It was supposed to be a birthday party.
Stephen Angel Lopez, 19, arrived at the Arbat Reception Hall in South Salt Lake last fall, ready to hear a rapper from his home state of California perform.
But instead of a celebration, the concert turned deadly for the Utah transplant when a fight between two feuding gangs broke out. Lopez, a member of a Norteño street gang, died from a gunshot wound to his chest outside the venue, at 375 E. 3300 South shortly before midnight on Oct. 1. Another person was shot and two more stabbed, as tensions between Norteños and rivals flared.
Police have yet to arrest Lopez’s killer, but they know who pulled the trigger, said Detective Lorenzo “Snow” Leuluai of the Salt Lake City Police Department and FBI’s Safe Streets Gang Task Force, to a crowd gathered in Sandy on Thursday for the second day of the 22nd Annual Utah Gang Conference.
Witnesses to the crime won’t cooperate to bring Lopez’s shooter to justice, he said, but the case remains active. And Lopez’s story illuminates a disturbing trend: the growth of Norteño gang members in Utah.
The gang, which originated in northern California, used to have various subsets throughout Utah in cities and neighborhood. The Rose Park Norteños, for example, included about 23 documented members who called Salt Lake City home. Twenty more people who identified themselves as Norteños from Porterville, Calif., have carved an identity in Park City. And other “cliques,” as they’re known on the streets, such as Familia Por Siempre and Familia Varrio Loco, Mafioso and others have built their criminal enterprise in their respective groups to a few dozen members, Leuluai said.
But in recent years, the individual groups of Norteños have decided to join forces to become a unified force, numbering perhaps in the hundreds, known under the general umbrella of “Norteño” — a merger that concerns law enforcement trying to keep pace with the gangs’ activities, which includes drug trafficking and other violent crimes.
The change in Norteño behavior was first noticed in 2009 and 2010 by officials at the Utah State Prison who wondered why various Norteño groups were suddenly combining, Leuluai said. Prison officials worked with the Metro Gang Unit and other law enforcement to answer their questions.
They found that an order from a high-ranking Norteño in the federal prison system had called for individual Norteño groups in Utah to join forces. The leader’s cryptic command included instructions to “Turn Salt Lake to Blood Lake” when building the regimen, Leuluai said.
After providing the crowd with a history of the trend, Leuluai asked those in attendance — including school officials, juvenile probation officers and prosecutors — how they believe gangs can be curtailed. He used Lopez as an example.
Leuluai said he knew Lopez was headed for trouble from the first time the cop encountered a then-15-year-old Lopez on the street, where he quickly learned that Lopez’s father had also been involved in a Norteño gang. He showed a YouTube video made by Lopez’s friends called “Rest N Peace,” which showed Lopez, known as “Goofy” on the streets, with guns and flashing gang signs.
Lopez had tattooed “prison bound” about his eyebrows, an acknowledgement that he aspired to reach prison where he could mix with heavy hitters of the Nuestra Familia, the notorious Norteño prison gang that orchestrates gang activity from behind bars.
In prison, Norteño gang members receive “instruction” from the Nuestra Familia. Veteran gang members “educate” new arrivals with manuals that show how to construct weapons from state-issued materials and how to properly shank an enemy, among other lessons.
Thinking of a teenage Lopez three years ago, Leuluai wondered how the boy could have been steered in a different direction that could have kept him from being murdered.
“Gangs aren’t going to be stopped. But can a kid be guided? How?” he said.
Some in the audience suggested better education for those interacting with gang members and more communication among agencies dealing with gang members may be a start.
Andrea Martinez, an outreach coordinator at West Lake Junior High in West Valley City, said teachers learn how to deal with a variety of student issues — but the specifics of gang intervention usually aren’t a part of the curriculum of teacher education programs.
“As educators, we get fearful, so our method is to shut down,” she said. She said the annual gang conference is a chance to learn how to better communicate with youth in gangs at school.
Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Sandi Johnson, a veteran gang prosecutor, said law enforcement needs to provide prosecutors with more information about gang members when bringing police reports for potential charges. A gang member may be charged with a robbery, but too often, an officer often leaves out important details about a suspect’s gang involvement — which leaves prosecutors without evidence to bring to a judge to ask that a suspect be detained with gang conditions, she said.
Leuluai said he’d like to see more opportunities in the community where teenagers can congregate off the streets after midnight.
Programs such as midnight basketball in Salt Lake City have fallen by the wayside due to a lack of funding. With few entertainment options in gang-plagued neighborhoods and parents who often must work two jobs to support their family, many teens end up falling into gangs, he said.
While the answers to solving the gang problem are ambiguous, Leuluai said, it’s essential that Utah realizes the reach of gangs has moved into surprising places.
He cited 50 documented members of the Familia Por Siempre gang in Orem.
“In Orem,” Leuluai said, pausing for emphasis. “Happy Valley.”
“How can we stop this?”