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.