Gang-related killing a grim first for the Valley

After more than two decades of gang problems in the area, a homicide was seen as a matter of when, not if.

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WALLA WALLA -- Police have been expecting this to happen -- an apparent gang-related homicide inside the city limits of Walla Walla.

The community has suffered through two decades of drive-by shootings, baseball bat attacks, stabbings and riots resulting in multiple injuries.

But Tuesday night, 20-year-old Julio Cesar Martinez died after lying in his own blood in an alley.

Gang activity first was suspected here in 1989 when officers spotted graffiti. Bullets started piercing walls of west-end homes in February 1993 and shootings quickly became relatively commonplace and more widespread.

Four people were shot in the city in 1994 and by the end of that year, Walla Walla County posted the second highest rate of youth violence in the state.

Such crimes finally peaked the following year, but began to wane as "major players" in the gangs were locked up and prevention programs started to have an impact.

After a period of little gang activity in the late 1990s, shootings and stabbings resumed after the turn of the century. By last year, an estimated 300-500 teens and young adults -- mostly males -- had joined or were affiliated with area gangs.

Officials also saw intensifying rivalries and bolder confrontations. In March 2010, four men not affiliated with a gang were stabbed, shot or both by gang members in near-fatal attacks on Center Street.

Police last spring warned we probably could not dodge the bullet of a first homicide for very long.

Now it's happened, officials say. Maybe just a little later than expected.

"I was really worried. You could feel it," Police Chief Chuck Fulton said this morning. "It wasn't a matter of if we'd have a terrible thing happen like this.

"It was a matter of when."

He added that such killings are cowardly, senseless and incomprehensible.

"Why is there this rivalry that results in such violence?" Fulton said.

He believes law enforcement needs to continue to be on alert and the community, as a whole, must recognize the gang problem only will be solved by multiple interventions.

Ironically the homicide occurred as Walla Walla is leading in an online, national poll to identify the friendliest town in America.

"I think we are," Fulton said.

"Walla Walla is a safe town. We're going to have situations like this, like every town, because we have some bad people."

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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