Though a July 4 assault was reported by witnesses to be gang-related, Sheriff Stephen Simpson wanted to wait for a completed investigation.
That evening, a group of males carrying what appeared to be baseball bats or clubs assaulted and injured a 16-year-old Sterling male at a party he attended. The party was at a residence in the 800 block of North York Road near Park View High School in Sterling.
When the 16-year-old and several other juveniles walked outside, a group of Hispanic males was seen walking toward the juveniles, who tried to flee the area. The group of males struck the 16-year-old several times with an unknown blunt object, as reported by the Sheriff's Office.
Several of the juveniles told their parents the group of Hispanic males belonged to the MS-13 gang, which has roots from El Salvador, Simpson said. The witnesses suspected the group for the way the individuals dressed, including wearing blue T-shirts, and in turn, reported their suspicions to the Sheriff's Office. Following investigations, the Sheriff's Office deemed the group was not gang-related and not related to MS-13, Simpson said.
"Unless we have those indicators, we are not going to label it as gang-related," said Scott Mastandrea, investigator for the Sheriff’s Office’s anti-gang unit, referring to the qualities of gang members that are more specific than race and color of clothing, though gang members may wear the same style. He did not provide examples, since most gangs are fluid and change in response to the media.
"Things get out of hand when people don't listen to the facts," Simpson said. "The hype created around someone's perception of what's going on ... can backfire."
Such hype can give notoriety to the gangs mentioned, add to the fear and intimidation gangs try to create, and in some cases, other gangs can retaliate when the mentioned gang was never involved, Simpson and Mastandrea said.
"They (MS-13) got a lot of notoriety, which they like, for something they weren't involved in," Simpson said.