 30 percent, to 83 incidents in 2008, according to police statistics.

Despite that trend, authorities are cautious about becoming overconfident.

?It hasn?t gotten any worse, but it hasn?t gotten any better either,? is how Sonoma County Sheriff?s Sgt. Carlos Basurto views the gang problem. He is supervisor in the county?s multi-agency gang task force.

Though there has been no apparent uptick in gang crimes, ?anytime there is a young person?s life taken it?s a tragedy, just a tragedy, period,? said Santa Rosa Councilwoman Jane Bender, who is active in gang prevention programs.

Bender credits such programs and interventions with making inroads in the gang problem. One of those programs, active since July in Santa Rosa, involves outreach workers whose goal is to make sure there is no retaliation after a violent crime such as the one that occurred Monday. They go into the neighborhood immediately to work with victim?s friends and family and other residents.

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