Two weeks ago, when local ministers performed a Moment of Blessing ceremony after two women were fatally shot in downtown Yakima, the Rev. Ken Jones thought there would be some time before another such ceremony was needed.
“I was hoping we would not be doing them very often,” said Jones, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima and a member of the Yakima Association of Churches and Faith Communities.
But after three more homicides during the weekend, the group has scheduled two more blessing ceremonies and is working on a third.
Civic and city leaders say the deaths should be a call for the community to come together and find solutions to the problems that are at the root of the crimes.
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A step in that direction is planned for Thursday evening at The Seasons Performance Hall, where the Safe Yakima Valley coalition is planning a gathering for residents and law enforcement to talk about crime.
Other gatherings may also be in the works.
“We need to organize and get things done,” said Ester Huey, facilitator of the Let’s Talk civic engagement group, which she said is also planning to take on the issue.
Huey called five killings in two weeks in Yakima and Union Gap unprecedented.
“We have to recognize we are seeing things we have not seen before,” Huey said. “We have to work together.”
Particularly disturbing, she said, was the potential for others to be killed by stray bullets. One of the shootings took place in a residential neighborhood not far from Franklin Park, she noted.
In that case, Antonio Esteban-Olguin, 19, of Yakima, died Sunday after being shot in the neck on South 17th Avenue. Police described the shooting as a “random confrontation” between two groups and called it gang-related. No arrests have been made in that death.
We need to come together as a community to find solutions.
Carmen Mendez, Yakima City Councilwoman and executive director of Safe Yakima Valley coalition
On Friday, Luis Ramirez-Gonzalez, 24, of Sunnyside, was shot in the face outside the Airline Market. Union Gap police say the gunman also pointed a sawed-off shotgun at a woman who tried to get his license plate number as he drove off.
The suspect in that shooting, Ivan Venegas-Madrid, 22, of Union Gap, was arrested shortly after the shooting.
On Saturday, Andres Garcia Mesa, 26, of Yakima, was shot several times outside the Econo Lodge on North First Street in Yakima. After a car chase that ended with a crash in an orchard in the 2300 block of Lateral A in the Lower Valley, authorities arrested Gonzalo Amaya, 24, of Yakima on suspicion of first-degree murder.
Those homicides followed the March 26 shootings of Marta Martinez, 30, of Yakima, and Karina Morales-Rodriguez, 27, of Toppenish, as they were opening the Moneytree payday lending store on South First Street. A former co-worker, Manuel Enrique Verduzco, 26, of Selah, has been charged with aggravated first-degree murder.
Huey said people need to first understand what is triggering the violence, and then work together to address it.
And that means putting aside political squabbles or assumptions that crime is a problem for only one part of town, she said, adding that residents also need to organize neighborhood watches.
Carmen Mendez, Yakima City Councilwoman and executive director of the Safe Yakima Valley coalition, said she’s been hearing complaints the city isn’t doing enough to combat crime.
But Mendez said city government alone can’t solve the problem given its limited resources.
Mendez said that on Friday she rode with police officers and realized there aren’t a lot of them available.
“We need to come together as a community to find solutions,” she said.
Details of Safe Yakima Valley’s Thursday’s meeting at The Seasons are still being worked out, but Mendez said the tentative plans include having Yakima Police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr., Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic and Sheriff Brian Winter discuss what is being done about crime.
But Yakima Councilman Bill Lover is skeptical about bringing the community together as a solution to violent crime. He sees that as ineffective. Rather, he said, the issue should be left with the experts — whom he defined as Rizzi and whomever he would bring in to assist.
But Huey said the only way anything can be accomplished is if the community as a whole works together.
▪ The Safe Yakima Valley coalition will hold a community gathering to discuss crime at 5:30 p.m. April 14 at The Seasons Performance Hall, 101 N. Naches Ave., Yakima.
Moments of Blessing
▪ A second Moment of Blessing ceremony will be held at noon April 13 at the corner of West Washington and South 10th avenues in Union Gap, where Luis Ramirez-Gonzalez was killed Friday.
▪ A third ceremony is planned for this week in the 200 block of South 17th Avenue in Yakima, where Antonio Esteban-Olguin was killed Sunday. A date has yet to be set.