Probation officer Cris Strode was searching the living room of a west Modesto home when his instincts told him there had to be a gun hidden nearby.
The home's front window had been shot twice in the past three weeks, and three members of the 18th Street Sureños gang lived there. One of them, a 21-year-old man on probation, was using the living room as his bedroom.
The officers said the home's residents had refused to cooperate with police in the shootings, a clear sign they wanted to take matters into their own hands.
"If your home has been shot at, you're going to want to have a gun nearby," Strode said.
After searching everywhere else, Strode pointed his flashlight up a fireplace chimney and spotted a handgun tucked in tightly for safekeeping and easy access.
The gun was found Thursday during a search by the Stanislaus County Probation Department of offenders at a high risk of violating their probation. The operation was in west and south Modesto, but the officers routinely search homes throughout the county to make sure probationers are complying with the terms of their probation.
Most of the department's high-risk offenders are gang members, said Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers.
"When we do a search and we find something somebody is not supposed to have — a weapon, drugs and things like that — the good guys win," Powers said. "We've taken a weapon off the streets, taken drugs that could've been sold."
The gun that was found had been reported stolen, so the man sleeping on the couch was taken to jail. Juan Mesa was arrested on suspicion of possession of a stolen firearm, possession of stolen property, being a gang member in possession of a firearm and violating probation.
Probation officer Emily Herrera said there are many times when officers don't find any violations, which is good.
On Thursday, the officers rolled in a convoy of six cars. They would stop and prepare for each search. They have detailed diagrams of the homes, information on each person on probation and what dangers might be waiting for them, such as a vicious dog.
"We really know our guys and characters," Herrera said. "Where they live; where their relatives live."
The 10-officer team went to seven homes and made five arrests for probation violations. Along with rules against gun and drug possession, gang offenders usually aren't allowed to wear gang colors, hang out with other gangsters or be within 100 yards of a school unless they are attending a class there.
"Some of them even try to wear earrings to get around that," Herrera said about gang colors in jewelry. "They will wear earrings with red rubies or blue studs."
It's the unexpected that keeps officers on their toes and on high alert.
Officers Oscar Alvarez and Strode had their guns drawn and had just walked into a small, cramped trailer Thursday when they noticed something just wasn't right.
The trailer on Olympia Street in south Modesto is a hangout for heroin and methamphetamine addicts. The resident, who is on probation, told the officers nobody was inside the trailer.
The officers went inside and were walking through a narrow corridor that leads to the trailer's bedroom, which is big enough for one full-size bed.
That's when Alvarez saw a sneaker sticking out from under the mattress. At the same time, Strode saw a man peeking out from a small closet between the two officers.
"They both put up a struggle," Alvarez said. The officers subdued the two men and brought them outside for questioning.
The man hiding under the mattress was a wanted parolee and was taken into custody. The man hiding in the closet was arrested on suspicion of violating probation.
Powers said they design the searches to minimize danger to the officers and the people inside the homes. The search teams always have 10 or more officers, and the officers gather as much information as possible about the probationer before entering a home.
"We don't want to be surprised," Powers said. "We're going to come by and you're foolish if you're going to put weapons, drugs or any other illegal contraband in your residence, because we're going to find it."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.