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One round was loaded in the chamber and four more were in the tube of a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun that children at a city summer camp found hidden while playing outside at Santa Rosa’s Lincoln Elementary School, police detectives said Thursday.

Stashed inside metal grating at the base of a modular building at the school on West Ninth Street, the slender but heavy weapon had many of the characteristics of what detectives call a “hood gun” — a weapon stashed outside by gang members to keep at the ready for future confrontations.

“There’s no direct evidence to say that,” Santa Rosa Police Sgt. John Cregan said. “But experience tells us that’s exactly what it is.”

But who placed the gun on school grounds in close proximity to at least 100 children who play there each day, in addition to the neighbors who use adjacent Jacobs Park, remained unknown Thursday, police said.

The children found the shotgun while searching for marbles, police said.

With a sawed-off barrel, the shotgun is easier to conceal and rounds fired from a shorter barrel may spread out farther, potentially hitting more targets.

Detectives still were investigating whether any fingerprints or DNA possibly found on the weapon and its ammunition may lead to a suspect, although both the children and camp staff also touched the weapon, Cregan said. Police also were looking into the weapon’s serial number to track the gun’s ownership.

Although police know that “hood guns” are hidden in areas where gang members live and congregate, it’s fairly rare to find one, Cregan said.

“Usually they’re more well hidden,” he said. “They don’t want this to happen. That’s a valuable item to them.”

Gang members will stash guns, knives, bats and other weapons in bushes, on rooftops and even bury them under 4 or 5 inches of dirt. The goal is to keep weapons at the ready but still hidden from police. Taken during burglaries or purchased on the street, the weapons can quickly change hands, Cregan said.

“Gang members talk about placing these guns in vital areas,” Cregan said. “It prevents law enforcement from finding those guns when we search their houses. It makes it difficult to identify the owner.”

Three boys, ages 10, 12 and 13, found the weapon Tuesday after the camp program had ended. The boys were looking behind a metal grate at the base of the building where the summer camp’s activities take place, camp supervisor Mara Leon said. Police said the boys told a parent that evening, but they didn’t call police. The children told their camp counselors the next morning.

Police dispatched a gang detective along with patrol officers to the campus Wednesday morning after camp staff called police to report the discovery.

“It’s frightening, it’s alarming and it’s unacceptable to have kids find loaded weapons in a park,” said Khaalid Muttaqi, who heads the city’s gang prevention task force.

The gun’s discovery comes after a wave of gang-related crime near West Ninth Street led neighbors and city staff to refresh community involvement with public meetings and public events like barbecues.

In two weeks, Muttaqi said that his gang prevention team is planning a nighttime march in the neighborhood and daytime talent show at Jacobs Park. The events are part of the city’s Gang Prevention Awareness Week that begins the first week of August.

“We’re sending a message that we’re going to reclaim the neighborhood,” Muttaqi said. “West Ninth is our focus area right now. It is one of the areas that’s having challenges currently.”

On Thursday morning, camp staff walked the periphery of the grass field at Jacobs Park and the school.

They scanned the ground, fence lines, bushes and other nooks and crannies near where about 100 children have come each day to play sports and toss water balloons between academic exercises for the six-week summer program.

“It’s all about safety for the kids — this is an open campus and a park,” said Leon, who supervises the city’s Recreation Sensation camps at Lincoln and Monroe Elementary schools. “Every day we are checking for glass, broken bottles. Today we are making an extra effort.”

Parent Araceli Cabreva, 30, dropped off her two boys, ages 7 and 10, at the camp. Cabreva said the boys told her about the gun Wednesday. The incident brought up frustrations for Cabreva, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. She said she thinks the discovery would have been downplayed in wealthier, whiter communities on the west side of Santa Rosa.

“It is scary,” said Cabreva of children finding a loaded weapon on school grounds. “But I don’t think it means our community is bad or unsafe.”

Throughout the county, law enforcement officials often find and confiscate knives and other weapons but rarely firearms, said Sgt. Brandon Austin, who runs the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Team.

Last year, two guns were found in a bag stashed at Rincon Valley Community Park in east Santa Rosa near Maria Carrillo High School. At least one of the .40- and .45-caliber Glock pistols discovered Nov. 7 by a dog walker may have been stolen, investigators said.

It wasn’t clear Thursday whether an investigation into those weapons had led anywhere.

Tracking the source of a gun can be a frustrating task and the investigations rarely lead to a suspect, Austin said.

Stashing guns keeps the weapons out of homes and waistbands — a strategy to avoid the stiff sentences that come with firearm convictions.

Even juveniles can face stiffer penalties that add months to a sentence after a firearm possession conviction and years for other crimes involving guns, Sonoma County Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said.

But with a gun in the bushes instead of in pockets, it’s difficult to link a weapon to a person.

“It is a technique that has frustrated law enforcement, but attempting to charge such a crime has proved to be fruitless,” Austin said.

Instead, law enforcement in Sonoma County have put the focus on probation and parole searches and other more fruitful efforts to track down and seize illegal weapons. The Santa Rosa Police Department has a full-time detective assigned to an FBI violent crimes task force in an effort to bring even stiffer federal sentences to bear for cases involving gangs and guns, Cregan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjreport.

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