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Gangs in Sterling: Activity heats up on west end

Wallace Park resident tries to revive neighborhood watch

STERLING – A west-side Sterling woman said she was willling to discuss her concerns about neighborhood gangs – but not if her name was going to be published.

She said she does not feel safe in the neighborhood where she has lived for more than a decade, and she feared for her safety if her name was printed.

“I think the west end is changing,” she said. “We’ve seen more drugs; we’ve seen more gangs.”

And graffiti is taking longer to be taken down or covered up, she said.

Last summer, she saw an increase in gang activity and considered moving because of it, she said, but she fears that the deterioration of the neighborhood has caused her and her neighbors’ property values to decrease.

Warmer weather recently has contributed to the annual spring increase in gang activity in Sterling, police confirmed.

And if the recent activity continues, this will be “a banner year,” according to Sgt. Jeff Mohr.

The change in season is one reason gang activity has increased lately, Sterling Police Detective Sgt. Steve Hubbard agreed.

“I’ve been here almost 30 years,” he said. “They pick an ideal time to go out and commit the crimes.”

Two gangs in particular, Satan Disciples and Imperial Gangsters, are fighting with each other, Hubbard reported. And since warm weather is bringing criminals out, police are putting heat on the gangs.

“We’re out there looking for them and taking different avenues to quash the gang activity,” he said.

One sign that gang activity is about to increase is the graffiti that has shown up on garages and fences in alleys on the west end, he said.

The graffiti and gang activity “is not being limited to the west end, but the west end is getting more than other areas,” Hubbard said.

Gang members use graffiti to mark – “tag” – property, or to disrespect rival gangs, he said, and sometimes gang members will turn a rival gang’s sign upside down to show disrespect.

Police reported a gang-related fight occurred April 7 in the 300 block of Avenue H. The fight started when gang signs were made, arrestees told police.

Two Sterling men were arrested in the fight and charged with mob action: Matthew A. Perales, 23, and Aaron R. Gonzales. But the fight involved others who have not been identified, Hubbard said.

About an hour later, three to five shots were fired from a car near Avenue I and West Seventh Street in what appeared to be a gang-related drive-by, Sterling police said in a news release.

And 2 days later, in the early hours of April 9, a car was set on fire in the 1100 block of Dillon Avenue.

Police think the car arson was gang-related retaliation for the April 7 drive-by shooting, Hubbard said.

Police believe gang members also were involved in the April 10 shooting of a house in the area of Johnson Avenue and East Ninth Street, Hubbard said. No one was reported injured in the shooting, which was called in at 1:39 a.m.

Callers told police they had heard two gunshots, and police say they have found a bullet stuck in the outside wall of the house.

Sterling and Rock Falls have probably about a dozen gangs, said Sterling Police Sgt. Todd Messer, a gang officer.

But residents of Sterling’s west end have no reason to fear for their safety more than those on the east end, he said.

“We’ve had gang incidents occur over the years in the east end,” he said. “I don’t think one side of the city is less safe or more safe than the other.”

And graffiti is a problem throughout the city, he said.

Messer agreed that spring weather brings about an increase in reported gang activity and other crimes, in part because people are better able to witness crimes.

“Every year ... you get warmer weather, people start to be outside,” he said. “Windows are open. People start witnessing things.”

But many crimes might go unreported, he said.

“What gets reported might be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Jonathan Hoefle, president of the Wallace Park Neighborhood Watch, said his neighborhood was quiet when he and his wife moved there 7 years ago. They liked the quiet and that almost all of their neighbors had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, he said.

Hoefle, 46, said he and his wife have never felt as if they were in immediate danger, but some of their possessions have been stolen or damaged. His car and his wife’s car were broken into 6 years ago. Burglars broke his car’s window and stole his new stereo, he said.

Somebody also broke into his shed, which had a padlock, and stole tire rims about 2 years ago, he said. And someone punctured the tires of his wife’s car in August or September last year, he said. Cars in the back of their house have been ransacked.

They moved from Freeport because of gang activity there, he said, but “a lot more stuff has happened since we moved down here than up there.”

Hoefle said he has seen no evidence of more gang activity this year than before.

“It being only April, ...” he said. “So far, I don’t think it’s been any worse than past years.”

He was close by the April 7 drive-by shooting, he said, and other than that incident, and garages and fences getting tagged with graffiti, he has not seen gang activity this spring.

“I’m in no way afraid to work out in the yard or leave the house or anything,” he said. “It hasn’t been that crazy.”

But he and Alderman Joe Martin are posting fliers to try to revive the neighborhood watch, he said.

Hoefle said he would like Sterling police to patrol the west end a bit more.

“They’re busy,” he said. “They can’t be everywhere, so I have no ill feelings toward them. I would like to see more patrol on the west side.”

The east side, which does not have the stigma of having gang activity, “has cops all over the place,” he said.

Some residents in the Wallace Park area are worried, according to Sterling Police Sgt. Jeff Mohr.

There has been an increase in gang activity north of Wallace Park and in the 10-block radius around it, he said.

“God, it’s just everywhere,” he reported. “I don’t want to say everywhere, but it’s hit and miss. ... I’d say there’s been an increase around the 700, 800 blocks of West Fourth and West Seventh streets.”

Gangs have been harassing each other more, he said.

The west-side woman said the gang activity is noticeable.

“I got teenagers, and especially at nighttime on weekends, it seems like, it’s just a lot of cars,” she said. “I’m looking out my windows. I’m making sure my doors are locked. I put a sensor light ... outside the house. My neighbor put a sensor light up, too.”

She is not optimistic about the neighborhood’s future.

“Our neighborhood’s going to get worse,” she said. “More gang activity, drugs.”

If you see something suspicious ...

STERLING – When suspicious activity happens in your neighborhood, report it right away, Sterling Police Detective Sgt. Steve Hubbard said.

"Often people wait half an hour, an hour or more to report things, and it makes it difficult to follow up," he said. "The perpetrators are out of the area. I'd encourage people to call immediately."

But there is no need to intervene unless lives are danger, he said.

"Always the best thing is, if they suspect danger, is to ... stay on the phone, be eyes for us," he said. "A lot of times they can give us directions of travel, physical descriptions, or vehicle information, and number of occupants."

And even reporting graffiti can be a helpful, he said.

The best time to report gang activity is when it is occurring, said Sterling Police Sgt. Todd Messer. Reporters may go to the police department at 212 Third Ave. if they want, Messer said.

"They can come to the police department so we're not advertising who's calling," he said.

Crimes may be reported via email at, or by calling Crimestoppers at 815-625-7867, or toll free, 877- 625-7867. Sterling Police can be reached at 815-632-6640.

 If your property is tagged with grafitti

STERLING – If your property is tagged with graffiti, reporting it in a timely manner is key, according to Sterling Police Sgt. Todd Messer.

"The sooner we are able to respond to it, the better our chances are of resolving it," he said.

Many studies have shown that if it is removed in 48 hours, the chance of it recurring is less likely, Messer said.

"It sends a message that people are watching," he said. "Whoever puts graffiti up wants it to be as visible as it can be. If it gets removed every time it goes up, they're less likely to put graffiti up. They'll go to a place where it's likely to stay up longer."

If graffiti is on city property, the police department reports it to the public works department, Messer said. The city will try to remove it within 48 hours.

If the graffiti is on a private home, the property owner is responsible for removing it. Failure to do so can result in a fine of $75 to $750.

"We understand that the homeowner is a victim, and we will work with them," Messer said. "If somebody is physically unable to do the task, or if it's a financial reason, the city will take it into consideration and try to work with the property owner."

Allowing graffiti to remain on property brings down the value of the homes, causes fewer people to come to the area, and is detrimental to businesses in the area, he said.

"It's really to the homeowner's benefit to get the graffiti removed right away," he said.

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