Police got a break in 2008 when a witness to the high-profile gang murder of Santa Maria resident Jeremy Grinder four years earlier came forward and implicated several men involved in the killing.
The 2004 kidnapping and execution-style slaying of Grinder was orchestrated by gang leader Jeremy Wallin, who was convicted of the crime in 2010 and is serving life in prison without parole.
Since Grinder’s killing, however, the lives of the men implicated by the witness had changed. They had gotten jobs, started families and some were going to college.
So rather than giving that up for a life in prison, they took unprecedented action and cooperated with law enforcement, testifying at trial against Wallin, a “shot-caller” whose orders they followed without question just a few years earlier.
In exchange, they received reduced sentences. And by default, became gang dropouts.
“It was really a perfect storm,” Santa Maria Police Department Gang Task Force Sgt. Dan Cohen said last week. “All the things came together ... everybody was in a different place in their lives. When they’re in the mix and they’re active and they’re involved, they’re much less likely to be cooperative with law enforcement.”
Added Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who prosecuted the Wallin case: “For all intents and purposes, these were the trailblazers that really crossed that line, that barrier, that nobody had ever crossed. And once it was done, I think other people realized ‘Hey, maybe there’s an option. I don’t have to be in a gang forever’.”
Starting a trend
Since the Wallin case some two dozen Santa Maria gang members and associates have cooperated with law enforcement on gang-related matters.
“We’re having gang members testify and drop out of the gang at a rate we have never seen before,” said Cohen. About 25 have dropped out in Santa Maria since 2008, he said.
Cohen and Bramsen believe that longer prison sentences for those involved in gang crimes have been key in motivating gang members and associates to talk to police in the hopes of earning shorter sentences.
Working with law enforcement brings an instant and permanent end to the gang member’s involvement with gangs, as “snitching,” or tattling on gang members, is an unforgivable crime in the gang world.
“Once they’re cooperative, they’re no longer active, which is really the beauty,” said Cohen, noting that gang members frequently engage in a cycle of crime, prison, release, and more crime because gang culture rewards criminal behavior.
“Once they cross that line and they testify, they cannot go back to the gang. They can’t do it or they’re going to be killed,” he said.
Stepping up prosecution
Bramsen said that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Santa Maria gang members were expected to accept hefty punishment for crimes they may have only witnessed, and to never tell on another member.
In 2001, Cohen joined the Santa Maria Police Department’s gang unit and suggested a greater focus on prosecuting gang crimes, according to Bramsen. Previously, a robbery committed by a gang member would only be prosecuted as a robbery, Bramsen explained.
Adding gang enhancements to felony convictions can result in life prison sentences depending on the nature of the crime, according to Bramsen.
In addition to changes in charges, there is more crime now, Bramsen said.
“There weren’t as many violent crimes. That has certainly increased over the last decade for sure,” she said.
Bramsen said the District Attorney’s Office has an easier time prosecuting gang cases than it did several years ago because of the increase in cooperative witnesses.
Telling his story
One former longtime Santa Maria gang associate, whose name cannot be used to protect his identity, cooperated with police recently to earn a lesser sentence in his criminal case.
The soft-spoken former associate spoke matter-of-factly this week about how he first became involved with gangs when he was about 12, dealing with the stress of his parents’ divorce and feeling emotionally abandoned.
“They just turned into family,” he said of the gang’s members.
The associate said he started committing crimes, including stealing car stereos.
“We went and did whatever we could for money,” he added.
The man said he was “brainwashed” into believing the gang had his best interests at heart. As he got older, however, he said he came to realize that the men he thought were his homies, or friends, didn’t care about his family or give him money in jail like his family did.
“I just kind of figured out how to get out of the game,” the associate said, explaining his decision to cooperate with law enforcement.
Choosing to leave the gang was not easy, he said, but he doesn’t regret doing so.
“It’s been all right so far,” the former associate said. “It is hard. You are going against the grain that you’re taught growing up.”
The former associate acknowledged that witnesses in the Wallin murder case helped convince gang members there’s a way out.
“Nothing really happened to those guys in the end,” he said.
He also thinks the District Attorney’s Office and police are on the right track by going after gang crime with stiff sentences.
The former associate, a father, said he is looking forward to life outside the gang world.
“My life is really changed now,” he said. “It’s like this weight’s been lifted off my shoulders now.”
The former associate advised young people considering the gang life to reconsider. He said he wishes someone showed him another way when he was a kid.
“Stay with your family. Stick to Mom and Dad,” he said.
The notion that a gang will back its members is false, the former associate added.
“That’s all a big misconception. They don’t do anything for you.”
Life after gangs
Leaving a gang typically means creating a new life.
For their protection, Santa Maria gang members who cooperate with police must leave the area, according to Cohen.
Some have to have tattoos removed, said Bramsen.
“They have to completely erase everything that they’ve ever known since they were little kids and start over,” she added.
Cohen said some gang dropouts don’t know how to balance a checkbook or fill out a job application because their existence has been centered in the gang world.
“It’s like taking a high school student and reeducating them,” he said.
Added Bramsen, “It’s amazing. Some of them are the most sophisticated criminals I’ve ever been around, but they can’t go to Starbucks and order a drink. They’ve never done that.”
Others are able to slowly distance themselves from gangs, according to Cohen.
“It’s not easy to do. It really takes a determination and a mindset to do it,” he said.
Cohen said that while gang dropouts haven’t led to a noticeable drop in gang crime in Santa Maria, police and prosecutors have been more effective in making arrests and putting together criminal cases because of their help.
“We’re solving cases now that we would have never been able to solve in the past. No way,” he said.
Bramsen said crime is prevented when gang members step away from gangs, because gang members are notorious repeat offenders.
“That’s an incentive to commit lots of crime and get arrested a lot and go to prison a lot of times,” she said. “Those are badges of honor.”
Cohen said Santa Barbara County Jail has more former gang members in protective housing than ever before.
“It seems like it’s a growing trend that they don’t want to participate in the gang politics and their rigid rules any longer,” he said.
Bramsen said that while tactics like longer prison sentences are effective in removing some adult gang members from the gangs, juveniles are harder to reach.
Many become involved in gangs at 10 or 12 years old, and more community involvement is needed in discouraging youngsters, she said.
“As long as gangs are glorified, as long as you have 10-year-olds thinking that this is a great thing, we’re going to have gang crime and we’re going to have problems in the city,” she said. “I think the community needs to become more proactive at the really young level.”