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“Once they’re cooperative, they’re no longer active, which is really the beauty,” said Cohen, noting that gang members frequently engage in a cycle of crime, prison, release, and more crime because gang culture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.

Looking forward

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.”

(8) comments

The Gimlet Eye
The Gimlet Eye

Build more "low-income housing" for them. That will stop the crime wave:--(

ChiefDannyIsAJoke

"About 25 have dropped out in Santa Maria since 2008, he said."


Oh wow!!! TWENTY-FIVE!!! HOLY COW SGT. COHEN!!! You really are making a difference aren't you. That's 25 people that SHOULD BE LOCKED UP for various reason but aren't because they dropped out of a life of crime. So now we're rewarded thugs for doing what they're supposed to do? Give me a flipping break! I bust my rear-side 60+ hours a week to provide my family with a mediocre lifestyle while these idiots lie, cheat, steal, rob, rape and kill their way to the top of a criminal empire only to be caught so they can "drop out" and be given a get out of jail free card? Thanks for wasting my tax dollars SMPD!

tomatofoot

wow, some people..

first everyone complained about the rise in crime and gang members.

then, everyone complained that the police were not doing enough to curb the gang violence in the city.

Now, the police have started a method to encourage gang members to drop out, and as it starts to catch on, people still complain.

Like I said, some people...

MeDias

Santa Maria has been helped by the State of Arizona who have cut by 80% the number of illegals crossing the border there. No help from Obama who needs trouble to have a basis for asking for voting for him.

John Q Public

My Fellow American,

If the gang dropout rate that Sgt. Cohen describes is accurate, we will have gotten rid of gangs in our midst by about 2982! C'mon Sargeant Cohen, nobody believes this dribble. You guys were soft-on-crime as the problem developed, and now you think that 'Restorative Justice' is going to yield results? The gangsters are laughing in your face!

Chief danny says a gang injunction is not warrented...the Mayor wants to ignore the problem...the schools want to pass out free teddybears to potential gangsters...Judge Garci wants to give felony gangsters like Barbara Trevino a 'Get out of Jail Free' card. The whole deal is just silly.

I recommennd every law abiding citizen of Santa Maria go buy a handgun-and prepare to use it. Crime in our city is out-of-control, and the police can no longer protect us. The silly, innane policies of our so-called leaders have left us all in jeapordy, and there is no good outcome in sight.

Thanks Mayor. Thanks Tim Ness. Thanks Danny Macagni.

Just saying,

JQP

flavor flav
flavor flav

SNITCHES BELONG IN DITCHES!!!

AJ

Dear Officer Cohen,

Paying criminals to testify against someone to reduce their own filthy sentence is in no way a step up for law enforcement. In fact it's furthering the breakdown of our justice system. The work you do is filthy, the DA is filthy, and one day your souls will be judged too. Buy your way out of that!

Ps I think you have a thing for Wallin...why wont you leave him alone? Quit reading his mail. Quit begging him to be a part of your life. Go find a woman!

mnm04

So this rat who was interviewed thinks nothing happens to his fellow rats who testified against Wallin. Well remember it ain't the end!!! They will all have to answer when their time comes. I'll be damned if smpd cut any deals with anyone involved in my husband 's murder. So instead of padding these rats on their back "smpd" do your f*** job an arrest real murders an every worthless person involved!!!!

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.