It was a drizzly Monday afternoon in mid-December of 2014 when Maria Romero and her daughter Jennifer Garcia-Romero ventured down to Eureka's Cooper Gulch to meet Jesus, Romero's 14-year-old son. He'd called a few hours earlier, saying he needed money to buy shoes. He didn't sound like himself.
Jesus had been spiraling for a couple of years at this point. The trouble had started when he entered middle school, leaving Arcata Elementary School, where a couple of staffers remembered him as a "sweet kid," to attend Sunny Brae Middle School, where he started running with a different crowd. He was ultimately expelled and, by the time he called his mom looking for shoe money, he'd spent at least a couple of stints in juvenile hall and run away from his mother's home multiple times.
When Romero and her daughter found Jesus in Cooper Gulch, he was wearing slippers, despite the wet weather, and was acting strangely. They thought he might be on drugs. He said he was in danger but wouldn't explain. Knowing that he'd taken to hanging out with scary-looking men with scowls and tattoos on their faces, Romero pressed her son to come home. He refused, saying it would put her in danger. She gave him $50 for shoes and left reluctantly.
The next day, shortly before 8:30 a.m., Burt Severy called the police to report he'd found a kid lying splayed on his back, moaning but unresponsive, on a neighbor's well-kept lawn on a quiet cul-de-sac off Myrtle Avenue. When officer Drake Goodale arrived on scene, Jesus was cold to the touch and without a pulse. But he was breathing agonally. Goodale lifted Jesus' shirt, which was soaking wet from nearly eight hours of lying in the light rain, to find three stab wounds in the teen's chest. Paramedics arrived within minutes and administered CPR and oxygen as they rushed Jesus to nearby St. Joseph Hospital. There, emergency staff worked on the teenager for more than an hour, opening up his chest and massaging his heart, trying to get it to beat again, before pronouncing him dead. One of the wounds had punctured Jesus' heart. As investigators processed the scene where Jesus had been found dying earlier that morning, they noted a blue baseball hat had been found nearby, along with a pair of slippers near the base of the small tree that anchors the lawn where Jesus' body had lain for hours.
"He was a child," one of Jesus' sisters would later say as two of the men responsible for his death — Mario Nunez, 32 and 180 pounds, and Joe Daniel Olivo Jr., 40 and 250 pounds, both of whom prosecutors allege restrained the 5-foot, 2-inch, 110 pound Jesus as Olivo's 17-year-old son stabbed him repeatedly — were sentenced to 16-year prison terms.
With Jesus' assailants all now having been sentenced in recent months and the fourth anniversary of his death approaching, the Journal reviewed more than a hundred pages of police and probation reports, scoured dozens of social media accounts and tried to talk to as many people involved with the case as possible, though most declined to comment publicly. The questions we sought to answer echo those aired at dinner tables and in online forums in the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death: How did a 14-year-old Arcata kid come to be hunted down by members of his own gang and just how prevalent is gang activity in rural Humboldt County?
Born Feb. 18, 2000, Jesus emigrated to the United States with his mother and two older sisters from Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was just 3 years old. His father had already entered the United States and was living undocumented in Humboldt County, along with several of Jesus' uncles, and his mother was bringing the rest of the family to reunite with him.
Jesus' sister, Lulu Garcia-Romero, says her brother did well in school. He formed a "good group" of friends and enjoyed playing youth football, she says, adding that her brother didn't have much athletic ability but liked being a part of the team.
"He was a pretty bright kid," she says. "He was into math and would take Xboxes apart and fix them. He was all about technology."
He was also always joking, giving his sisters the biggest bear hugs his slight frame could muster and quick to do what he could to get a laugh. "We couldn't take him anywhere," his sister says with a chuckle.
But the family's world changed abruptly when Jesus was about 10 years old, Lulu Garcia-Romero says. One day police came to the family's apartment with guns drawn, ordered the family to get their hands up and ransacked the place, ultimately leading Jesus' father away in handcuffs on suspicion of selling drugs. He was soon deported, leaving Maria Romero alone to support three children.
Lulu Garcia-Romero says she remembers clearly talking to Jesus in the aftermath of the raid. "He looked at me and said, 'See, Lulu, what our dad had to do so we can have what we have?'"
Maria Romero, who was working in housekeeping at a local hotel for minimum wage, took on a second job in an effort to keep a roof over the family's head. Consequently, she was rarely home, leaving her two daughters to take turns watching Jesus.
As months passed and phone calls from their father become infrequent and unreliable, Lulu Garcia-Romero says she saw resentment build in her brother. But the big change came when he entered middle school, she says. He stopped hanging out with the friends he'd made in elementary school and started running with a different crowd.
In March of 2012, he got suspended from school for five days after getting caught with some pot, according to a post on his Facebook page. Then on Sept. 19, 2013, Sunny Brae Middle School was burglarized, with someone having used a pry bar to open an office window and snuck off with 11 MacBook laptop computers. Eleven days later, police arrested two 15-year-old boys and Jesus, then 13, for the crime.
Around this time, you can see a marked shift in the posts on Jesus' Facebook page. He hadn't posted anything since June of 2012. Up to that point, his posts seemed pretty typical for a middle schooler. He noted when he got his ear pierced in May of 2012, posted a picture of him doing his girlfriend's hair a week earlier and asked his followers if they'd seen 21 Jump Street a couple of weeks before that.
When Jesus returned to Facebook after an apparent hiatus a few months after the Sunny Brae burglary, he posted pictures of himself mugging and flipping off the camera while sporting a blue baseball hat, a symbol of the Sureño gang. His posts become more frequent and more profane, laced with violent rap lyrics and misogynistic sentiments.
On Dec. 23, 2013, he posted a picture of a wad of $20 bills, noting that he "finished (his) day off" with $475 in his pocket. A week later he posted again, lamenting that he was tired of "being in the middle of a trial with three snitches." The next week, he posted that he might "get killed 2nite or get the fuck beat out" of him, saying it was the beginning of his "story" and that he was "stepping it up with this representing shit," "rolling with the big homies."
On Jan. 21, 2014, he posted that he'd just gotten out of juvenile hall for "fighting and some other shit." A week later he posted a picture of himself with a Sureño-style S drawn on his hand. The next day he posted a lyric from a rap song glorifying the Sureño gang: "It's roll up in all blue, whatcha going to do?"
The Humboldt County Probation Department declined Journal requests to speak to its officers who worked with Jesus, saying it was doing so at the advice of county counsel. Because the department declined to provide information, and juvenile records are confidential, it's hard to know the full extent of Jesus' run-ins with law enforcement. But based on posts to his Facebook page and his sister's accounts, Jesus spent several stints in juvenile hall, including one for nine weeks that appeared to come as a result of the Sunny Brae burglary. Accounts differ as to how these incarcerations affected him.
Lulu Garcia-Romero, who says the family went to see him at every visitation while he was in custody, says the time in juvenile hall seemed to scare Jesus straight, at least for a bit. But some of his peers indicated these stints actually pulled him closer to gang life.
By his own accounts on Facebook, Jesus seemed to leave the hall unfazed. "Nine weeks wasn't nothing," he posted in June of 2014. "Time ain't shit to a G."
At one point in the midst of this period, Lulu Garcia-Romero says Jesus came to live with her and her husband, who tried to provide him more structure. She says she was strict with Jesus and he did well while living in her home, but left after a stint to return to their mom's, where he had less supervision because she was always at work. (Lulu Garcia-Romero says her mother is still working to repay the approximately $6,000 loss Sunny Brae Middle School suffered as a result of the burglary.)
In the midst of this — which she described as a "drastic change" that took hold over the course of little more than a year — Lulu Garcia-Romero says her mother repeatedly tried to get Jesus on a better path.
"My mom really tried to keep him in school, to keep him right," she says, adding that Maria Romero confronted her son multiple times about his apparent gang involvement. "He'd just say, 'No, I'm already involved. I can't change.' My mom offered to move away. He'd say he wanted to be part of something."
Sitting behind his desk at the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Lt. Jason Benge recalls with a chuckle the time he was coaching a basketball game at McKinleyville High School a few years back and went to the restroom. There on the walls, Benge recognized what school staffers had likely mistaken for typical juvenile scrawls for what they were: gang graffiti.
Gangs aren't new to Humboldt County, Benge says. Not by a long shot. But they look different here than they do in other parts of the state and the country.
In most urban areas, Benge says gangs operate with rigid chains of command. They hold territory and operate as organized criminal enterprises. In Humboldt County, he says, that's largely not the case. Instead, the gangs are more akin to social clubs. They're loosely knit and while there may be a social hierarchy, there isn't really a command structure in place. Sure, members of the gangs commit crimes, he says, but the organization doesn't really compare to what you see in other areas. As a result, they can — and often do — fly under the radar here, Benge says.
But pore through the Times-Standard's archives and you'll see that gang activity has been a problem here for at least 25 years. There was a drive-by shooting at the Bayshore Mall in 1994 and another in retaliation a few days later, both of which were believed to be gang related. That same year a 14-year-old girl — Amber Slaughter — was fatally shot on the jetty in a killing that police initially alleged to be gang related. Newspapers that year were filled with references to the 20/30 Bloods, the Eurekaville Crips and the 18th Street Gang, with one story noting two rival groups had negotiated an informal truce.
Today, it seems the gangs most active in Humboldt County are the Sureños, or Sur 13, and the affiliated 18th Street Gang, both of which have ties to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, and the rival Norteños, which pay tribute to the prison gang Nuestra Familia. While the two groups of gangs used to largely be divided by Northern and Southern California, those lines have blurred and locally there are people who pledge allegiance to both.
Public attention on gangs in Humboldt County, Benge says, tends to rise and fall like a roller coaster, generally peeking every five to 10 years when a heinous crime captures people's attention.
But from where he sits, Benge sees gang activity all the time. Because the Humboldt County jail utilizes dormitory-style housing, with the majority of its inmates co-mingling in large housing units, it's imperative that staff use risk assessments and interviews to make sure they aren't housing rival gang members together in situations that could turn violent. Consequently, Benge and other jail staff work to make sure they are aware of gang affiliations for inmates in the jail and able to keep rival sets separated.
Additionally, Benge coordinates a variety of outreach and training efforts in local schools, trying to make sure teachers and staff members can recognize gang graffiti and signs for what they are. He also works with other local law enforcement agencies to share information.
Benge says young people can gravitate toward gangs for a variety of reasons. Gang members or their affiliates can lure teenagers with the promise of access to drugs, alcohol and parties, he says. But probably more importantly, he says, they offer young people a sense of belonging, a group to be a part of.
Asked how to best combat gang involvement, Benge says it's really about creating healthy communities, providing positive role models and robust support systems and generally giving young people plenty of ways to fill their time.
"Keep your kids active," he says. "That's a really big part of it."
Born Dec. 7, 1997, in San Luis Obispo County, Joe Daniel Olivo III seems to have inherited gang ties, like his name, from his father.
According to police, Olivo Jr. is a validated Mexican Mafia gang member and a leader of the Oceana set of the Sureños. His gang moniker is "Oso," Spanish for bear; his son's is "Lil Oso."
But while it seems the younger Olivo's gang involvement is to some extent hereditary, according to court records, Daniel — as he was known in most non gang-affiliated circles — was largely raised by his mother, Tara Holtorf, while his father was repeatedly imprisoned, doing five separate terms in state prison in addition to a variety of stints in county jails during Daniel's youth.
Daniel moved to Humboldt County with his mother in 2002 after Olivo Jr. was sentenced to two years in prison for spousal battery. The couple separated shortly after Olivo Jr.'s release from prison when he was again arrested and convicted on charges of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse.
It seems the separation didn't last. Olivo Jr. was released on parole Feb. 12, 2011, and nine months later — on Nov. 18, 2011 — Holtorf gave birth to Olivo Jr.'s second son, Joshua Loren Olivo. Up to this point, it seems Daniel had stayed out of trouble. He attended Eureka City Schools and, according to his probation report, got passing grades and was considered a talented athlete and artist. But his life seems to have taken an abrupt turn after Joshua died March 16, 2012, when he was just 4 months old. His cause of death was ruled to be "probable asphyxia caused by co-sleeping," according to Sheriff's Office spokesperson Samantha Karges, who added the death was determined to be "accidental."
Less than a month after Joshua's death, Daniel entered the juvenile justice system, placed on an informal contract with the court aimed at addressing his habitual truancy. It didn't work. Three months later the contract was extended due to "a lack of compliance" and it was then revoked three months after that, resulting in a brief incarceration. At this point, Olivo Jr. was already back in prison on a second-degree robbery conviction.
In April of 2013, Daniel was declared a ward of the state after he was caught bringing a weapon to school and in possession of stolen property. Three months later, the court placed him in an in-patient treatment program after he removed his electronic monitoring device and was caught drinking. Not long after he was released from the program, in May of 2014, Daniel was arrested for burglary and his wardship was retained by the court.
That June, Holtorf and Daniel moved to Sacramento, reportedly in part to get Daniel away from the trouble he'd found in Eureka. But Daniel's time in Sacramento would prove short-lived as he ran away from his mother's house in October and reconnected with Olivo Jr., who was in San Luis Obispo County, already having absconded from parole after being released from prison in March.
On Nov. 6, 2014, Daniel logged into Facebook and searched a name: Jesus Garcia-Romero. According to police reports, the following day he posted "Straight Sureño bangin'" before messaging a friend, Jose Gonzalez, asking if he knew Jesus, who also went by the gang moniker "Lil Smiley."
"That little fucker said I (was in protective custody) in the hall," Daniel wrote, referencing his stay in Humboldt County Juvenile Hall. "Now I've got to fuck him up. Orders from the boss. ... Shit's no bueno for him."
When Gonzalez replies that he knows Jesus, Daniel tells him to pass on the word that "he's got his coming" and says he'll be up in Humboldt County soon.
A few days later, Holtorf messages Olivo Jr. on Facebook, accusing him of helping Daniel run away, resulting in a warrant being put out for his arrest.
"You will get yours ... I'm waiting patiently," she wrote, according to a police report. "And as far as Daniel goes, you got your wish. You've turned him into a little gang banger. You should be proud. ... He is almost 18 and I've done everything possible to help that boy. So his destiny may be like yours ... Lifetime on parole and drugs. I pray he wakes up eventually because I've taught him better than that."
About a week later, on Nov. 16, 2014, while apparently still staying with his father, Daniel sends a Facebook message to an account set up in memory of Joshua, his deceased baby brother.
"I love you little brother," Daniel wrote, thanking Joshua for "looking over" him. "I wish I had the chance to take you to school or show you the way, try and get your first love. It would probably end up being one of my homies' little sisters. But the one thing I'd make you do is get an education in school and do whatever you had to do to get your ass in college. Me and dad do what we do. But brother you don't have to follow our footsteps."
On Aug. 4, 2014, roughly six months after his arrest on suspicion of Jesus' murder, Daniel's girlfriend gave birth to his son.
It's unclear if Gonzalez delivered Daniel's message, but police reports indicate that by the time Jesus met with his mom and sister in Cooper Gulch on Dec. 16, 2014, he already knew his life was in danger.
He'd been hiding out in an apartment on Eureka's P Street — not far from Cooper Gulch — where his friend Carolyn Snow lived. According to police reports, Snow was fond of Jesus — who was some 12 years her junior — and had taken to calling him "son." Jesus had told her he was in danger and that there was a "hit" out on he and another friend, Michael Grant, but she told police she thought they were "tripping" and didn't take the threat seriously.
What happened next has been widely reported: The three were alone in Snow's apartment when her boyfriend Nicholas Leigl called at around 11 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2014, to say he was coming over. A short time later, he knocked on the door. Snow initially told detectives in the case that when she answered the door to let him in, he appeared "concerned" or a "bit off." She said three men then entered the door behind Leigl — Daniel, Olivo Jr. and Nunez. Snow initially told police they saw a knife in Daniel's hand. Leigl, Snow and Grant were all in a back bedroom when the scuffle ensued and emerged to find Jesus doubled over in pain and the three men fleeing out the apartment's back door. Grant and Snow then insisted that Leigl take Jesus to the hospital, despite the 14 year old's objections. Leigl and Grant put Jesus in Leigl's Volvo and the pair left for the hospital, though they never got there. Instead, Jesus was found about half way between Snow's apartment and St. Joseph Hospital, on that lawn on a dark cul-de-sac. Prosecutors alleged Leigl essentially dumped Jesus there but he maintained the kid didn't want to go to the hospital because he was a wanted runaway and insisted on being let out of the car.
In the days after a neighbor found Jesus dying on that lawn, EPD detectives were following leads that pointed to a more traditional type of gang violence, believing his death was an act of retaliation by members of the rival Norteños. It was an anonymous letter, with detailed information about the slaying and those involved, that set detectives on the right path before a witness confirmed that this wasn't the act of a rival gang, it was "blue on blue." Still, it took them more than a year to build the case that resulted in the arrests of Daniel, Olivo Jr., Nunez and Leigl.
The final police report in the case is exhaustive and shows that detectives leaned heavily on digital evidence — cell phone GPS records, call logs and Facebook messages — to track the suspects' communications and movements, ultimately tying them all to Jesus' death. (Murder charges against Leigl were ultimately dropped after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove he was involved in the plot to kill Jesus, and he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of participating in a street gang in 2017.)
But the case was plagued by its witnesses, who either had credibility problems (several were defendants in unrelated felony cases), were uncooperative, changed their stories or expressed a deep fear of retaliation if they cooperated with the police. Snow, after giving a detailed statement to detectives in the case, refused to identify any of the defendants in court.
"The anonymous sources and others who spoke to law enforcement expressed significant fear, specifically regarding co-defendant Olivo Jr. who was considered a high-level gang member, for their own lives if they were to identify themselves," reads a probation report in the case.
EPD's lead detective on the case, Ron Harpham, was a bit more blunt.
"The problem with the case was everybody involved was just cold by normal, human terms," he said.
Ultimately, Olivo Jr. and Nunez were sentenced to serve 16 years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and gang enhancements in a plea deal that stipulated Daniel be sentenced to 12 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter and a special allegation that he personally stabbed Jesus.
"It doesn't feel like justice at all," Lulu Romero-Garcia says. She pauses then, with tears in her eyes, adds, "God does things for a reason. I try to think about it sometimes, maybe he would have ended up hurting someone with the path he was on, and that would have been worse."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.