By BRIANNA VACCARI and VICTOR A. PATTON
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Which of California’s 58 counties saw the highest rate of homicides last year? Was it a metropolitan region like Los Angeles or San Francisco counties? Or, was it San Joaquin County or Fresno County, where crime often grabs headlines?
No. Despite ranking just 23rd in population, Merced County ranked No. 1 in homicides per capita last year and joined many San Joaquin Valley neighbors in recording some of the worst homicide rates in the state.
Slayings that claimed multiple lives, gang violence and a continuing shortage of law enforcement officers are blamed for Merced County experiencing 35 homicides in 2022, for a rate of 12.3 slayings per 100,000 people, according to a report recently released by the state Department of Justice.
The tally was boosted by two separate high-profile mass slayings that, in total, claimed seven lives in 2022. But even without those deaths, the county has had a remarkably high rate of homicides over several years.
“Us having the highest homicides per capita in the state is not a distinguished rank I want to be in,” Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said in a telephone interview with CVJC.
Merced County is among six Valley counties that placed among the 10 worst for homicide in 2022, outpacing more populous counties such as Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco.
Kern County has been among the worst for homicides for several years, ranking 2nd in 2022 and 1st in every year from 2021 to 2017
Merced County’s homicide rate dipped between 2016 and 2019, but was among the state’s worst both before and after. In 2021, its homicide rate of 9.5 per 100,000 was California’s second-highest.
Warnke and Merced County District Attorney Nicole Silveira agreed gang violence is the main driver of gun violence in the county. The county also sees a high number of non-fatal shootings, Silveira said. Gang activity in Merced County typically is fueled by drug sales, the sheriff said.
Factors contributing to gang activity in the Valley
Regions with high poverty and fewer economic opportunities often are breeding grounds for both illicit drug markets and gang activity, according to Magnus Lofstrom, a policy director and senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.
Those are likely overlooked factors contributing to the high homicide rates in Merced County and the San Joaquin Valley as a whole, he told CVJC.
“When we compare an area that has fewer economic opportunities and less growth, we oftentimes see that you have higher crime rates in those areas compared to coastal California, where you have seen more economic growth,” said Lofstrom, whose research focuses on crime and criminal justice.
U.S. Census figures from 2022 show that more than one in five Merced County residents live in poverty, the highest percentage of any county in the Valley and nearly double the state figure of 12.3%.
The rise in homicide rates in the Golden State’s bountiful heartland mirrors the statewide and national trend that saw violent crime rise from 2019 to 2022, or during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lofstrom said. Over those three years, California’s homicide rate increased 33%, he said. In the same time frame, Merced County’s homicide rate increased by a close rate.
Law enforcement staffing
With support from Silveira, Warnke sounded the alarm this month, telling the Merced County Board of Supervisors and CEO that staffing shortages plagued both departments and contributed to high homicide rates.
“I'm here to tell you, I'm this close to declaring an absolute emergency where we're gonna have to have people working outside of their scopes. It's that serious,” Warnke said.
“I'm hoping you take it seriously. I know that each one of you has told me, to my face, how much you support and will support public safety,” he said. “Your job is to guarantee that we have the resources to take care of the community that we were elected to serve.”
Lofstrom, the crime policy expert, said research has shown a causal relationship between low numbers of law enforcement officers and increases in crime, a trend California has seen for about the last 15 years.
“With fewer police officers, we would expect to see higher violent crime rates,” he said.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office is understaffed by around 20 deputies, Warnke said, between unfilled patrol positions and deputies out on long-term medical leave. Warnke disbanded his special gang unit, which arrested gang members and confiscated guns daily, he said, to fill patrol shifts.
Warnke said the county has a hard time recruiting and keeping deputies because wages are low compared to nearby departments. Deputies in neighboring Stanislaus County earn about $20,000 more annually, he said. Entry-level deputy pay in Merced begins at $67,849.60 to $82,555.20 annually, while Stanislaus County deputies’ salaries start at $74,963.20 to $91,124.80, respective county salary data shows.
Silveira’s office also is dealing with a record-high number of homicide cases to prosecute, with 51 currently open while Silveira tries to fill seven deputy district attorney positions. “It’s pretty alarming,” she said.
Warnke put the onus squarely on Merced County’s CEO and Board of Supervisors who control county spending.
“We've got to get the supervisors to wake the heck up,” Warnke said in an interview.
The sheriff added a message to the CEO’s office, and requested that message be delivered with an exclamation point: “Your sheriff is not happy with the current state of affairs going through our county administration!”
In a statement to CVJC, Merced County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez said about 75% of the county’s discretionary budget goes toward public safety. The Merced County Board of Supervisors added 39 new positions to the sheriff’s department, consistent with the sheriff's stated goals, over the past five years alone, he said.
“The Merced County Board of Supervisors routinely demonstrates an unwavering commitment to public safety as evidenced by its budget priorities year after year,” Lomeli Mendez wrote. His office and the board “remain fully committed” to resolve the staffing challenges through “the collective bargaining process and other strategies, including launching a new public safety recruitment and retention incentive.”
The board, he added, also dedicated resources to support many of the sheriff’s other initiatives, such as a new jail facility that recently began construction, a state-of-the-art radio communications system, and investments in several other highly specialized operational units.
County Supervisors Daron McDaniel and Josh Pedrozo in interviews with CVJC stressed they and their supervisor colleagues are committed to improving law enforcement staffing.
Pedrozo said the sheriff’s comments about potentially declaring an emergency were alarming.
“That really scares me,” Pedrozo said. “I don’t want to see us get to that point. …
“We all recognize the fact that we have to do everything we can to ensure that Merced County is a place where people want to come,” he said.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office isn’t alone in its retention and recruitment predicament. The Merced Police Department also has struggled to retain a permanent police chief and fill open positions. However, homicides in the city limits were down to six in 2022, compared to 13 the year before.
Lofstrom said staffing is a widespread issue in law enforcement. When multiple neighboring agencies struggle with recruitment and retention, it creates competition, making it a challenge to boost ranks, he said.
“We must continue to invest in an organized, multi-agency strategy working with community partners to ensure we are doing everything we can to prevent violence and uphold accountability for carrying out crimes in our city,” Merced Police Department’s Interim Chief Greg Gundlach said in a statement.
2022 marked by several high-profile homicides
While data from the Department of Justice shows the 35 homicides reported in 2022 was the highest tally for Merced County in at least a decade, last year also saw an unusual number of high-profile cases.
The massacre of a family of four last October was among the local slayings that made national news. Merced County Sheriff prosecutors believe Jesus Manuel Salgado kidnapped brothers Jasdeep and Amandeep Singh from their Merced trucking business before killing them, along with Jasdeep’s wife, Jasleen Kaur, and their 8-month old daughter Aroohi Dheri.
Their bodies were found in a rural area northeast of Dos Palos. Salgado, 48, was arrested and charged with four counts of kidnapping and murder. Deputies obtained video surveillance footage of the alleged kidnapping. Some media reports have said Salgado was formerly employed by the victims, and may have had a falling out prior to the killings.
The defendant’s brother Alberto Salgado, 41, is accused of being an accessory. Both men are scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 11 for a three-day preliminary hearing, where a judge will determine whether there’s ample evidence to move the case forward to trial.
Three additional homicide cases last year put a spotlight on Merced County:
· Patricia Ortiz, 32, was arrested at her Le Grand apartment last year, accused of killing her three children Ana Ortiz Lara, 8; Matteo Ortiz Lara, 5; and Alexa Ortiz Lara, 3. She remains in custody on three counts of murder, and is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 26.
· Dhante Jackson, 35, remains in custody for the alleged murder of his girlfriend’s daughter, 8-year-old Sophia Mason. The case shocked residents after the child’s body was found inside a bathtub in a north Merced home. It also put a spotlight on the Child Protective Services in Alameda County, as family members say they told the department they were concerned about Sophia, to no avail. A manhunt for Jackson ensued, and he was arrested months later in the Bay Area. The child’s mother, Samantha Johnson, 31, has also been accused of murder. She is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 25 for a preliminary hearing, while Johnson is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 11.
· Last November, a 9-month old boy was shot and killed in south Merced while being walked in a stroller by his mother and a man. Police said a gunman opened fire from a car, killing baby Darius King Grigsby. Daevon Jamari Motshwane, 19, was arrested and charged with murder. A 17-year-old juvenile was also arrested for allegedly being the driver. According to court records, Motshwane remains in custody and is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 21 for a mental competency hearing.
While it’s hard to tell what’s driving the outlying cases that include multiple homicides, Lofstrom said in small counties such as Merced, it’s important to remember just one tragic incident that claims multiple lives can cause a spike in one year’s homicide rate.
“You have to be cautious in reading too much into it because it is susceptible to those tragic but relatively rare incidents,” he said about Merced County’s 2022 homicide rate.
What’s being done to combat gun violence?
Merced Mayor Matt Serratto acknowledged the numbers are alarming, saying agencies across the board need to collaborate to find solutions.
Serratto did say the city is making efforts to address violence in the community. For example, in September last year, Merced was awarded a nearly $1 million California Violence Intervention Program (CalVIP) grant to fund four peer-support specialists to work with at-risk youth over three years.
Serratto said those specialists are in the process of being trained.
“We need to do better in every way, across the board throughout our community,” he said. “Law enforcement, schools, everybody just needs to step up. Our people and our culture need to address it, find a way to improve this.”
Silveira, Merced’s District Attorney, is working to revamp the department’s VIPER program to focus on what she called “proactive prosecution.”
The Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response program began in 2017 with $4.5 million in state funding that was used to hire criminal analysts to collect and analyze intelligence and share it with law enforcement partners in other agencies.
Shortly after the program began in Merced County, VIPER was credited for the success of “Operation Scrapbook,” a multi-jurisdictional operation that targeted Sureño gang members operating under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia and resulted in dozens of arrests.
Silveira said the VIPER program, originally staffed with five, dwindled to only one criminal analyst in 2022.
The district attorney’s office has about $1 million in VIPER funding left. Last month, Silveira added two criminal analysts through her office, and Warnke added one from his office as well.
By gathering intelligence, the hope is that crime analysts will be able to monitor, predict and, ultimately, prevent the next gang shooting.
“It will take time, but I’m hoping it will have an impact,” Silveira said.
Silveira is hoping to sustain the program by partnering with local police departments in cities such as Merced, Atwater and Los Banos who would hire their own criminal analysts.
— Brianna Vaccari is the governmental accountability/watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced, and Victor A. Patton is the community engagement editor. Editor-in-Chief Michelle Morgante also contributed to this story. Sign up for CVJC’s free Substack list here and follow CVJC on Facebook.