WEST VALLEY CITY — Several violent incidents involving young teenagers, including the shooting deaths of two teens in West Valley City and the wounding of three others in 2017, have local authorities looking at what's going on with youth crime.
Detectives say they have developed leads but are still looking for the shooter in Thursday's killing of a 14-year-old Salt Lake boy.
Romeo Rodriguez was shot in the face during a confrontation with another group. Romeo was sitting in the back seat of a vehicle at Kings Point Park, near 1310 W. 3700 South, about 3:15 a.m. when words were exchanged and shots fired.
The killing is the second homicide in West Valley City this summer involving a person 16 or younger, and the latest in a series of violent incidents all around Salt Lake County involving not just juveniles, but teens who are barely in high school or are middleschool age.
Many questions about Thursday's shooting remained unanswered Sunday, including what Romeo and his friends were doing at 3 a.m. and whether anyone had known gang affiliations.
West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo said Sunday that his detectives have developed leads and are making progress in the investigation. As for whether the shooting could be tied to gang activity, he said some of those present that night have gang connections, but police weren't prepared to call the shooting gang-related.
Still, Romeo's Facebook page, as well as pictures posted by several of his friends, made many references to gang affiliation.
"R.I.P. Romeo Rodriquez you will be missed bro, we go way back from elementary all the way to freshman year, gonna miss you man," one person wrote on Facebook.
Romeo's family set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for funeral expenses. They say he was one week shy of celebrating his 15th birthday.
"A big hearted, energetic, goofy fun loving young soul, he loved his siblings, family and friends, he has gone way (too) soon," according to the fundraising site. "Mom and Dad want to give a special thanks to everyone who has reached out, please continue to keep his parents in your prayers as one could not imagine the loss of a child, let alone one so young."
Northwest Middle School posted a message on its Facebook page, stating, "Our hearts and thoughts go out to the family. … Once a warrior, always a warrior."
On May 30, Fernando Aranda, 16, of Kearns, was shot and killed near 4700 W. Thayn Drive (3935 South) following an argument between two groups. As of Friday, no arrests had been made in that killing. That shooting came four hours after another 15-year-old boy was shot in the abdomen at 3810 S. Redwood Road. That boy survived his injuries, according to police. Investigators said there was no immediate evidence connecting the two incidents.
West Valley police have also not said whether Fernando's killing was gang-related. But on social media, many friends wrote "RIP Spizzy" after the incident. Some of Fernando's friends and relatives also took to social media to denounce the gang lifestyle.
"This is why kids thinking 'gangs' are cool are stupid. (Your) so called 'homies' aren't going to be there for you in a life or death matter. And sadly that's what happened," one person posted on Facebook.
Other recent incidents of violence involving young teens include:
• On June 5, a 15-year-old boy shot another teen during a low-level marijuana deal in a parking lot at 4400 South and 1500 East. The teen, a documented gang member, was arrested by U.S. marshals in Idaho who brought him back to Utah to face charges. Prosecutors are attempting to have him certified as an adult.
• On July 15, a 15-year-old boy was arrested following a series of aggravated robberies at convenient stores in Midvale, Salt Lake City and West Valley City. In at least one case, a gun was held to a clerk's head, according to police. Detectives say two other juveniles were also involved.
• On Feb. 6, a 16-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly stabbing a 53-year-old man multiple times in his apartment, 204 W. 200 North. The man survived.
• On Jan. 26, a 15-year-old boy was paralyzed after being shot in the back near 3740 W. 3240 South during a confrontation between two groups that had been feuding, according to police.
Detectives believe the Jan. 26 incident had ties to the shooting of a 14-year-old girl in the parking lot of the Valley Fair Mall five days earlier, according to Russo.
Several local police agencies told the Deseret News that while they statistically can't say if juvenile crime is up, anecdotally officers are noticing more younger teenagers are committing serious violent crimes.
Russo said he has also noticed what seems like an upward trend of crime involving 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds, not just in his city, but across the valley. But it's still unclear if that's because of several higher profile incidents that have received more attention.
Juveniles involved in gangs is nothing new, he said. But when young teens are involved in violent crimes such as homicide and aggravated assault, it will get more attention in the media. He said all of the local gang units have been sharing information and resources with state and federal agencies to help get a handle on what's been happening.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office is also seeing more cases of violent juvenile crimes, some of which are being considered for adult certification. In light of the incidents, Gill said it's probably time to re-examine the juvenile justice system and examine if the current system "is proportionately responsive to deter criminal behavior.
"When you have truly violent behavior being addressed with no or minimal consequences, then accountability becomes a joke and public safety a failed promise. For example, when a youth who stabs someone multiple times is given probation and closing out the case in six months, then what you are communicating is that violence has no consequences and victims no worth," he said.
"This is not a balance between compassion and accountability. I completely support juvenile justice reform but we cannot also ignore that violence requires a structured response that victims can rely upon to deter future behavior."