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How to Tell a Mass Shooting from Gang Gunfire, and Other Lessons from the Forgotten Streets of San Bernardino

While investigators gathered evidence at the Inland Regional Center in the hours after the December 2 attack, longterm residents shared stories of one of the most overlooked strains of gun violence.

One afternoon in mid-November, a young man named Charles came to Sandy Bonilla with a problem. Bonilla is the co-founder of the Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire, or UCC, which provides jobs for the most at-risk youth of San Bernardino, California and surrounding cities, on the condition that they stay enrolled in the organization’s affiliated charter school. Her office sits on Orange Show Road, across a vacant, commercial-size lot from the Inland Regional Center, where a few weeks later husband-and-wife assailants would kill 14 and wound 21 in a blizzard of assault rifle fire. Standing in the UCC’s hallway that day, Charles, a recent graduate who’d been doing well, explained what had gone wrong. He told Bonilla that the night before, he’d been in the wrong place (the projects) at the wrong time (after dark) and wound up getting shot. As they chatted, the bullet was still lodged in his shoulder.

Southern Californians call it “San Berdoo.” Locals find the nickname too sunny for the place they know. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

Bonilla asked that Charles’ real name not be used when sharing his story. The afternoon he showed up, Bonilla recalled, he had tried to downplay his injury. It was “as if he had a cut with Band-Aid over it, like it was nothing.” Charles told her the police hadn’t called an ambulance or taken him to the ER, and he didn’t feel safe seeking treatment himself. “He was worried about what would happen to him — a young African-American man with a bullet wound — if he went on his own,” Bonilla said.

But Charles had also been preoccupied by another fear. One of the UCC’s missions is to provide jobs to young people who, like him, have criminal records disqualifying them from state-run employment programs. For these kids, the odd jobs that the UCC offers — cleaning up parks, doing trail maintenance for the US Forest Service, and other civil service tasks — are essentially the only work they can get. Charles was worried that if he went to the hospital, he’d miss his shift and risk getting fired. His health, Bonilla told me, “was the least of his concerns.”

As we talked, reporters and curious locals stopped in front of Bonilla’s window, their backs toward us as they snapped photos of the IRC complex and the media congregating around it. Sitting behind her desk, Bonilla told Charles’s story as someone for whom conversations about untreated gunshot injuries are just part of the ebb and flow of the workaday routine. “It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me or anyone else here,” she said. “It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a bullet hole in one of our kids.”

For decades, San Bernardino has been known to southern Californians as “San Berdoo.” But these days the nickname seems to have faded from locals’ lexicon, as if it’s too evocative of orange groves and breezy muscle-car weekends to reflect the place they call home. Situated against the foothills of its namesake mountain range, the desert city has a population of 200,000, making it the 100th largest in the United States. According to FBI statistics, it has the 10th-highest violent crime rate of cities its size, which include Birmingham, Alabama (which tops the list), and New Haven, Connecticut (ninth). Its homicide rate is the sixth highest in its size category, just below Little Rock, Arkansas, and just above Richmond, Virginia.

The bare lawn behind Gabby Nuñez is where she stood as a five year girl, playing with a doll, when she witnessed a man get shot and killed one house away. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

There were a total of 88 homicides in San Bernardino in 2013 and 2014, of which 60 were gun-related — a tally that looks minuscule next to that of cities like Chicago, Illinois, where annual murder tolls consistently hit triple digits. But midsize cities have to make do with midsize police forces and midsize budgets as they contend with big-city troubles. The “low-number problem” also falsely allays public concern. “We should care as much about rates as we do about the sheer numbers,” said Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University who studies urban violence and helps shape violence-reduction programs. “The rates are what tell us about people’s lived experiences. In a city like San Bernardino, for example, you’re more likely to know someone who’s been shot,” he said, than you would if you live in, say, Seattle. “But those small cities don’t have the same presence in our consciousness unless a crisis happens, like Ferguson, Missouri. Then the crisis fades and we forget about them, and the big cities with big numbers make the headlines.”

“Forgotten” is a word that applies well to San Bernardino, once a quaint and thriving outpost an hour east of Los Angeles along the original Route 66. During World War II, a new Air Force Base turned what had been a farming hamlet known mostly for hosting the National Orange Show into a working-class city with abundant housing and jobs. Further boosting the economy were the San Bernardino rail yards and Kaiser Steel, in nearby Fontana. On the city’s west side, Mount Vernon Avenue hosted a lively stretch of mom-and-pop businesses catering to the tens of thousands of mostly Latino and African American arrivals who’d migrated from as close as L.A. and as far as the deep South. In 1977, the National Civic League gave San Bernardino the All-American City Award.

By that point, however, the Inland Center Mall, built in the mid-1960s, was luring businesses and shoppers away from downtown. Next came a freeway, now called Interstate 215, that sliced the city in two, discouraging travel between downtown and the bustling west side. Then employment started drying up: Kaiser closed its facility in 1983, eliminating some 10,000 jobs. The rail yards shut down nine years later. In 1994 the Air Force base closed its doors, leaving as many as 12,000 people without a paycheck.

Among the witnesses to the decline was Ray Culberson, director of youth services for San Bernardino city schools. Now 56, Culberson spent his life here as part of a steel mill family. “I had a summer job at Kaiser,” he told me. “My father and at least five of my uncles worked there, too.” Jobs had already started disappearing when Kaiser went under. When the mill closed, he said, the city was devastated. “No one could get jobs, and that’s when the despair happens. Working for Kaiser or the rail yards used to be part of the road map for people growing up in this city. You knew you could go work there. But the road map disappeared and when that happens, people figure out new ways to survive.”

A ribbon of remembrance on a tree outside the Inland Regional Center. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

In 2012, San Bernardino became the third city in California to file for bankruptcy as a result of the Great Recession, securing its place behind Detroit as the second-poorest U.S. city in its size range. Up to that point, 75 percent of the city’s budget had been designated for public safety. After going belly-up, the city whacked its police force by nearly 25 percent. Homicides more than doubled, and emergency response times slowed to a crawl. Services, too, were scaled back. At the same time, the city was seeing a growing population of recently released — and frequently mentally ill — state prisoners, thanks to a new state law, AB109, that mandated they return to the counties that prosecuted them and report to local probation officers. Many of the ex-inmates joined the already spiking homeless population taking up residence in San Bernardino’s parks, as well as in foreclosed houses abandoned during the crash. In addition to trail work and parks maintenance, kids at Bonilla’s UCC found themselves earning paychecks by boarding up derelict structures, a task that couldn’t have reflected well on their city or their prospects.

Today, with seemingly every high mark in the city’s history undermined or undone, San Bernardino is often known by a newer nickname, one favored by the crime novelist Eric Jerome Dickey. They call it “San Berna-Zero.”

A couple of hours after the San Bernardino attackers were killed by police, survivors and evacuees from the IRC complex were reunited with their families at the nearby Rudy C. Hernandez Community Center. It was dark out, and reporters were gathered by the entrance to the facility’s gymnasium, where groups were dropped off by the busload and escorted inside by probation officers who’d been enlisted, alongside law enforcement from all of San Bernardino County, to help. Every few minutes, a family or couple would exit the building, arm-in-arm or holding hands. You could distinguish the shooting survivors from their loved ones by their solemn faces, vacant stares, and the occasional piece of blood-spattered clothing.

Sandy Bonilla stands in front of a mural of her late-husband, the civic leader Bobby Vega. The job corps she runs finds work for high-risk young people — and occasionally dispenses advice on the treatment of bullet wounds. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

 

“This can happen to anybody. It can happen anywhere,” said an IRC employee named Melinda Rivas, who was in another building when the bloodshed occurred. “This is becoming more and more prominent, all these shootings.” It’s also true that shootings happen in some places much more often than others, and that in those places gun violence is anything but new. Across the street from the community center I met David Johnson, a 40-year-old San Bernardino native who was eager to talk about the shootings that have plagued his city since he was a kid. Johnson is African-American, with long, well-tended dreadlocks and a practice of making deliberate, deep eye contact. “They call us a dying city,” he said. “But we’re not dead yet. I hope that this mass shooting can show the world who we are.”

On December 2, he had been across the street from the Inland Regional Center, close enough to hear the shots being fired. “It’s bit embarrassing,” he said. “I’d made my friend pull the car over so I could find a place to pee. There’s a ditch that’s out of sight from the road. I have a very weak bladder — what people call a boxer’s bladder — and I just couldn’t wait any longer.” At first, he said, “I thought it was regular gunfire, but it went on and on — and I was peeing for a while. I know that gang shootings don’t last that long.”

Johnson was a teenager in the ’80s, when the crack-cocaine epidemic led to a drug war that targeted poor minorities and exacerbated the cycle of poverty and crime. The steel mill and the rail yards had shut down by then, but another industry was beginning to thrive. By the early 1990s, there were six low-cost gun manufacturers operating in Southern California. Dubbed the “Ring of Fire” for their proximity, these companies were within easy reach of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and cities in between. The Ring of Fire alone produced 34 percent of handguns made in the U.S. in 1992, according to federal statistics. While that business boomed, many members of L.A. street gangs had moved to San Bernardino to avoid law enforcement, hide from rivals, or sell crack in the region, complicating the longstanding turf battles of local Latino, African-American, and white biker gangs as they created new operations on the east side. Gangs from Las Vegas, Nevada, just three hours away, also moved in, making the mix more explosive still.

Johnson, who admits to being caught up in “the game” before reforming himself, likens the perpetrators of gang violence as terrorists in their own right. But the drugs and guns the gangs ran also made it into the hands of people who were not in a crew. “It’s the crab-in-barrel effect,” he told me. “You had beautiful people stuck in generational poverty, with so much self-hate, such a lack of value and a sense of suffering. There was a battle everywhere.”

On the second morning after the shooting, I had breakfast with a San Bernardino native named Gaby Nuñez. We met at Mitla Café, a Mexican restaurant on Mount Vernon Avenue and one of the city’s last remaining cultural landmarks. Disarmingly bright-eyed, with dark brown bangs and a pair of girly barrettes, Nuñez is a third-generation Mexican American who’s spent her whole life in San Bernardino, though she’s had reasons and opportunities to leave.

Memorials to the IRC victims, fourteen of the 91 people killed by gunfire in San Bernardino over the past three years. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

For most of her childhood, she lived in the housing projects near Maple Street Park; at age five, while playing with a doll outside her apartment, she saw a man get shot and killed less than 30 feet away. “I saw a guy running and thought, Oh, he must be late for school,” she said. “Then I heard a boom. I saw him fall to the ground. The shooter looked right at me.” Uncertain about what had happened, she began walking toward the body. Her grandmother, who shared the one-bedroom unit with Gaby and her father, ran out and scooped her up before she could see the carnage.

And so it went. Killings. Retaliations. Friends — and friends of friends — dead. “It was almost like it got dark and you heard the gunshots and you knew it was time to go sleep,” she said. “You knew it was too late to go out safely, and you might as well be horizontal anyway.” One morning, just before her 15th birthday, Nuñez and her friends were standing at the bus stop on Ninth Street and Medical Center Drive, talking about some shots they’d heard the night before. Just as they began to wonder where their friend Teresa was, another friend arrived with some bad news. The shots in question had ended Teresa’s life. “They were fired by two 14-year-old boys,” said Nuñez. “They held her up for a car worth $500.”

After breakfast, Nuñez took me for a drive. Steering her Mustang north on Medical Center Drive, she explained the street’s role as a racial barrier: blacks to the west, Latinos to the east, although these days it’s getting more integrated. Rounding the corner past Westside Food and Liquor, she said, “This store could tell you so much. A couple of owners have been shot.” A few blocks away, on Union Street, she showed me the lawn where she had stood when she saw the man get killed. Moments later we drove by the site of her friend Teresa’s murder.

Nuñez drove on, pointing out her more personal landmarks, almost all of which had associations with a life of poverty and violence. We passed the projects of Delman Heights and Waterman Gardens and whizzed by countless shuttered storefronts, down-and-outers, and littered dirt lots with decaying “For Sale” signs along Base Line Street and Highland Avenue. In downtown San Bernardino, things didn’t look much better. The parking lot outside the Carousel Mall, built in the 1970s to keep people in the city center, was virtually empty despite the holidays. The early 20th-century building once occupied by the Harris department store was vacant and foreboding, as were others like it. Few people were on the sidewalks, in no small part because two courthouses, one federal and one state, have moved — along with their staffs and the private law firms that need to be nearby — to the more pleasant city of Riverside.

David Johnson on San Bernardino’s east side, one of many neighborhoods he lived in while growing up in the city. Moments after this photo was taken, he pointed out the spot where as a teen he watched a man get shot in the head. (Photo: Lee Sternthal for The Trace)

Unlike most of the kids she grew up with, Nuñez earned a college degree. She lives on the north side now, where crime rates are relatively lower. “Living here lets me stay in my city and be safe,” she said. (Although she added, “You hear shots two or three times a year.”) A former intern for Sandy Bonilla at the UCC, Nuñez works part time conducting field research about childhood education for the Santa Monica–based RAND Corp., a job that requires her to spend time with kids in the projects — kids she used to be like. She’d love to work at RAND full time, but she’s not willing to leave her hometown: “I understand why some people give up on it. But I’m not going anywhere.” She told me about a meme she’d seen on Facebook that referred to San Bernardino as a “hellhole.” “San Bernardino is not a hellhole,” she said. “We are so much more than that.”

Nuñez dropped me back at my car at approximately the same time that a crush of reporters was exiting the condo belonging to the IRC shooters. Closer to us, the press was still gathered by the IRC and at the site where the assailants had been killed by police. With official confirmation of words like “terrorism” and “radicalized,” the international press corps continued pouring into town, scrambling to find hotel rooms and a place to do their stand-ups.

Four days later, on the relatively safe north side, a 28-year-old male was shot and killed. Two days after that, just a mile away from the IRC, an unidentified gunman shot two people, wounding one and killing the other.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Van Brocklin and Olivia Li. All photos by Lee Sternthal for The Trace.