Jardine: A deadly year in and around Modesto

Daniel Estrada and his family moved from a rental home in a relatively quiet Kansas Avenue neighborhood to another, less expensive home in southwest Modesto a few months ago.

As his wife and two other relatives prepared to leave for work early Monday morning, the sound of gunfire rang out from the other end of Radley Place.

"She was packing up the car with her brother-in-law and sister," Estrada said. "They heard the shots and then ran inside to call 911."

Estrada came home from his night shift at Foster Farms a while later to find the street cordoned off with yellow police tape as nervous neighbors watched investigators work the crime scene.

Two people died and another was hospitalized in serious condition after the shooting.

The homicides and other neighborhood incidents -- including one in which residents on nearby Pelton Avenue confronted and threatened a Modesto police officer -- reminded Estrada that he isn't on Kansas Avenue anymore.

"Since we've been here, it's been horrific," said Estrada, who moved to Modesto from San Ramon five years ago.

It's been a deadly year in and around Modesto. Modesto police are investigating their 12th and 13th homicides just past the halfway point of 2009. Those numbers don't include an officer-involved shooting that was ruled justified.

Sheriff's investigators have handled eight killings in unincorporated areas near Modesto among their 12 homicide cases this year.

That stated, should the average Modestan fear for his or her safety?

The majority of the time, it depends on who you know and where you live. If you hang with criminals -- deal drugs, gangbang, etc. -- your chances of being murdered rise considerably.

If you live in the city's least-affluent areas, you've probably heard gunfire like the Estradas and their neighbors experienced Monday morning.

Homicides here almost exclusively involve killers and victims who were at the very least acquainted, often through family connections, gang affiliations or other ties.

"Almost all of them," said Capt. Mike Zahr, who heads MPD's homicide investigations unit. "A very high percentage of them."

Domestic violence and apparent mental health issues surfaced in the case of the January killings of Ken and Diane Terhune -- an exceedingly rare violent crime in the exclusive Del Rio Country Club area. Their son, Cameron, stands accused of killing them. And a Waterford man faces murder charges in the stabbing death of his girlfriend, Katherine Voelker, in front of their two children in a Modesto motel in April.

But the highest concentration of violent crime is on Modesto's south side, along with some neighborhoods on the west and east sides, where gangs reign through fear. Gang- related killings are commonplace, and guns are used in nearly every violent crime.

South Modesto, in particular, has such high gang presence and violent crime that authorities have dubbed part of it as a "safety zone." They've begun pursuing civil injunctions against gang members, in essence prohibiting certain ones from hanging out together, showing colors and other gang-related activities.

"There is a geography element to these shootings," Sheriff Adam Christianson said. "That is why we went after the injunctions. We need to use whatever tools we can against the gangs. They're domestic terrorists, and we should treat them as such."

Gang activity has ebbed and flowed over the years, indicating that law enforcement has made measurable impacts, only to have new players in the gangs crank up the violence again. The officers then need to rebuild their intelligence networks in an ever-evolving task.

The homicide rates reflect those cycles. In 1996, the city had just six homicides. A year later, as gang violence began to increase, both the city and county saw a dramatic rise in homicides, combining to investigate 29 deaths.

Whether it stems from gangs, domestic violence or drug deals gone bad, any gunfire in any neighborhood leaves residents frightened, and rightfully so.

Araceli Rodriquez, who lives on Radley Place, heard the shots Monday morning, too.

"When I saw the firemen come and the ambulances come, and when they left right away, I knew (the shooting victims) have got to be dead," she said. "What else could it be? It was bad. It was so scary."

And, in Modesto these days, far too frequent.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or

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