Utah gang-related homicides and violent crimes increased in 2017 — and gang members are getting younger

Editor’s note: Information in this article is based on The Salt Lake Tribune’s unofficial count of reports from police and prosecutors, and only reflects homicides known to The Tribune at the time of publication. The Tribune will update its database with new information as it becomes available, but the text of this article won’t reflect those additions.

While more deaths in Utah in 2017 are attributable to gang violence than last year, the director of the Salt Lake Area Gang Project said that’s not his biggest end-of-the-year takeaway.

Instead, Lt. Mike Shoenfeld said he’s more worried because recently it seems gang members are younger than they used to be and are notably more violent — even if the violence isn’t always fatal.

“We’ve had some pretty horrific and heinous, egregious crimes committed by gang members over the last year that I think have really shaken our conscience a little bit as a society, because we just weren’t seeing that much violence in the past few years,” Shoenfeld said.

In 2016, only three homicides in Utah were attributed to gang violence. This year, at least eight deaths were gang-related, according to a database compiled by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Shoenfeld said law enforcement has also been dealing with more with violent assaults, in addition to more graffiti and more theft by gang members.

Like with the deaths of 55-year-old Lloyd Everett Pace and 50-year-old Tami Lynn Woodard in Kearns, many gang-related violent episodes have resulted in the deaths of uninvolved people.

Pace and Woodard were in a car in a Kearns neighborhood when a truck rammed into them. Those in the truck — Rosalio Andres Alvarez, 19, Argenis Daniel Ramierz-Saedt, 19, Jose Luis Cirilo Munoz-Lugo, 24, and Jose Humberto Mancia, 17 — had allegedly been shooting at a home associated with a rival gang when they sped away, striking Pace and Woodard’s car.

The increase in homicides coincides with a growth in gang activity over the past two years, Shoenfeld said.

During that time, Shoenfeld and other law enforcement officers have reported an increase in gangs recruiting younger children.

The youngest recruits are around 10 years old, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said at a November news conference on gang violence and violent crimes.

“We’re seeing kids — 10, 11, 12, 13 — carrying guns and committing crimes,” he said.

Some gangs are using younger children to commit violent crimes because juveniles, if caught and convicted, can receive a less severe sentence than adults, according to multiple local law enforcement officials, who spoke at a November news conference on the uptick in gang crime in Utah.

U.S. Attorney John Huber, Chief Deputy to the Salt Lake County District Attorney Blake Nakamura, FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera also spoke at the conference.

Since March, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah joined federal prosecutors across the country in an initiative to curb gang violence, federal prosecutors have issued indictments in 54 gang-related cases.

While they say part of the solution to Utah’s gang problem is more aggressive policing, preventative efforts, such as anti-gang after-school programs and community outreach, are needed.

“We can’t do it alone,” Brown said. “It takes a community. We need the community support. We need the community solidarity.”