‘Babies with guns’: Prosecutors hope conviction of teen gang member sends strong message
Police officer testified teen was most violent juvenile offender he’s encountered in 14-year career
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - McLennan County and Waco law enforcement officials are hoping that the conviction of a 16-year-old gang member involved in at least two shootings last year will spotlight their efforts to curb escalating gun violence among gang members and youthful offenders.
Judge Alan Bennett, who presides over the county’s juvenile court, sentenced the gang member to a 10-year determinate sentence Wednesday for a shooting inside a home in March 2022 and a drive-by shooting on Carver Street five days later that endangered a rival gang member, his mother, two young children and a paralyzed, 94-year-old woman who lives next door.
“There were many people who could have been harmed, but thank goodness they were horrible shots,” said Assistant District Attorney Christi Hunting Horse, the county’s gang unit prosecutor who prosecuted the case with Kristen Duron.
KWTX does not identify juvenile offenders by name. The teen will start his 10-year term in a Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility and is eligible for possible transfer to a Texas prison system facility before he turns 19, officials said.
The teen, who had been detained in the Bill Logue Juvenile Justice System for almost a year, pleaded guilty in juvenile court to two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and elected to have Bennett assess his punishment.
Waco police gang investigator Todd Rajkowski testified at the two-day trial that the teen was the most violent juvenile offender he has seen in his 14-year career.
No one was injured in either shooting incident, but the woman who dived to the ground with her son to avoid getting hit in the second incident testified that she tells her children that there are only two outcomes if they become involved in a criminal street gang – prison or death.
The woman was afraid to testify out of fear of retribution from other gang members, Hunting Horse said.
“I understand we think of this as an adult concept,” Hunting Horse said. “But at this point in time, we have to send a message to juvenile street gang members in our community that we are taking this seriously. We are no longer going to look the other way and there will be real consequences.”
Trial testimony showed the gun used in the two shootings was linked to at least six shootings over a five-week period, Hunting Horse and Duron said, noting that the teen’s gang nickname is “NFL Hitta,” with NFL standing for “never forget loyalty.”
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McLennan County District Attorney Josh Tetens has made curbing juvenile crime a top priority for his young administration.
He said his office will work with city, state and federal authorities to address the issue, as well as members of a Texas Anti-gang unit that was created in Waco in 2020 through a grant from the governor’s office.
“Without question, these young juvenile gang members were involved in many shootings that we read in the news about and saw on TV about people who were shot at and shot over the course of 2021-2022,” Tetens said. “Statistically, once we targeted and identified those gang members and placed them in custody, the shootings dramatically were reduced, more than 50 percent, if fact.”
Authorities say the youngest juvenile currently with a weapon and assault case pending is 12, adding that middle schoolers are bringing guns to school and kids getting into trouble with gang activity keep getting younger. Tetens calls them “babies with guns.”
“In the past, many folks have thought, or as seen on TV, if you are juvenile you are going to be treated differently, you are going to get a lesser sentence, you are going to get away with it,” Tetens said. “In fact, the opposite is true. We are intentionally focused on these young gang members. There actions do have severe consequences. In this case it ultimately ended in prison, as well as several others that we have already prosecuted in the past several months, and we will continue to do that.”
Jeff Aguirre, an investigator for Teten’s gang unit, said part of the solution is to address the home lives of juvenile offenders, which he said can be difficult when their older siblings are in gangs or a parent is a former gang member or in prison.
“They are looking out for something to belong to,” Aguirre said. “As a gang member, when you get brought in as a 12 year old by a 16 year old, you are no different than the 16 year old who got brought in by the 20 year old, and you belong to something that you think is important.”
Cierra Shipley, Waco Police Department public information officer, acknowledged that Waco gang members are getting younger and said most of the recent violence is gang members targeting rival gang members.
She said the department gang unit works diligently to identify gang members and the neighborhood engagement team works through community opportunity events to teach life skills to young people, help them land a job, get high school degrees or graduate equivalency diplomas and to help them get on track for success.
Bennett, the juvenile court judge, said youthful offenders suspected of gang affiliation affect operations at the juvenile detention center because they must be housed separately from others affiliated with rival gangs. He said an in-depth social history is prepared for every juvenile offender that, among other things, evaluates if the person has a gang affiliation.
“I have reviewed anecdotal evidence from numerous sources that confirm gang activity has been significantly increasing among teenagers and young adults in the greater Waco area over the last 12 to 18 months,” Bennett said. “During that same time period, there has been a significant increase in violent crimes committed by teenagers and young adults…
“Ultimately, we want these young people to be rehabilitated and to learn the life skills necessary to avoid a life of crime and become a productive member of society. But the dispositions rendered must also be consistent with public safety,” the judge said.
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