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  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Curiosity-seekers check out the Sports Corner Cafe on Tuesday.

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    A party horn lies on an Old Sacramento street near the Sports Corner Cafe, where two people were killed in a violent argument.

Killings raise questions about future Old Sac New Year's Eve events

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 1:46 pm

Second Saturday. The Thursday night market on K Street. And now, the New Year's Eve fireworks show in Old Sacramento.

Once again, officials in Sacramento are scrambling to reassure the public after an outbreak of deadly violence near a celebratory event. This time, two people were killed and three others injured late Monday during a shootout at a bar two blocks from where thousands of families had watched the 9 p.m. annual fireworks display over Old Sacramento. The midnight show was canceled.

The alleged gunman, identified by Sacramento police as Carlito Montoya, 22, was caught just minutes after the wild gun battle broke out at 9:40 p.m. inside the Sports Corner Cafe, a boisterous establishment at the corner of K and Second streets that Old Sacramento merchants said had been considered safe. As the shots rang out, New Year's revelers dived to the ground or sought shelter in whatever spaces they could find – a candy shop, a jewelry store, a tiny arcade with an old-style shooting range.

"I'm still in shock," said Maria Paul, who runs the Candy Barrel on Second Street. Paul said about 80 people, some shaking and crying, took refuge in her shop after the shooting broke out. She locked the doors and the people huddled on the floor.

On New Year's Day, workers scrubbed a trail of blood from the boardwalks of Old Sacramento. Fireworks intended for the scrapped midnight show instead were detonated in the pale morning sky, leaving puffs of smoke.

The city's elected leaders, tourism officials and business owners in Old Sacramento attempted to portray the shooting as an isolated incident not related to the New Year's festivities. Still, the future of the annual fireworks show was uncertain Tuesday.

"This is a senseless thing that could have happened at any venue in town where people gather and someone is dumb enough to bring a firearm," said City Councilman Steve Hansen. "We don't give up because of one bad thing. We don't let a couple of people who made very bad decisions change our city."

Police said the chaotic incident began when an argument erupted inside the Sports Corner Cafe between Montoya and a couple also in the bar. The argument grew into a fight and an employee of the establishment tried to intervene.

Police said Montoya drew a gun and fired at the 30-year-old woman and her 35-year-old husband. Both the woman and her husband were hit by gunfire, as was the employee, who was in his 20s, police said.

The woman, who was hit in her lower body, survived her injuries. But her husband and the bar employee were pronounced dead at the scene.

"We don't think they knew each other," said police spokeswoman Michele Gigante. "We think it was just an argument in the bar that escalated."

A security guard rushed in and exchanged shots with Montoya, police said, before the shooter tried to flee the scene. The guard had his gun pointed at the bloodied suspect and was giving commands when police found both of them outside the bar, Gigante said. Officers immediately grabbed both individuals, not knowing exactly what had happened.

The bar was packed with revelers for New Year's Eve, Gigante said, but no one else was shot.

Montoya is in police custody in a local hospital and is being treated for gunshot wounds. None of the others involved in the altercation had been identified by police as of Tuesday night.

Nearly 100 city police officers and a dozen private security officers were in Old Sacramento patrolling the 9 p.m. fireworks display. Police – including some on horseback – responded to the shooting within seconds, witnesses said.

The fireworks show slated for midnight was canceled as detectives launched their investigation. The pyrotechnics were instead detonated just after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, startling residents of neighborhoods along the Sacramento River.

Mike Testa, senior vice president of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the fireworks were armed with live charges and needed to be detonated for safety reasons. Tourism officials had contemplated setting off the fireworks at 3 a.m., but that would have interfered with the police investigation at the shooting scene, he said.

"I'm sure a lot of people did not want to be woken up at 8 a.m.," Testa said. "But the reality is, it had to be done."

Testa said this was the first violent incident in the 12 years the city has held the fireworks show.

"It's an alcohol-free event," he said. "The 9 o'clock show is specifically for families with kids. The music is often Disney songs and there are smiley-face fireworks."

He said it was too early to say if the show would be canceled next year and beyond.

"We have not had those conversations," he said. "But I go back to the fact that we have been doing this event for 12 years without incident and unfortunately we had an isolated incident (Monday) evening. That will be part of the conversation moving forward, but at this point I don't think anybody's made any decisions about next year."

In a statement, Mayor Kevin Johnson said he was "shocked and saddened" by the violence.

"While this is a tragic start to the new year, we must keep in mind that this was an isolated incident that is not typical for Old Sacramento, which hosts thousands of tourists each year and many successful events and festivities," Johnson said.

It's become a familiar refrain in Sacramento.

In September 2010, a young man was caught in gang crossfire and killed on J Street a few hours after the monthly Second Saturday art walk had concluded in midtown. City officials met for weeks to discuss what changes to make in the wake of the shooting and have since tried to crack down on public drinking and vendors without permits.

Before that, it was the Thursday night market on K Street that fell victim to violence. That event had steadily grown in popularity, drawing more than 25,000 people to downtown.

Then, in 1995, a musician was shot and killed during a robbery as he was packing up for the night after the market. Three years later, with crime issues persisting, the market was canceled for good.

Chris McSwain, the executive director of the Old Sacramento Business Association, cautioned against ending the popular New Year's party.

"It's unfortunate that this happened on this night, but it doesn't appear to be a New Year's Eve-associated incident," he said. "These things happen spontaneously and it could have happened in any bar. It just happened to be one of ours at the worst possible time."

McSwain said the Sports Corner Cafe is not known as a violent nightspot. "It's not on some sort of watch list," he said. "You don't have to cross the street when you walk past it."

Police records show that the area near Sports Corner has had its issues. Just after midnight on July 1, 2012, a security guard was allegedly shot with a flare gun by a man who was later arrested.

McSwain was one of the many revelers near the bar when the shooting took place on Monday. He said he dived into the River City Shooting Gallery – an old-fashioned arcade next to the bar – and dropped to the ground.

"People fled," he said. "All of a sudden you had an area that was crowded become empty very quickly."

Ray and Diane Correia of Roseville watched the debacle unfold from the second-floor La Terraza restaurant across the street from Sports Corner.

First, they heard the gunfire. Then three policemen came riding down Second Street on horses, guns drawn. Two police cars also arrived less than 30 seconds later.

Then two men, both with gunshot wounds, came running out of the bar and turned the corner onto K Street. Both eventually collapsed. Finally, a man the Correias identified as the shooter emerged from the bar, saw all the police, and surrendered. He was immediately taken into the patrol car.

"I've never seen anything quite as impressive as the way the police got there and took charge immediately," said Ray Correia. "Those officers on horses coming down the street with their guns drawn was awesome."

Charles Casey was with his wife and another couple near Second and K streets when the shots rang out. At first, he thought it was the sound of more fireworks.

"The shots were really loud and there were quite a few of them," he said.

He then saw people running with the look of fear on their faces. His group decided to get off the street and into a nearby jewelry store.

Law enforcement arrived almost immediately. The entrances to Old Sacramento were closed, and police urged revelers to leave.

Merchants, many of whom stayed open late, said they lost thousands of dollars in business. "There would have been 20,000 people here at midnight," said Mac McCulloch, the proprietor of Fanny Ann's Saloon. "When I closed at 12:30, you would have been lucky to find 1,000 people in Old Sacramento."

Casey said the experience would not deter him from attending another New Year's Eve fireworks celebration in Old Sacramento.

"Everything has a risk," he said. "It was a great evening. It was festive, fun. The lights, families, the crowds. This will absolutely not stop me from going again."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.



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