QUINCY, Wash. (AP) — Dozens of people had gathered for a family reunion at a modest home in this small farm town last September, when a gang member walked down the sidewalk and fired a shot into the air.
Junior Munoz immediately confronted the shooter because there were children attending the family party. An argument ensued, and minutes later, Munoz lay dying in the street from a gunshot to the chest.
His death marked the third gang-related fatality in nine months in this rural city and served as yet another reminder of the gang violence invading farm towns tucked amid Northwest orchards and fields.
Nearly two-dozen slayings last year were believed to be related to gang activity east of the Cascade Range, which divides the bustling metropolitan regions in western Washington and Oregon from largely agriculture-driven cities and towns.
In Quincy, the murder of Munoz also marked a turning point for city officials, who agreed to pay $130,000 for a software program that will trace gunshots to the spot where they were fired — a popular tool in the fight against gun violence from Washington D.C. to Rio de Janeiro, but a relatively new weapon for law enforcement in a region where gunshots are just as likely to be fired by bird hunters.
“If we had heard that first shot fired, we would have been there,” Quincy Police Chief Richard Ackerman said, expressing the possibility that Munoz could have been saved had the software been in use.
“What price do you put on a life?”
Arid sagebrush intersperses with irrigated farm land in eastern Washington, where the state’s famous apples, cherries, onions, potatoes and other crops flourish. Many of the thousands of migrant farm workers who once traveled to the region for work have since settled in small and mid-size towns, laboring in the fields, processing plants or packing sheds.
The violence in rural America largely attributed to Hispanic gangs isn’t new, Ackerman acknowledged. But law enforcement officials are more aware of the vexing problem and are working harder to address it with schools and parents, who work long hours and often fail to recognize the danger of these new “friends,” he said.
“They put a wet blanket over your sense of safety and security,” Ackerman said. “We try to do everything we can within the law to control them.”
A private web site that tracks gang-related fatalities in the Northwest noted deaths up and down the agricultural region in 2011. In one case, two young boys died in a house fire believed to be set by gang members in Wenatchee, Wash. last August.
About six weeks later, on a warm Friday evening, Munoz kept a close eye on the children at a family reunion at his wife’s grandmother’s house. The fun continued well into the evening, as the children and adults alike darted back and forth from the house to a basketball court at the small park across the street.
Munoz, 40, was well known in Quincy, a rural town of about 7,000 people 120 miles inland from Seattle. He had helped coach wrestling programs, rounded up volunteers for softball leagues and talked about starting a Boys and Girls Club.
The gang member he confronted was relatively new to town but well known to law enforcement officials, who had been keeping an eye on him but found no reason to detain him. He has since fled the area.
Days after the shooting, hundreds of people marched through Quincy denouncing gang violence. Munoz’s widow, Raquel Munoz de la Garza, led the marchers in chanting “We want peace!” and “Save our kids! Save our town!”
Junior Munoz had briefly joined a gang when he was 18 but dropped out within a couple of years. His life was focused on his wife and raising their five children, who range in age from 5 to 10, Munoz de la Garza said.
“He was a big, strong, handsome, passionate man who was all about me and the kids,” she said. “He was the kind of person who didn’t tolerate bullying. He just touched so many hearts.”
At the grocery store where she works, gang members still file in to shop.
“They can’t even look at me,” she said. “They all look down.”
The fallen man’s brother, Lupe Munoz, said the town could be better than it’s ever been if not for the gangs.
“These people need to get taken off the street,” he said. “My brother’s not the first to die, but I hope he’s the last.”
Quincy averages about three or four “shots fired” calls a month, far less than a large city. But residents often hesitate to call police, unsure if what they’ve heard is gunfire or even where it originated, Ackerman said.
By the time officers arrived, they’re left to play a game of “getting warmer-getting colder” to find the location, he said.
The ShotSpotter technology, which traces the location of a gunshot to within several feet, has been adopted in more than 80 locales worldwide, according to the company’s web site.
Quincy is one of the few small cities doing well financially, thanks to tax revenue from the construction of several high-tech data centers in the area, Mayor Jim Hemberry said.
Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and Sabey Corp are among the companies drawn to the area by cheap, available power from hydroelectric dams.
Law enforcement comprises about half the $3.5 million annual budget for the city. The city also has created a recreation department to build after-school programs for kids and is working to establish a block watch program.
“I’m a firm believer that we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Hemberry said. “We’ve hired new officers, and the hope is that this will be an obvious deterrent to people firing off weapons in the city of Quincy.”
Ackerman, for one, said he admires the city council for approving the new system. And if it drives the gangs somewhere else, he said, “that’s ok with me.”