Merced DA blasts supervisors over lack of funds to fight gangs

The county Board of Supervisors got an earful Tuesday from the district attorney, who urged the supervisors to devote more resources to fighting gang violence.

“Each year I have spoken with members of this board and told them that the amount of money and resources we are devoting to the gang problem is not enough,” said District Attorney Larry Morse II. “And each year nothing has changed. The result, as we have just seen, is a year in which 19 people were murdered in the unincorporated areas of our county, the majority of them gang-related.”

Morse cited statistics for the number of violent crimes in the county last year, which pegged Merced as the 88th most dangerous place to live in the nation. Morse said 2013 was the most deadly year in Merced’s history, with 29 homicides.

By comparison, Fresno County had 53 homicides, but with a population of nearly four times at 900,000. Stanislaus County had 42, but with a population more than double Merced County’s, Morse said.

“That tells us that we had a significantly higher per capita murder rate than either Fresno or Stanislaus counties,” Morse said. “Of particular concern to this board should be the 19 homicides in the unincorporated area of Merced County, far and away the most ever.”

In response to the explosion of violent crime, Morse said, the District Attorney’s Office created the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force in 2008 and poured about $1.4 million into the effort over the last five years – despite that not being its core mission.

“The primary responsibility of the District Attorney’s Office is to prosecute crimes, not solve or prevent them,” Morse said. “Had the DA’s office not devoted scarce resources to this undertaking, Merced County would have had no organized gang strategy or response to gang violence despite the presence of more than 5,000 validated gang members in this county.”

The DA’s office charged 15 gang-related homicide cases in the last three years, Morse said, but only one of those cases came from the Sheriff’s Department. The rest came from city police agencies in the county.

The Merced Police Department’s gang violence suppression unit has five officers and one sergeant assigned to gang suppression, compared with the Sheriff Department’s one officer.

A lack of resources can be linked with unsolved crime, Morse said, pointing to the unsolved murder of three teens last Easter: Samantha Parreira, 16, Matthew Fisher, 19, and Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18. Authorities said the teens were killed in a gang-related shooting at a party in Atwater.

Desireé Parreira, Samantha’s mother, on Tuesday shared her outrage over her daughter’s unsolved murder almost a year ago.

“Our kids are killing each other, and until law enforcement starts doing something, it’s never going to end,” Parreira said, clutching a picture of her daughter. “Our law enforcement is really losing its touch. I think it’s all about the almighty dollar.

“Our law enforcement is here to serve and protect,” Parreira continued, adding that she has contacted the Sheriff’s Department almost every week since her daughter was killed. “What are they serving and how are they protecting?”

Jeff Coburn, a detective sergeant with the Sheriff’s Department, said the case is a difficult one and that detectives have faced many hurdles, including getting cooperation from witnesses.

“When we have these kind of cases not everyone wants to come forward with information because of fear of retaliation,” Coburn said. “We can’t give her all the information that she wants, and I know that’s frustrating for her.”

Coburn said a lead detective and the four officers in the homicide unit have been working the case. They are also juggling 10 to 15 other cases each month.

“We’ve had to drop it and pick it back up because we’ve had so many cases,” Coburn said. “We’re still dedicated to the case, and we’re not wavering from it in any way, shape or form.”

The county supervisors had few comments Tuesday regarding Morse’s remarks about devoting resources to fighting gang violence.

“Yes, we’ve been aware of it for a long time,” District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said at the end of the meeting. “But we didn’t have the opportunity to make changes to how that was handled. We have that opportunity now. We need to do something.”

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo slung the criticism back at Morse, saying the District Attorney’s Office does not send representatives to Pedrozo’s town hall meetings to answer the public’s questions. The supervisor pointed out officials from other county agencies do attend.

“The DA’s office has not come to my town hall meetings in I don’t know how many years,” Pedrozo said. “I just want to leave it at that.”

Morse said he attended Pedrozo’s meetings a couple years ago but the number of county officials outnumbered the residents who showed up.

“I’ve never seen Supervisor Pedrozo take one constructive leadership step in getting funding to fight gang violence when his district has some of the most violent gang activity in Merced County,” Morse said. “Any resident of District 1 who wants to know what the DA’s office is doing in response to the terrible gang problems in their communities should not hesitate to call our office directly.”