The shooters looked like drifting shadows as they charged through pools of yellow streetlights toward the Wallace house, brandishing 9mm handguns as they went. There were at least two of them, dressed in black hoodies, and when they made it halfway down Stephens Drive, a working-class street in Bakersfield, California, lined with palm trees, they fired seemingly at random into the crowd of at least 160 high school-aged partygoers, spreading blood and chaos onto the street.
After the violence erupted, at least one shooter from the crowd fired back.
Jocelyn Wallace, the guest of honor that night, had never been treated to a birthday party, but her parents decided to make her 15th special. Jesse Wallace, her father, a thin man living off of disability payments, told me that he and his wife, Alicea, wanted to do something quiet for their daughter with only a handful of her closest friends. Cops challenge that notion, alleging that the Wallaces patted down their guests for weapons, which police believe to be evidence the family was anticipating possible gang violence.
The day leading up to the party, Friday, July 15, was scorching—even by Bakersfield standards—with a high of 105 degrees. The few guests who arrived early that night remember what one called an "easy and cool" time until around 11 o'clock, when the first legit hordes of kids showed up. Police said that eventually there were members of two allied local gangs—the Westside Crips, and the Country Boy Crips—embedded in the crowd.
People recall the usual booze and weed at the party, and two girls fighting in the backyard before midnight—police think it had something to do with a dispute over boys. Onlookers joined in the fight. Things finally got so out of hand that Alicea Wallace ordered everyone to leave, but the crowd didn't go further than the front yard after midnight—an open air space that made them especially vulnerable targets.
Jesse Wallace saw the shooters firing from the back end of his driveway, and his instinct was to protect his daughter, who was standing nearby.
Police allege that members of the rival Eastside Crips descended on the Wallace house and fired over 40 bullets starting at a little before 1 AM. Guests describe hundreds of shots—or what felt like hundreds, spraying on the crowd in a sideways rain. One guest told me she scrambled into a friend's car for safety as bullets whizzed around her, making tight, whipping sounds as they tore into palm trees and human flesh. She squatted down as low as she could on the floor of the car, down below the back seat. From there, she listened to the clusters of shots popping above her head, ricocheting against and landing on unseen surfaces.
"I was so scared," she told me. "I couldn't get up from the floor."
Jesse Wallace saw the shooters firing from the back end of his driveway, and his instinct was to protect his daughter, who was standing nearby. He lunged for her, and a bullet zipped through the cartilage on the top corner of his left ear and then threaded in and out of the flesh that covers the back of his skull, like a safety pin entering and exiting a piece of cloth. He fell to the ground at Jocelyn's feet, bleeding onto the pavement, just one of 14 people injured that night.
The Stephens Drive shooting also resulted in one death, that of 21-year-old Miguel Bravo, a neighbor of the Wallace's who lived on Belle Terrace, a street that runs perpendicular to their own. According to one of his coworkers, that day Bravo had gone to work at his job at the Jack in the Box on Ming Avenue, mopping the floors and wiping down the cooking stations. He'd come home and pulled his mattress up to a spot adjacent to the thin wooden door, perhaps the coolest spot he could find.
Police suspect that the gun battle between rival gang members advanced from the Wallace residence up the street. They believe one of the bullets from the final stage of the fight slipped well over 500 feet from where it was fired on Stephens through the intersection at Bell Terrace, and down the long driveway of an apartment complex, penetrating the thin wooden door of Bravo's rented home. There, it entered his skull and killed him. It was some three days later that an acquaintance of Bravo's who hadn't heard from him called the cops. They soon discovered his body.
A neighbor told me that when the young man's family arrived to identify his remains, the mattress he slept on that night lay next to a dumpster, soaked with so much blood it looked like a crimson sponge.
On the corner of Bell Terrace and Stephens, a stone's throw from the spot where Miguel Bravo died, a black and white sign once announced the presence of a neighborhood watch. It has since been painted over and marked with the letters "WS"—ostensibly for West Side Crips. Neighbors can't quite recall whether the sign was vandalized before or after the shooting took place, but everyone who lives there understands what it means: gangs have clout here, and they want residents to know it.
The power gangs wield in Bakersfield takes the form of intimidation, which is part of the reason the shooters of this and many other cases remain at large, police say. Detective Richard Anderson of the Kern County Sheriff's Office, the lead investigator on the case, believes that guests at the party that night—as well as members of the Wallace family—know the identity of the shooters, as well as those who returned fire, but are refusing to speak out of fear. This is a common problem cops encounter in Bakersfield: Nobody wants to be called a snitch.
Bolstering any preexisting aversion to speaking with law enforcement is the police department's reputation for being trigger-happy. Last December, the Guardian published a five-part series about Kern County, where Bakersfield is located, called "The County: the story of America's deadliest police." In it, the paper claims that cops there killed more people per capita than in any similar American jurisdiction in all of 2015. A follow up report by the local NBC affiliate KGET News countered that story's findings, suggesting that the numbers were actually in line with other departments in the state. But locals frequently cite the original story when explaining why some mistrust the police. Cops, unsurprisingly, cite the follow up—insisting the original unfairly tainted their reputation.
If nothing else, prominent figures among the city's black and Hispanic populations and police both concede there is a glaring lack of communication between law enforcement and people of color. And the Stephens Drive shooting was just one of 50 mass shootings in America in July alone—and one of five logged on July 16, according to VICE's Mass Shooting Tracker. Bakersfield, in other words, is just one trouble-spot in a national maelstrom of mass gun violence, some of which is fueled by gang activity.
Joe Mullins, who runs the Special Enforcement Unit specializing in gang activity for the Bakersfield Police Department and shares intelligence with the Kern County Sheriffs Department, passed along data showing 934 gang-related shootings in the city from January 2000 to August of this year. He said residents live "in a constant state of fear" in East Bakersfield, and that the Eastside Crips, Westside Crips, and Country Boy Crips divide and control large swaths of the eastern side of the city.
For example, gangs dominate the burgeoning prescription marijuana industry in East Bakersfield, and place a tax on businesses, according to police, who said that there are 94 dispensaries in Kern County. The majority are located on poorer blocks, where they have partially overtaken the role of the neighborhood liquor store. Due to the fact that these are cash-only businesses, armed robberies are commonplace, and a Wild West atmosphere has colored the industry, as exemplified by a man and woman who were restrained, beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted in a Bakersfield dispensary in September 2015.
As in Chicago and other cities suffering from endemic violence, the roots of local gang culture are complex, but locals point to poverty as one of the chief factors. About 20 percent of Bakersfield residents live below the poverty line, a figure that is only slightly north of the 16 percent national average. But a more granular breakdown suggests that poverty rate is weighed down heavily by the eastern side of the city, where some neighborhoods are at or above 50 percent.
Though it is on the east side, Stephens Drive is not among the most destitute of Bakersfield's neighborhoods—it's racially diverse, and composed primarily of blue-collar families. Even so, street signs, fences, and palm trees on the block are dotted with bullet holes.
Fred Lancaster, a white, middle-aged construction foreman who works on gas stations in the San Joaquin Valley area, remembers a time when he didn't have to worry about gang violence erupting on the street. On the night of the shooting, he was sitting in his furnished garage five houses up the road from the Wallace place, watching TV with his cousin Bruce. The two men were flipping channels when they heard what first sounded like firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July, a mistake many neighbors made due to the proximity of the shooting to the holiday.
'My Dad built this house. I lived here my whole life, and we never locked the front door growing up' - Fred Lancaster
But all that crackling was followed by screams, and Lancaster quickly surmised that a shooting was underway. He made out six shots at first and then screams, followed by a "whole bunch of shots," maybe 30 or 40, and then a cluster of about eight more that were fired closer to his garage—somewhere by the stop sign at the intersection of Stephens and Belle Terrace. Each of these bursts of lethality was separated by a stretch of no more than a minute of comparative quiet, he recalled. His first impulse was to run out of the garage and see what was happening, but his cousin held him back.
"My Dad built this house. I lived here my whole life, and we never locked the front door growing up," he told me. "There's just too much violence in Bakersfield now."
These days, Lancaster keeps a loaded gun by his bed at night on the off chance he needs to "shoot any son-of-a-bitches that might come in the house."
Likewise, Julie Burton, a 64-year-old immigrant from the Philippines who lives with a family of 12 two houses up the road from the Wallaces, has grown more frightened of gun violence in recent years. Those fears were exacerbated on the night of the shooting: Burton had been outside until eleven that night, she told me, listening to the sounds of the party before retiring inside. She was in her bedroom when she "just heard bang-bang-bang-bang."
She waited for the flurry of shots to recede before fighting a tide of fear and venturing outside to see what had happened. She saw things in flashes—young girls screaming in terror, broken glass, wet blood, and a boy dressed in all black, walking zombie-like up the sidewalk, his hand resting on his wounded head. She remembers boys from the party escaping over a fence across the street at an abandoned house where squatters frequently crash. A car belonging to her grandson's girlfriend was checkered with bullet holes.
When I met Manuel Carrizalez, a soft-spoken ex-gang member turned peace advocate, he pulled up to an intersection surrounded by shuttered shops and bail bonds businesses and showed me the track mark scars on his arms. Pamphlets and flyers from the non-profit he runs, Stay Focused Ministries—a group that provides guidance to communities ravaged by gang violence—are strewn throughout his van. One flyer shows a row of blue Kansas City Royals hats, and red Kansas City Chiefs hats, all featuring an interlocking "KC."
"The gangs here wear KC for Kern County," he said, tapping his finger on the postcard. "Blue for Crips and Red for Bloods."
Carrizalez ran with a gang as a kid and did time for burglary before finding God. Among his chief concerns now is protecting children from the threat of gang violence. He showed me the bullet holes dotting peoples' homes in the way someone might single out the houses of celebrities in Beverly Hills, and said things have only grown worse around here since he was a kid. The endemic poverty of East Bakersfield and the violence go hand-in-hand, he explained, and the poverty has spiked—in part because of the exodus of oil industry and other blue-collar jobs.
Carrizalez said he's officiated at least 50 funerals in 2016, while serving as a minister in East Bakersfield.
Taking me for a tour around the vicinity of MLK Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, he described the streets according to the shootings that have defined them. He highlighted Feliz Drive, where an officer-involved shooting this April unfolded after a 37-year-old man was accused of disobeying traffic laws. Next, he drove me to where volunteers from his non-profit guide school kids out of the house, offering them physical protection so they can play in the open air. Parents are grateful for the opportunity: One mother told me that when shootings start within earshot, she just comes out to bring her kids inside—as if it were the onset of a thunderstorm. The seven or so kids that were with Carrizalez's non-profit on the day of my visit ranged in age from five to 13, and were being supervised by two young women volunteers from his ministry. All of the kids, boys and girls, were black, and all of them claimed to have seen a gun.
"He was Mexican or white and had a blue bandana over his mouth, and was walking with a gun in his hands," an 11-year-old girl told me about the first time she saw a gun on the street.
He showed me the bullet holes dotting peoples' homes in the way someone might single out the houses of celebrities in Beverly Hills
One recent shooting in particular kept coming up as Bakersfield residents broached the dangers gang violence in the city poses to kids: An attack outside of a Chuck E. Cheese, in April. There, gang members traded shots in the parking lot while crowds of children screamed in terror, watching through the glass from inside. Curtis Harmon, the Chuck E. Cheese manager there, told me he sprinted out of the restaurant and into the direction of the gunfire, while one shooter dressed in all black fired on someone else who was wearing head-to-toe Lakers gear. Harmon said that when he ran out, the men were laughing at the panic they had unleashed.
"I just wanted to protect the kids here," Harmon told me, acknowledging the danger of the situation. "I didn't really think."
Three men involved in the shooting were arrested, according to the Bakersfield PD. Today, like Stephens Drive, the scars of the gun battle still linger—bullet holes on the external walls of the restaurant are covered in plaster.
The Wallace family stopped speaking to the press shortly after Jesse returned from the hospital, which he told me was just a day after the incident. When I met him, he spoke only briefly and through his screen door. He had abruptly cancelled what was supposed to be a sit-down interview with the entire family, citing the trauma of revisiting the mass shooting for everyone involved.
"My daughter doesn't want to relive that night," he explained. "Seeing her Daddy bleeding on the ground."
The Wallace family has come under scrutiny from some members of the Bakersfield community for appearing to sanction an atmosphere that is accepting of gang violence, or at the very least teens using drugs and alcohol. Jesse Wallace denied knowingly admitting gang members into his daughter's party, and refused to speak about allegations that the family permitted drugs and alcohol to be consumed.
Guests at the party told me that the invitation went viral online via a random Facebook post, which led to the overcrowding, as well as the presence of gang members. Detective Anderson countered that claim, suggesting that details of the party were deliberately held back until the last minute because the Wallace family knew members of the Westside and Country Boy Crips would be there. He told me that when the night of the party approached, a virtual flier was circulated online advertising the sale of Jungle Juice.
Wallace told me that he and his family planned to attend the Walk for Peace rally, an event hosted by the Wendale Davis Foundation, a group dedicated to stopping violence in the Bakersfield area. The occasion was staged for members of the community whose lives have been affected by gang violence, to show solidarity and demonstrate to the perpetrators of shootings that they are unafraid. The foundation is named after Wendale Davis, an innocent teenage boy who was murdered by gang members in 2006.
On the day of the walk in late September, families who lost loved ones marched alongside a police escort. A dance troupe composed of teenage girls, the Bakersfield Drillettes, chanted "When our hands are up, don't shoot," referring to the threat of police violence, as family members wearing t-shirts showcasing images of deceased loved ones walked side-by-side. Along the way, people stopped to weep or cry out—overcome with grief from the memories the march stirred.
Back at the one-story offices of the foundation, these family members mingled with police officers like Joe Mullins, and ex-gang members like Carrizalez, who came out to support the gathering. Pro-peace music like "Stop the Violence" by The Chestnut Brothers played from giant speakers as kids received free haircuts from a stand set up in the parking lot. A collage was mounted, filled with pictures of people from Bakersfield who had been killed in gun violence—at the hands of both police officers and gangs. Victims of the Stephens Drive shooting attended the walk too, as did Wendale Davis's younger brother, Wesley Davis the third.
"Streets know who did it," he said of his brother's murder. "I know their names and I don't wish anyone any ill will. I just feel anger that they took my brother away from me."
A 15-year-old girl who survived the Stephens Drive shooting, and attended the march, showed me the scar on her left leg where she was shot that night. The bullet struck her from behind, she said, and everything inside her leg went hot and numb. She hopped to the front door of the Wallace house as blood from a torn arterial vein sprayed out behind her. Once inside the house, she collapsed onto a carpet in the Wallaces' living room, listening to the gunfire crackle on the other side of the wall. Thick blood from the vein pooled around her before she blacked out.
Saddam Ali, who police told me was a member of the Westside Crips, also survived the Stephens Drive shooting, only to be murdered the very next night in a gang-related shooting.
Surena Dixon, his 24-year-old girlfriend at the time of his death, was on hand at the march with her mother and ten-month-old daughter. Dixon wore a t-shirt picturing Ali wearing a backwards baseball cap. She described him as an electrician who was a good father with a strong work ethic. She said that it was 10:30 on the night he was shot and they were standing outside their house when a killer pounced on them in the dark.
The Wallaces ultimately backed out of the peace walk for reasons they didn't explain, but it's possible that the atmosphere of paranoia that still hangs over their neighborhood had something to do with it.
There, at the entrance to the apartment complex, a yellow sign recently offered one-bedroom apartments for rent: "$475 to $550." One of the apartments, #5, sat alone and unrented. It was the apartment Miguel Bravo occupied for three brief weeks of his life. Inside, there was no furniture or any other sign of life. A single clothes hanger hung alone in an empty closet. Dust balls and dead roaches lay strewn along the floor.
On the bottom half of his tan front door, a small black hole still marked the spot where a single stray bullet took Bravo's life.
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