Crime - Sacto 911

Police still seek clues in deadly Natomas park shooting

The posters announcing the ill-fated birthday party are gone; the bounce house has been packed away. The crime scene tape that encircled Peregrine Park for more than 24 hours last weekend has been torn down and thrown out.

The only visible reminder of the Saturday evening violence in Natomas that left one man dead and six others injured, including a 7-year-old girl, is a hand-drawn poster resting against the park’s nameplate.

“Gangs don’t own this park,” it reads. “Families do.”

The shooting, a possible gang attack carried out in the final moments of a birthday party for a 1-year-old child, shocked a community for its brazenness and its carelessness: a crossfire launched in a suburban park crowded with dozens of young children running and playing on a breezy weekend evening.

“Children are off limits. They just are,” said Sacramento police Officer Michele Gigante. “As a society, we all feel that way.”

Days after the shooting, police detectives are still trying to understand what happened and who is responsible. But even as uncertainty lingers, life in the neighborhood is slowly returning to normal.

“I think it’s better to move past stuff like that,” said one 32-year-old resident, who asked that his name not be used because of the possible gang connections in the case. Dwelling on it, he said, “almost gives power to the people doing these things.”

Detectives assigned to the case have been working “tirelessly” to find answers since the shootings, said Gigante, a department spokeswoman. They believe there are witnesses who ran from the park before officers arrived and have not yet come forward. Police are urging those people, and anyone else with information, to help detectives.

“It was a cold, callous shooting,” Gigante said. “It hurts the heart.”

This is what is known: Just after 5 p.m. Saturday, a car stopped along Peregrine Park, in Natomas’ Gateway West neighborhood, where upward of 50 people had spent the day celebrating a baby’s birthday. Two gunmen emerged, confronted a group of men attending the party, and opened fire before running to their car and driving off. At least one partygoer shot back; it’s unclear whether either of the attackers was hit.

The 7-year-old girl injured in the volley has been released from a hospital, as have four of the adult victims. The two people still being treated are expected to survive, Gigante said.

Killed in the gunfire was Jacoby Leonard James, 29. Gigante said he is believed to have been part of the group that was targeted by the gunmen. She declined to say whether detectives believe he is affiliated with a gang, but said that some of the partygoers targeted are validated gang members. While detectives are investigating the possibility that the shooting stemmed from a gang dispute, they have not ruled out the possibility of another motive, Gigante said.

The assailants have been described only as black men in their 20s. With the help of surveillance footage, police have identified the car in which they fled as a mid-2000s gold Ford Taurus.

The party’s host reserved the space through the city. Efforts by The Sacramento Bee to reach her and another person listed on the application were unsuccessful.

According to that application, the party was to last from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. There would be music, food and a jump tent, but no alcohol.

Nestled in the far southern corner of Gateway West, Peregrine Park is bound on three sides by the quiet streets and neat stucco homes south of San Juan Road. On the fourth flank is a paved bike trail, bordered by undeveloped land. Interstate 80’s traffic can be seen in the distance but barely heard.

The park features a covered picnic area, baseball diamond, basketball courts and a playground, shaded by structures resembling a flower and a butterfly. The grass is dotted with clover blossoms.

From January to the end of March, Sacramento police had taken 13 crime reports in the immediate neighborhood, none documenting a violent act, according to a Bee review of police data. Last year, the department took about four dozen reports, the majority involving property crimes such as stolen cars, burglaries, auto break-ins and vandalism.

Peregrine Park itself has been the subject of “less than a half-dozen” calls for service, according to City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents the area. She described the park as “quiet, clean and tranquil.”

“I have no reason to believe it is any less so today than it was Friday,” Ashby said earlier this week. “It’s tragic and unconscionable that a children’s party should have such a violent outcome, but it had nothing to do with the venue.”

In discussions with residents, Ashby has stressed that the incident involved people who are not from her district (police declined to comment on this assertion). That should be enough to alleviate fears, she said.

Before being elected to the council in 2010, Ashby made a name for herself as a community activist with a special interest in public safety and parks. Her tenure on the council has reflected those priorities. She is running unopposed in the June primary.

She said the widespread appeal of her region’s prized parks can sometimes be a “double-edged sword.”

“You create areas and spaces people want to be in … and you can’t always control who are in those spaces,” she said. “But for the most part, you can know that park (is safe).”

Ashby said her own children play baseball at the park and will continue to do so. She urged residents not to let the violence deter them.

“The presence of the community is the scariest thing to people who would want to come in with less than honorable intentions,” she said. “The more vibrant and involved and aware the community is, the less likely these things are to occur.”

Bill Singh lives just a few houses down from Peregrine Park. Sitting in his garage on a recent afternoon, he echoed Ashby, saying he has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and it’s always felt safe. He visits the park daily with his 5-year-old granddaughter. The shooting, he said, just underscores that violence can happen anywhere.

“Human beings still act like animals,” said Singh, 54. “Safety is not guaranteed – nowhere.”

James Hernandez, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said – with a hint of sadness – that he wasn’t shocked by the circumstances of Saturday’s shooting. There was a time, he said, when even among gang members, shooting into a park filled with little children would have been unacceptable. But that code is softening.

Many of them operate “as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist,” he said.

“You have these intense battles that are fueled by anything and people lose all perspective,” Hernandez said. “These guys just don’t care. They’re for the moment and that’s all that counts.”