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Santa Rosa gang detective Travis Menke pulled up to the stoplight on Dutton Avenue at Sebastopol Road on a Thursday night in August and looked straight into the eyes of a man, driving a yellow Mini Cooper, who’d been on the run for more than a year.

Menke quickly pulled a U-turn in his unmarked car and called for backup as the Mini Cooper sped off south on Dutton Avenue. The short chase ended nearby on Rose Bud Court, where the driver bailed from the car and was tackled by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.

The driver, Joe Carlos Suazo, 27, stood in handcuffs against a sheriff’s SUV as detectives from both agencies examined the loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson he’d had with him in the car.

“We’ve been looking for you for a while,” said Sgt. John Cregan, who runs Santa Rosa’s gang unit.

“Yeah, I know,” Suazo said.

In fact, gang detectives had been searching for Suazo for 465 days after the court issued warrants for his arrest on probation violations. That, combined with what police allege are deep connections to one of Santa Rosa’s oldest norteño gangs, made him one of the department’s most wanted suspects.

Suazo, police said, is one of nearly 4,000 people involved in gangs throughout Sonoma County — about one gang member for every 125 people. While the number has held steady for the past decade, it is a roster that’s constantly shifting. People are arrested and incarcerated. Others reject the lifestyle and get out. Some are killed in disputes over everything from drugs to turf to disrespect. And a new crop of youngsters grows up to take their place.

Over the past decade, 18 people have been gunned down, stabbed or killed by other violent means in gang-related incidents, or about 30 percent of the homicides investigated by law enforcement since 2005. Eight of the gang killings remain unsolved, including cases where the suspect is known but remains at large.

More than three-quarters of the gang members in Sonoma County are affiliated with sureño or norteño gangs, which have about 1,500 members each, police said. Gang members represent about 2 percent of the county’s Latino population — compared to nearly 1 percent of the total population.

Smaller groups, such as white-power and motorcycle gangs, have an enduring and sometimes violent presence in Sonoma County. The fastest-growing groups appear to be what police call “dropout gangs” comprised of people who are “no good,” meaning they have been kicked out of a gang. These are mostly former norteños.

Most young, male

The vast majority are males and between age 13 and 24.

“By 21 they’ve been through so much. They’re either in prison, no good or dead,” Cregan said.

Gang detectives have called 2014 an aggressive year so far.

Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old are murder suspects on the run after gunfire peppered a house party near the Windsor Town Green in June, killing a 15-year-old Windsor high school student and wounding three others. Sheriff’s officials said the teen suspects could be in Mexico.

Flurries of 911 calls have followed several bouts of gunfire along Santa Rosa’s Moorland Avenue since July. One man was struck in the face. Bullets pierced walls of a home and hit a nightstand. People report seeing faces masked with red or blue bandannas.

Teen boys have climbed out of cars on streets on both sides of Highway 101 to engage in fights, including an August melee at the In-N-Out Burger parking lot on County Center Drive in Santa Rosa. The beating was sparked after a teen boy said, “What’s up?” to a group of gang members he recognized from juvenile hall. Police said the boy and his friends fought back with baseball bats and a tree stake pulled from the ground.

These incidents are just a snapshot of daily gang activity in Sonoma County.

“They’re out there fighting each other every day,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brandon Austin, who took charge of the sheriff’s Multiple Agency Gang Enforcement Team, or MAGNET, last March.

“I have been in more fights and pursuits since March than I saw in a year during my last assignment with the gang unit,” which was five years ago, Austin said. “There is a lot of aggression out there.”

Illegal gang activity — just like crime overall — is not what it was in the mid-1990s and again around 2003, when crime rates surged. Yet, gang involvement is still an outsized factor in some of the most violent crimes in Sonoma County, from home-invasion robberies to stabbings and shootings.

“There is a simple equation in the gang world: Violence equals respect,” Cregan said.

SR center of activity

Most of the gang activity is concentrated in and around Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city.

Gang-related crimes represent about 5 percent of all crimes in the city of Santa Rosa, according to a preliminary police analysis for 2013, the most recent data available.

For that year, gangs were a factor in:

- 33 percent of all crimes involving firearms

- 13 percent of all crimes involving weapons

- 10 percent of all crimes in schools

- 3 percent of property crimes

- 13 percent of all crimes against people

- 7 percent of adult arrests

- 19 percent of juvenile arrests

Cregan said the gang unit seizes about a dozen firearms a year, most through search warrants. Put into perspective, the Santa Rosa Police Department booked 284 guns into evidence in 2013.

Gang unit consists of sergeant, 5 detectives

To combat gangs, the 165-officer department’s gang unit has a sergeant and five detectives, including one man embedded with the FBI.

Gang units at law enforcement agencies grew in response to gangs’ emergence in the 1980s and again when gang activity and budgets spiked in the mid 1990s and mid 2000s. Since then, many have slimmed and, for some agencies, disappeared.

The sheriff’s MAGNET unit hit the streets in 1994 after gangs became more widespread and violent. At its peak, MAGNET had more than 30 officers from several police departments, the Probation Department and the CHP to address gang issues countywide. Today, the unit consists of one sheriff’s sergeant, two deputies, two CHP officers and four probation officers.

Austin said the unit’s strategy is to be out every day in local neighborhoods, building relationships and documenting every encounter.

Recent bouts of gunfire in the Moorland Avenue area have brought detectives’ focus to the neighborhood, where members of a sureño gang and their rivals make their presence known.

“We find two sets of bullet casings in the street. But when there are no bullets into people, we have nothing to go on,” Austin said.

But as the factors that drive young people to join gangs become better understood, agencies are relying more on prevention and intervention to stop violence.

Talking to children

In Santa Rosa, intervention workers hit the streets after incidents involving guns. This happened in July, when children at a summer camp found a sawed-off shotgun on an elementary school campus. Police and a prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office spend significant time in classrooms talking to children as young as 10 and 11 years old about avoiding gangs.

“The whole approach must be early intervention,” said Judge Virginia Marcoida, presiding judge of juvenile court. “Get them before they become entrenched.”

Still, enforcing the law is an essential part of that effort, Cregan said.

Police actively monitor people who have been convicted of crimes, visiting them regularly to make sure they are complying with court orders.

Suazo was arrested Aug. 21 amid a daylong effort by Santa Rosa detectives to visit the homes of about a dozen people on probation and parole with ties to street gangs. Some were known gang members, according to police, or were ordered by the court not to associate with gang members or wear certain colors that are affiliated with local gangs.

A team of five detectives pulled up to apartments and houses, the majority west of Highway 101, and knocked on doors. They searched rooms for contraband, interviewed family members and pulled the parolees and probationers outside to talk.

They spoke to the relative of a man at a mobile home park off Santa Rosa Avenue who said he was at the gym, and after a conversation the detectives left with the sense the man was following the terms of his release. They heard from a mother who opened the door of a townhouse off West Ninth Street and said her son was not home, although there was no sign the man was staying in the room where she said he lived.

“He is not living there,” Cregan said, walking away from the Lincoln Manor Association unit. “The parents lie. There were no clothes. I asked her, ‘Not even one pair of underwear?’ ”

Keeping tabs

They headed north to a house on a cul-de-sac near Bicentennial Park and spoke to a man who had been out of prison for just a week.

Standing outside in Raiders pants and a white tank top, Christopher McDaniel, 30, told police he got the word “Norte” tattooed above his right eyebrow while in prison, saying “I was bored.” The tattoo, he said, was not a reference to Santa Rosa’s oldest gang Varrio Santa Rosa Norte, to which he denied any connection.

“I’m not, though, I’m not . . .” said McDaniel, who was sentenced to four years and eight months in state prison in 2011 after he was arrested with a large amount of methamphetamine and a sawed-off shotgun. “We all make mistakes. I was a knucklehead at one point.”

In back-and-forth banter with the detectives, the man said with a laugh that he’d found God and wasn’t involved in gangs.

“You can’t even keep a straight face when you say that,” Cregan said.

McDaniel shrugged.

“You’re going to be a focus of the unit,” Cregan said to the man.

“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I have a job. I just got off a 14-hour shift. I’m aware I’m under a magnifying glass.”

South of Highway 12 at a Roseland duplex, a man answered the detectives’ knock wearing jeans and no shirt, long-healed bullet wounds on his shoulder and hand.

Police searched the home of Rafael Chavez, 34, and had Chavez sit outside to talk with them about his past.

Chavez wiped tears from his eyes with a rough swipe as he recounted watching a friend being gunned down in 2005 and believing he would die then, too. Police have identified the shooter as a gang participant but have not yet found him.

“It’s going to be rough until you guys catch him,” Chavez said.

“He’s still wanted, we’re still looking,” Cregan said.

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

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the surname of Santa Rosa Police Officer Travis Menke. This story has been updated to correct the mistake.

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