Coronavirus

Watsonville Responds to Recent Uptick in Homicides

Recent uptick follows years of declining homicides

A makeshift altar has been erected at the end of Walker Street just off the railroad tracks where a Watsonville man was shot and killed Saturday night. The altar, against a fence behind the Riverside Mobile Home Park, includes a photo of the victim. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Two people were shot and killed in a span of just more than 48 hours in Watsonville, raising concerns about an uptick of violence in Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city.

Watsonville police are investigating the shooting deaths of 19-year-old Fancisco Mora and 30-year-old Octavio Varela who were killed on Jan. 9 and 7, respectively.

Watsonville Police Department Sgt. Mish Radich said there are no indications that the two shootings are related. He also said detectives are looking into the possibility that they are gang-related.

The homicides are the county’s first and second of 2021. They come just three months after a spate of shootings during a late-October weekend that left two people—Rafael Salcedo, 44, and Aaron Lucio, 26—dead.

Police say they found Mora suffering from a gunshot wound around 7pm on Jan. 9 at the end of Walker Street near the Pajaro River levee. He died at the scene.

Two other people were also shot near that location in October 2020. Both survived, and no arrests have been made in connection with that shooting.

WPD spokeswoman Michelle Pulido said Varela was driving west on South Green Valley Road toward Main Street near Hope Drive around 8pm when he was shot in the upper torso.

“In less than a minute, [an] officer was at the scene performing CPR on the victim,” Pulido said.

He died at the scene.

There have been no arrests in either homicide case, and police have not yet identified any possible suspects.

The recent uptick in homicides comes after Watsonville for the better part of five years saw the number of homicides dwindle. Last year, there were three reported homicides, including the death of Brenda Becerra, who police say was murdered by her husband Cesar Hernandez. But 2019, 2018 and 2017 all saw only one homicide reported, as overall crime rates dropped in each year.

WPD Assistant Chief Tom Sims called the recent shootings “random acts of violence,” and said that the department would not increase the number of officers on patrol in response to the incidents. Instead, he said the department will focus on trying to solve those homicides with its Special Investigations Unit, and that they are working with the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime team, a task force of officers from agencies around the county supported by local, state and federal agencies.

“We’re doing everything in our power right now,” he said. “Increased patrols aren’t necessarily going to prevent crime …. One or two extra officers out there is probably not going to make much difference, but one or two officers assigned to our detective bureau can make a tremendous amount of difference in helping solve [these cases].”

Erica Padilla-Chavez, the CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), a nonprofit that provides counseling and other services to the area’s young people, said that her organization for the last few weeks has had conversations about the recent uptick in violence—even before the most recent shootings. PVPSA is concerned, Padilla-Chavez said, about the impact the rash of violence will have on the community, and the vulnerable position many young people are under because of the pandemic.

“We recognize that with distance learning and the lack of prosocial in-person activities because of the pandemic that there’s increased probability of seeing yet more young people potentially involved in behaviors that can be a danger to themselves and to others in our community,” she said.

Padilla-Chavez said the issue has also been a topic of discussion in a recurring meeting of South County leaders from various organizations that formed after stay-at-home orders were imposed in March of last year. WPD, Padilla-Chavez said, has assigned a police captain to work with members of that group to understand the data of the recent uptick in violence, and to create actions that can help strengthen the intervention and prevention services PVPSA and others are providing during the Covid-19-era.

Padilla-Chavez says it is important to contextualize the uptick with the dire conditions that some families are under as a result of the pandemic. County unemployment rates have seen record highs over the past nine months as business restrictions—especially in the service industry—have shuttered many employers. Unsurprisingly, the number of people depending on food banks to feed their families has also increased drastically.

Although WPD has not directly linked the recent acts of violence to the resulting economic and social hardships related to the pandemic, Padilla-Chavez says that research has shown that communities under those circumstances tend to have an increase in potential criminal activity.

“We need to understand the environment that people are swimming in right now,” she said. “I can just speak to what we’re seeing in our agency and that I hear echoed by many community organizational leaders …. We are seeing families challenged financially. We’re seeing families challenged with food insecurity. We’re seeing families challenged with trying to understand how they’re going to pay their housing costs.”

She added: “The impact of this pandemic is being felt in multiple ways.”

In these trying times, Padilla-Chavez says, it is important for neighbors to continue to check in with each other in responsible ways—through social media apps or phone calls—and stay connected despite the pandemic.

“All of those day-to-day activities that we take for granted in a non-pandemic environment, they’re so important right now,” she said. “Neighborhoods are what ultimately make up communities.”

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra agreed with Padilla-Chavez and said the only way for the community to pull itself out of the recent spike of crime is to work together.

“We can’t do it alone as a city,” he said. “This is something that we need to work together with our nonprofits, our community leaders and community members. Right now, everyone is pushed to our limits.”

Dutra said the City will over the next few weeks begin holding roundtable discussions with various community leaders to try to address the spike in crime. He began coordinating those conversations shortly after taking office for the second time last month.

He also said that it would be wrong to mischaracterize the rise in crime as strictly gang-related. Some incidents have been associated with gangs, he said, but many, such as thefts and other property crimes and domestic issues, have not.

“These times have not been easy on a lot of people and many of them are turning to crime,” he said. “We’re not the only community that’s suffering right now. A lot of communities are facing these same struggles.”

Dutra said he was confident the community would work through the recent violence and once again become one of the “safest cities” in the area. He pointed to the city’s turnaround after a deadly 2014, when there were eight homicides—the most the city has seen in recent memory.

“We’ve seen this before and we’ve overcome these challenges,” said Dutra, who was first on the city council from 2014-18.

Anyone with information about the Jan. 9 homicide is asked to call Det. Salvador Mendoza at 831-768-3357. Those with information about the Jan. 7 homicid are asked to call 831-471-1151 or WPD’s anonymous tip line at 831-768-3544.

Pajaronian reporter Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story.

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