Crime - Sacto 911

Sacramento City College shooting still has campus rattled

Sacramento City College staff member Diana Daniels tearfully collects her thoughts to add to a banner at Sacramento City College in Sacramento on Friday, September 4, 2015.
Sacramento City College staff member Diana Daniels tearfully collects her thoughts to add to a banner at Sacramento City College in Sacramento on Friday, September 4, 2015.

Members of the Sacramento City College community remain on edge after a violent melee in a campus parking lot last month left one student shot dead, another grazed by a bullet and a former student hospitalized with stab wounds.

The shooter is still at large more than seven weeks later. An independent inquiry whose findings were released last week concluded that the school’s text-message warning system had been “unacceptably delayed” because of bureaucratic and human error. The emergency warning of a gunman on campus should have taken a minute or two to send out but instead took 40 minutes on Sept. 3, the report said.

The Sacramento Police Department would not release any additional information about the investigation, except to say detectives were making progress.

“Maintaining the integrity of the case is crucial,” police spokesman Justin Brown said in a text message.

While the shooter is long gone from the red brick campus in Land Park, some students say the outbreak of violence made them more aware of the presence of people with violent criminal histories.

The school’s handling of the incident “makes me feel unsafe,” said Rosaria Silvana, 20, a Sacramento City College student, as she talked with a group of classmates on the quad last week.

California’s 113 community colleges, which serve 2.1 million students and are the largest system of higher education in the nation, are known for admitting all applicants with a high-school diploma or GED. That includes former inmates, for whom the community colleges offer a second chance. At least three of the four men involved in the Sept. 3 fight that left Roman P. Gonzalez dead had criminal records and were or had been enrolled at Sacramento City College.

“A core part of our mission is providing opportunities to people whose lives can be changed by education,” said Brian King, chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District, which includes Sacramento City College.

Despite the community colleges’ open enrollment policy, the Sept. 3 incident was the first shooting on a Los Rios district campus, officials said. Campus crime reports that colleges must file under federal law show an absence of similar incidents in recent years. At its four main campuses – American River, Cosumnes River, Folsom Lake and Sacramento City colleges and a number of outreach centers – there were no homicides on or near campus from 2012 to 2014, the reports show.

The region’s community college campuses also have not experienced an outsized number of weapons violations compared with other public universities in the Sacramento region. Federally mandated reports show 30 arrests for illegal weapons possession on Los Rios campuses from 2012 to 2014 – 14 at Sacramento City College, 10 at Cosumnes River College, five at American River College and one at Folsom Lake College.

From 2012 to 2014, there were 15 weapons arrests on or adjacent to the campus of California State University, Sacramento, and eight weapons arrests on or near the main campus of UC Davis.

Nonetheless, following the September shooting, some students at Sacramento City College last week said they would like to see more police on campus and to have assurance that the school warning system would function quickly in the event of another such incident.

Rachel Wehrli, 20, a film major, said the school’s main priority should be getting its text message alert system working well. On Sept. 3, the text message warning that there had been a shooting on campus was sent 40 minutes after it happened – long after the gunman had fled campus. The delay caused uncertainty but “could have been catastrophic” if there had been a mass shooter on campus, according to an independent inquiry conducted by former FBI agent Mike Rayfield.

During this period, many students relied on information from staff members or professors, who had received emails or phone calls saying the campus was on lockdown.

“You’re really scared when you’re in a room with a shooter on campus,” Wehrli said. “You think there’s still someone out there with a gun.”

Rayfield said that within minutes of the shooting, Los Rios Police Chief Cheryl Sears wanted to use the district’s WARN system to send text messages to more than 23,000 students and staff.

But she first had to clear it with Mitchel Benson, the district’s associate vice chancellor for communications and media relations. Benson, in turn, had to tell Rick Brewer, Sacramento City College’s public information officer, to send the message. Brewer initially couldn’t be reached and then had forgotten the system password, Mayfield’s report said.

King said the school is trying to make sure it’s better prepared in the future. Staff members responsible for the system are getting additional training in real-world emergencies, with “distractions and pressures and information coming from so many directions,” he said.

District officials also are weighing expanding the number of people with authority to issue mass text alerts – one of the report’s recommendations, he said.

Some students at Sacramento City College were concerned to learn that violent ex-convicts had been among their peers. Silvana, for instance, said she looks at her classmates now and wonders who might have criminal records.

“You have to choose your crowd,” she said.

At least three of the men involved in the Sept. 3 melee had criminal histories. Gonzalez, 25, was with his cousin Rico Ridgeway, 24, on the edge of campus near Sutterville Road when the pair got into a fight with two other men, police said. Ridgeway stabbed one of the men, Charlie Hola, 19, whose companion fired shots that killed Gonzalez and grazed Ridgeway, police said.

Gonzalez and Ridgeway were Sacramento City College students, and Hola was a former student, college officials said. The shooter has not been identified. Police described him as a Pacific Islander wearing tan shorts and a white shirt who fled on foot.

Prosecutors have accused Hola of robbing a Church’s Chicken on Florin Road the same day as the Sacramento City College shooting. He faces charges of robbery and being a felon in possession of a firearm after police found a weapon at his home Sept. 3. He pleaded no contest last year to carrying a loaded firearm in public and was on probation at the time of the shooting, according to Sacramento Superior Court records.

Court records show Ridgeway was charged with four felonies in 2013, including assault with a firearm. He pleaded no contest to that charge in October 2013. Ridgeway served 10 months and was paroled in February 2015, state corrections records show.

Gonzalez was charged in 2006 with three felonies, including assault with a semi-automatic firearm. He pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to two years in a California Youth Authority facility. He served nearly six months of his sentence, and was returned to custody twice for parole violations, according to corrections records.

In posts on his Facebook page, Gonzalez described how he was trying to turn his life around by going to school.

It is that possibility that makes open enrollment a fundamental value for those who work at community colleges, said Martha Parham, vice president of marketing and public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C., and a longtime employee at the Coast Community College District in Orange County.

“How do we deny admission to our most at-risk students who need us the most, who benefit the most and who have nowhere else to go?” she said. “For many (a community college education) is a pathway to the middle class. It’s a way to start a postsecondary education they never dreamed of.”

Students interviewed last week at Sacramento City College said they wouldn’t want to upset the system of open enrollment or discourage people from trying to improve their lives.

“If they want to get an education after being in prison, good luck to them,” Wehrli said.

Even so, she said she’d like to see a more visible police presence on campus, including officers on foot interacting with students.

Others thought there should be stronger safeguards in place, including criminal checks for all students to identify those who might pose a risk to campus safety.

“I think the school should go all the way to look into people’s background,” Rene Silvey, 22, a business and finance major, said. The reality of weapons on campus “begs the question of metal detectors,” he added.

Tim Frontera, 20, a criminal justice major agreed. “You have to do something to make it safer – not just let anyone on campus,” he said.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree