Diary of a Deadly Year

Yakima County clocked more murders in 2010 than at any other time in its 145-year history and the highest homicide rate in the state. A year in the lives of those who killed, those who perished, and those who tried to keep order.

By James Ross Gardner October 14, 2011 Published in the November 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Owen Freeman

THE PUBLIC FINALLY PANICKED the Sunday before Memorial Day. By then the bodies had been showing up for months—in irrigation ditches, at a porn shop, slumped in the trunks of cars. Gunfire had crackled in supermarket parking lots, at gas stations, inside restaurants. But something about that May afternoon on Pleasant Avenue gripped Yakima residents with fear. Later, people would say it was because the murder went down in broad daylight. Or because it was a holiday weekend. Those closest to the case, though, will tell you that it was in the way 18-year-old Daniel Rivera begged for his life.

Six young men had marched toward the Rivera family home, a yellow house framed by two towering birch trees. They wore white T-shirts and blue baseball caps—the colors of Sureños, the Mexican American gang known for its violent methods. They found Daniel in front of the house and surrounded him. He bolted but the assailants caught him in a nearby yard and dragged him to the ground. One of them leveled a rifle. Please! No! Daniel pleaded, and closed his eyes. The yard exploded with bullets. Lead tore through his pelvis, thighs, buttocks, neck, and chin.

The execution party was long gone by the time police arrived. And once the media crews descended, the Sunday-night TV news scripts had been written: The community 140 miles southeast of Seattle was under attack. It was Yakima County’s 14th homicide of the year. By the end of 2010, the number would more than double.

CORONER JACK HAWKINS EXAMINED NEARLY EVERY ONE OF THE COUNTY’S 29 MURDERED CORPSES IN 2010, the most homicide victims his office had ever seen. Hawkins is a former cop—10 years with the Yakima County Sheriff’s office, another 15 with the Yakima Police Department—and he’s got the mustache to prove it. You know the mustache. Sam Elliott’s got one. The retired police chief in your hometown has one. It’s grown out extra long, over the lip, and gray as a cloud.

The coroner works out of a downtown office that looks less like a medical clinic than the space an auto mechanic might use to catch up on accounts receivable. Tools, in this case scalpels, compete for desktop space with mounds of paperwork. An unspent shotgun shell stands carefully balanced on its end next to a dusty unopened can of premixed Jack Daniel’s and cola. Leather-bound tomes filled with county death records dating back, presumably, to 1865, loom on a corner shelf.

Three metal examination tables clutter the room next door. Hawkins has witnessed unspeakable sights on these tables. Blue-lipped infants hit with SIDS. Suicide victims trucked in in pieces after jumping off the Interstate 82 bridge, 325 feet over Selah Creek. In 2007, he inspected the bodies of nine skydivers and a pilot after their plane crashed into the earth at 70 miles per hour. So it’s a lot to say that the Memorial Day weekend murder of Daniel Rivera got to him.

“We counted 31 bullet holes in his body, fired up close and personal,” Hawkins recalls. “It’s scary. You got these kids running around the streets and they come up and just shoot him. He was begging for his life, and they shoot him…. It was my understanding that they were looking for the whole family.”

By the time Hawkins completed his annual report, though—a sort of diary of the dead, filled with the clues each body left for the coroner to discover—Rivera’s case read like all the others, clinical and devoid of emotion. But 29 murders is an alarming statistic in a county with the population of Yakima, 243,000. That’s roughly one homicide for every 8,000 people. (In the same year, the city of Seattle experienced one homicide per 68,000 people.) It was the grim end to a savage half decade. From 2000 to 2004, Yakima murders had averaged about 11 a year. The number reached 24 in 2005, then dipped to 14 in 2006 and has been mounting ever since.

And yet only the Yakima Herald-Republic extensively reported the story, in just one article. Asked why the most homicides in county history and the highest rate in the state were downplayed, Hawkins pauses. And then, “I’m just going to be blunt here. Yakima is a farming community and it’s rural, and a lot of that industry doesn’t even exist anymore, so we depend a lot on the wine industry and tourism. I’m not saying people are downplaying it, but they don’t want people to be afraid to come here.”

KATHY COFFEY TRIED HER DAMNEDEST TO CALM THE FEW CITIZENS WHO’D GATHERED at the biweekly city council meeting. The six council members, plus the mayor, crowded around the U-shaped table in City Hall on Tuesday, June 1, two days after Daniel Rivera’s murder. Coffey, the 62-year-old council member and assistant mayor, whom the Herald-Republic once described as having “the energy of a five-year-old,” sat at the center, garbed in an olive green suit and beaded necklace. Earlier that day, she announced, she had phoned the offices of Governor Christine Gregoire and Senator Patty Murray, begging for state and federal aid to fight gangs. “We are going to get this taken care of, and I want you to know that we do have the people in place that will be working on this full time, overtime….”

A man cleared his throat, interrupting her.

She tilted her head to look over her reading glasses and two seats over. There shined the bald dome of council member Bill Lover, a former military man. “Some of this is the first I’ve ever heard of this,” Lover growled. “What I want to caution you against is moving so fast without letting the rest of the council know.”

Coffey snapped back. “I would remind you, Councilman Lover, that everything I identified today was presented at council, to council, and is not outside council’s approval.”

City employees reported several murders at locations without adequate street lighting.

The city’s tarnished reputation stung in other ways, too. Coffey’s grandfather, Gil Burns, was mayor of Yakima in the mid-1950s. Over the decades she’d watched his legacy of economic improvement wither, supplanted by the city’s new image, first as a drug hub in the 1980s and early ’90s—when Crackima and Yakimeth were frequent sobriquets—and more recently as a gangland.Yakima’s violent crime had weighed on Coffey for years. Before taking office in 2008, she spent 19 years as CEO of the city’s visitor and convention bureau. More than once she’d endured that moment during a pitch when the event planner from, say, the Washington State Dental Association, stiffened in his seat and apologized: Look, Yakima is a lovely place, but…the gangs. We’ve decided to hold the convention elsewhere.

So when the chief of police briefed Coffey on Daniel Rivera, she didn’t hesitate to call the state’s top elected official. “I’m not asking you to look at this as a governor,” she told Gregoire’s office. “I’m asking you to look at this as a mother.” The mayor, Micah Cowley—one of Coffey’s closest allies—phoned attorney general Rob McKenna for help, too.

Lover was bothered that he hadn’t been consulted. “Am I free to go to the National Guard or people I know in DC? C’mon! Let’s do the policy with all seven of us!”

“After a young 18-year-old was executed on one of our streets in this community,” said Coffey, “I feel that it is within the right of the mayor and deputy mayor to contact the governor to say there’s a problem.”

“And it’s also within your realm to let us know you’re contacting ’em.”

“We just did.”


Image: John Hope

THE SECOND-LARGEST COUNTY in the state contains more than 4,000 square miles and no shortage of places to hide a body. Take Campbell Road, a two-lane blacktop—and, in spots, a one-lane dirt top—that snakes out from the town of Wapato and cuts through lush vineyards in spring and summer, and, come fall and winter, skeletal lattices with denuded vines. The path continues past apple orchards and cornfields until it hits the foothills of Toppenish Ridge, 22 miles from the city of Yakima, and intersects with Marion Drain Road and an irrigation canal choked with weeds. There, on January 7, 2010, sheriff’s deputies pulled out a body wrapped in black garbage bags and duct tape. The torso of 20-year-old Fernando Figueroa had been blasted with a .40 caliber pistol.

Four months later, the same canal coughed up Figueroa’s drug-running partner, 19-year-old Joseph John. The remains, cocooned in a plastic tarp, had decomposed so completely—right down to the surgically implanted metal plate in his arm—that John’s dentist was called in to make a positive ID.

Police say the body of Mariano Guzman Moedano was stashed in his own apartment. His roommates thought he was in California; they’d received a text message from his cellphone saying so. But when the apartment began to smell like rotten meat, they opened his bedroom door and found the 24-year-old on the floor, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Yakima police concluded that the text had likely come from Guzman Moedano’s girlfriend, and she became the prime suspect. Then she hid herself. Vanished. She might be in Mexico.

A little after 5:30am on March 23, a man walked into the 24-hour adult bookstore 70-year-old Ed Foster was minding for a friend. Surveillance footage shows -Foster walk to the back of the store, followed by the customer. Off camera: a pounding sound. Then a man groaning. The customer appears again seconds later, at the cash register, which he empties. He also grabs something from the display counter—a battery-powered latex vagina—and flees. The shop goes silent, a porn-packed tomb, until later in the morning when a fellow employee discovers Foster’s body, his skull bludgeoned.

Another man stowed a cadaver under the deck of his mobile home. Nineteen days earlier, during a bungled heroin deal outside a Yakima Pizza Hut, he shot 21-year-old Gary Snell in the chest and head with a .22 rifle and drove the corpse in the back seat of his truck to the trailer park. Working off a tip, a police detective asked the suspect if he would find Snell’s body if he looked under the house. The man replied, simply, “Yeah.”

So many places to conceal a murder. But not all Yakima County’s killers operate in the shadows. Like the murder of Daniel Rivera on Memorial Day weekend, other homicides occurred in plain view of witnesses—loud, bullet-filled executions, such as Bobby Ray Zapien’s hit on 32-year-old Luis Gonzales on January 15. Gonzales was tinkering with his 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in a friend’s driveway when Zapien walked up and—according to court testimony reported by the Herald-Republic—called Gonzales a “rat,” then shot him in the back of the head with a .22 pistol.

Bullets flew across the parking lot of Wray’s supermarket a few weeks later, perforating 27-year-old James Kilby. Seattle-area residents Jordan Daisy and Ezra Swann were arrested for the homicide days later.

Ramon Mendoza, 25, was enjoying a late dinner with friends at Ricos Tacos Guadalajara in Sunnyside when five or six assailants opened fire, killing him with at least nine bullets in his neck and abdomen.

THE FIRST DOCUMENTED gang-related homicide in the city of Yakima was in 1994. If you’re a big enough snoop, you can see the case on acting chief Greg Copeland’s on-screen spreadsheet while he talks. Copeland, 50, grew up in the Seattle area, joined the Yakima Police Department 21 years ago, and rose through the ranks to the position of captain. In January 2011, when Chief Sam Granato retired, Copeland stepped in as interim. He doesn’t want the gig, though, and nearly a year later the city has yet to appoint a new chief. To an outsider it can be confusing: Officers in the field will refer to Copeland as “my chief”; the receptionist at the department’s front desk calls him “captain.”

Either way, he inherited the city’s homicide problem. Asked what happened in 2010, Copeland says what everyone in the county says—gangs. They’ve dogged the region since at least 1991, first with small factions of Bloods and Crips, and then, in force with Mexican American gangs, namely Sureños and Norteños—two violently opposed groups formed in California prisons—and their locally grown affiliates. By the department’s own admission, it didn’t handle the situation well.

In a 2003 memo to Chief Granato, a sergeant explained the attitude that prevailed in the early ’90s, just as gang activity was taking hold: “Many, like Yakima [Police Department] even denied the problem, claiming gang members were merely ‘wannabes.’ They were acting the role of gang members because it was the fad. The fad would run its course and then fade away. [We] were even forbidden to say the word ‘gang’ over the police radio. It was comical the euphemisms we had to use when broadcasting over the radio. When dispatched to investigate gang activity, officers were often sent to investigate a ‘group of organized youth’ or ‘youth in sports attire.’”

By the mid-1990s, though, officers estimated that Yakima was home to “500 to 600 members in 20 to 25 gangs,” and they could no longer ignore the problem. The cops put together special units to ferret out gang members. Still the crime stats climbed. Gang members were linked to the trafficking of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. They stole cars. They graffitied nearly every available surface. (Drive through Yakima County today and you’ll see even the fence posts of apple orchards tagged.) And they shot at each other.

Incidents of drive-by shootings are spiking. In 2008, officers responded to 15 drive-by shootings; in 2009 it was 46; in 2010 the number of drive-bys reached 52. This at a time when the department limps through crippling budget cuts.

As Copeland turned back to his Excel spreadsheet to mouse through more stats, the side of his face pulsed, his jaw worked up and down—perhaps the toil of a nervous teeth grinder. The police scanner squawked with details from another possible shooting. That week the gang unit wasn’t on duty; they work five days on, five days off. As bad as it is, though, Copeland’s city isn’t the only one in the county with an epic gang problem.

DON’T FUCKING LEAVE Nightmare out there,” Raul yelled at the driver of the white Cadillac DeVille. Nightmare had sprung from the car, shouldered up to a pedestrian, and—boom, boom, boom, boom—emptied a .38 into his torso. The driver tried to speed away, but Raul commanded him to wait.

They had rolled through Sunnyside, the farming community 40 miles southeast of Yakima, on their way to a barbecue on a hot July afternoon, when Nightmare—the street moniker for 15-year-old Alex Bueno—spotted somone in a red shirt. He held a gun to the driver’s head and ordered him to turn the car around. The Cadillac swung onto dusty Gregory Avenue. Flashes of color: a fence painted yellow, orange, and cobalt blue, bright as a Road Runner cartoon, with illustrated crop furrows, a giant apple, and grapes—tributes to the area’s agrarian heritage. Then, in the middle of the street, red—the color worn by Alex Bueno’s target.

Bueno and his crew were members of Little Valley Lokotes 13, a homegrown gang affiliated with Sureños that started in the 1980s. They wore blue; their adversaries, Norteños, favored red. Bueno had grown up in a single-parent home and at as young as 14 helped his mother pay the bills, working construction and at the Toppenish rodeo. The kid was good with a horse, often in the saddle during local horse auctions and teaching his siblings how to ride.

But he’d recently spent time in juvenile detention for auto theft and had a history of assault charges. On his chest: A large “13” tattoo, the gang symbol. The LVLs called him Nightmare because that’s what he was to his victims; Bueno’s job was to beat -people up. And when he saw the kid in the red shirt on Gregory Avenue on July 17, that’s all his fellow passengers expected him to do. “Leave the gun,” they said.

David Baldonado, also 15, was walking his bike down Gregory Ave with headphones on when the white Cadillac crept alongside him. Bueno jumped out and from two feet away, aimed and fired, hitting him in the neck, chest, and arms. Baldonado fled to a nearby house, bleeding. He knocked. No answer. He tried another house. Nothing. The third house was unlocked and Baldonado tumbled in. He told the owner he didn’t know why he’d been shot. “I don’t bang,” he explained. Then just before he lost consciousness, Yakima County’s 18th homicide victim of the year asked, “Am I going to die?”

GANGS HELP EXPLAIN part of Yakima County’s record homicide year, but not all of it. In fact only four of Yakima city’s 13 homicides can be directly linked to gang activity. That doesn’t make the other killings any less disturbing.

Around noon on a bright August day, an 18-year-old man drove the body of two-year-old Benjamin Miron to Toppenish Community Hospital. The toddler was bruised from head to toe. The man had been babysitting the child, his girlfriend’s son, and later admitted to police that the child had kept him up all night and, frustrated, he hit him twice in the stomach. The autopsy revealed that Benjamin died from blunt force to his abdomen.

Nineteen-year-old Nathen Bennett awaits trial for the stabbing death of Leonardo Cantu Jr. Bennett claims he killed in self-defense when Cantu, after sharing three bowls of marijuana with him, pulled down Bennett’s pants and tried to rape him. Cantu’s family found him behind his house, his body punctured with 17 knife wounds.

There was no stopping Shaun Kollman, the 30-year-old man who raced a stolen truck all over the city (he’d crashed the truck out through the auto dealer’s showroom glass) before smashing into the vehicle occupied by Pasqual Ayala and Marina Barajas. Prosecutors charged him with vehicular homicide.

In Tieton, an orchard town–turned–burgeoning artist colony 19 miles outside the city, Adam Powell called 911 to report that his girlfriend Sabrina Flores had shot herself with his pistol. When sheriff’s deputies arrived they didn’t think Powell’s story added up. His girlfriend’s body had been moved. And the crime lab discovered no gunpowder burns near the entry wound and estimated she was shot from at least three feet away. Powell awaits trial for murder.

No one can say with certainty why homicide rates go up and down, notes Jonathan Wender, a criminologist at the University of Washington. But there are identifiable contributing factors. “Yakima has for years had a ‘perfect storm’ of negative socioeconomic and other conditions that have contributed to its high crime rates,” Wender says. “The leading factors are combinations of intergang rivalries, competition over control of drug markets and drug trafficking routes, and more generally, a culture among too many young men of impulsiveness and low self-control that leads to shootings over minor slights.” 

But that kind of big-picture thinking—complex, hard to pinpoint—doesn’t easily lead to federal grants. So back at Yakima City Hall, Kathy Coffey chooses to narrow in on gangs. Before the Memorial Weekend slaying of Daniel Rivera, the council member had already helped spearhead the Yakima Gang Free Initiative. The 30-person committee of political, religious, education, and law enforcement leaders, including interim police chief Greg Copeland, commissioned a profile of the community. Released in July 2011, the study broke down the city’s demographics (41 percent Hispanic, 21 percent living under the poverty line) and tracked the decline of the juvenile justice system (94 detention beds in 1995 compared to 42 in 2010).

The committee sponsored the report to help Yakima—which is facing a $1.4 million deficit—apply for federal funds. But city leaders can’t agree on where to allocate the cash they already have. “Did you hear about the streetlights issue?” Coffey asked on a recent afternoon in an office next to the council chamber. “It’s been proven that if you install streetlights, gangs are like rats. If you light it up—they don’t like it.” City employees had reported that several murders in 2010 happened at locations without adequate street lighting, and identified $262,000 from the feds that could go toward illuminating those trouble spots. “We had money left over for neighborhood development from the office of Housing and Urban Development,” Coffey says.

The lights never went up. She was outvoted six to one on a May 2011 proposal to improve only existing streetlights. Bill Lover, the council member Coffey tangled with two days after the killing of Daniel Rivera, led the charge. He cited national and international studies that show streetlights do not deter homicides.

The $262,000 is long gone—spent on other projects. Coffey’s livid, and accuses her colleague of playing politics. “I think Bill Lover felt left out of the process,” she says, referring to her call to the governor for help last year. “It’s the bureaucracy that just gets to me…. I mean, what the hell are we doing?”

There is reason to be hopeful. This summer the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted the county $270,000 “to support mentoring and case management for gang-involved youth.” Gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna has made rural gang reduction a top campaign issue. And, even more promising, 2011 doesn’t look like it will approach the homicide record reached in 2010. By late September the number was at 18, according to Coroner Hawkins, four fewer murders than at the same time last year.

“Please don’t make us look bad,” Coffey says, speaking like the woman who led the city’s tourism efforts for two decades. She knows how much the community relies on weekenders looking to enjoy the region’s more than 40 wineries and 285 days of annual sunshine. Visitors spent an estimated $331 million in the area last year. “The truth of the matter is, if you stay on Yakima Avenue”—the main hotel and restaurant-strewn lane through town—“you really don’t see any of this violence.”

THE MEMORIAL WEEKEND killing, seven blocks from Yakima Ave, remains unsolved. Witnesses watched some of the assailants disappear into a nearby house shortly after the murder. Police raided the residence and detained at least two men on outstanding warrants, but made no arrests for Daniel Rivera’s murder. No one has connected the dots, if there are any, but Daniel’s mother is listed on Coroner Hawkins’s report as the person who identified the canal-drenched body of Fernando Figueroa, the year’s first homicide in January. She’s referred to as Figueroa’s “mother-in-law.” And there are rumors, as Hawkins noted, that Daniel Rivera’s killers were out to get his whole family.

All the appeals for state and federal aid included the story of 18-year-old Daniel Rivera’s last moments at the hands of Sureños, but little was revealed about Rivera himself. Probably because the passing of a gangbanger who’d recently been charged with burglarizing a former neighbor’s house wouldn’t have received the same level of attention as the passing of an innocent teenager.

But Rivera’s criminal past might have augured his bloody demise, if anyone had paid close enough attention.

When he was 14 and attending Davis High School, Daniel was sent to the assistant principal’s office because he smelled like marijuana. There he called the school’s security officer a “bitch” and threatened the teacher who snitched on him. When a search revealed he was sporting a red webbed belt with a buckle inscribed with “N” for Norteños—and carrying a knife in his back pocket—the assistant principal called the cops.

Daniel told the responding police officer that he wasn’t really going to hurt the teacher. “I was mad,” he explained. “You say things when you’re mad.”

And the knife? He said it was for protection from rival gang members.

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